Art review: From Vinyl to Cloud: the indefatigable Aster Aweke

Aster’s songs have universal appeal among Ethiopian audiences because they speak to each listener in an intimate and personal way.

Befekir Kebede

Addis Abeba, August 02/2019 – Aster Aweke released her debut album on vinyl in 1977 kicking off her career as an iconic Ethiopian superstar.  She released three more albums in that same year including the one she collaborated on with the late Wubeshat Fisseha.

The era of vinyl music came and left, and so did cassette tape recording. We are now stepping into a new world where the compact disc is already becoming a thing of the past as we embrace streaming music from the ‘cloud’.  So much change has affected music and musicians over the decades since Aster’s first album 42 years ago.  A lot has changed, but one thing remains the same – that Aster is still singing and she is still a recording artist.  

Aster’s songs have universal appeal among Ethiopian audiences because they speak to each listener in an intimate and personal way.  She now has about 250 songs, many of which have served as soundtracks to the lives of generations of Ethiopians, and they continue to resonate with young audiences.   

Released last week, Aster’s twenty-sixth album is causing a stir. From Apple Music to Spotify, Amazon to CD Baby and YouTube, Aster’s latest album, “Chewa”, is delighting her fans across the world. 

Packed with thought-provoking and eloquent lyrics, her commanding and ever clear voice as well as her hallmark playful style, this is a quintessentially Aster Aweke album. 

The singer/songwriter has written nine of the eleven songs on this album and all of the melodies are her own creation. The two songs she didn’t write are song number nine, Efoy, and song number 11, Lib Weled. These are written by the legendary Yilma Gebreab.

Chewa means decent and it is the title of song number six.  It tells the story of a discovery she made of a decent companion and how the beauty of a man lies not solely in his looks, but greatly in his manners. 

But if you thought that was an amazing description of a man’s beauty, wait until you listen to song number five, Aynihin, in which Aster says that the beauty of the man she has fallen in love with lies in his eyes.

This is a sensational song and Aster sings it right from the heart.  Rarely in Ethiopian music do we see such an exquisite and generous depiction of a man’s charm and it seems that only Aster can do it with the power that she holds as a rare musical talent.  Listen carefully to the sophisticated and painstakingly put together lyrics and one fact becomes clear – that Aster is a musical genius.

Separation doesn’t stop true love and that is the subject matter of song number one, Nafkot.  True love is enduring so much inner turmoil that it threatens to rip you apart, the song implies. Yet you take it all on again for the promise of holding that person another day.

The test of true love is loyalty to that one person no matter the cost, always believing in them and always expecting the best of them.  The song says what sustains you in the meantime is the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia, known in Amharic as Nafkot.

Aster has hand-picked this song and created a music video for it which she also released on her YouTube channel last week. She has only ever created a handful of music videos so it came as a pleasant surprise. The video was shot in the grand concert hall of the National Theater in Addis Abeba where Aster’s singing career began.

The theme of living life away from your lover is continued in song number two, Hello.  In a celebration of long-distance relationship, which can be tough, the song points to what comes to the rescue when you desperately want to hear the voice of your distant lover – the telephone. Anyone would appreciate this song, especially those who have had to endure a long distance relationship for any span of time. Day or night, Saturday or Sunday, just call and say hello, says Aster.

The album will have you in a roller coaster of emotions when you go from Hello to song number nine, Efoy. This song is about the sigh of relief felt not just when your sweetheart calls and says hello, but when the time comes to reunite and they come back into your arms.

Song number three, Tiwsta, is a beautiful ballad that takes great advantage of Aster’s silky and calming voice, her greatly crafted lyrics and the smooth sounds of the saxophone. This perhaps is the most classic contemporary Ethiopian ballad song on the album which also brings out the awe-inspiring magic in Aster’s voice. Another song that is of the same Tizita genre is song number 11, Lib Weled. In a tale of fantasy, this song pleads with God to make the dream of an imaginary companion come true.

Aster was born in Gonder and she pays a fascinating tribute to the northern Ethiopian ancient city in song number 10, Fasiledes.  The story of this thrilling song revolves around a pleasure road trip around the many localities of Gondar including Arbaya, Qwara, Hamusit, Metemma, Dabat, Debark, Azezo and Jantekel.  The arrangement of the song lends itself to the sounds of traditional Ethiopian music to engage the audience in Eskista, Ethiopia’s national dance.   

Aster has also devoted a song to the historical region of Wello and many of its well-known towns including Weldiya, Sekota, Majette, Lalibella, Dessie, Mekdela, Gerardo and Tossa. But the song’s main focus is on a local gentleman whose charisma Aster describes with an almost childlike affection and enthusiasm. The song typically has Eskista rhythms and one cannot listen to it without wanting to dance.

We, Ethiopians, are at an unfortunate time in our history when our relationship to Ethiopia is being tested.  The events of recent times in our country have shaken us to the core and all of our problems remain unresolved.  As an artist who has always used her talent to promote love and unity among us, Aster isn’t letting the opportunity of a new album slip away without urging us all to work towards reconciliation for the good of our country.

Aster always wears her heart on her sleeve when it comes to her love for Ethiopia. And now is no exception. In song number eight, Ethiopia, Aster takes us all on an emotional journey that reminds us what it means to be Ethiopian. A verse in the lyrics mentions the medicinal qualities of the untreated, natural water from the wells of Ethiopia. Such is the immense nature of Aster’s pride in motherland Ethiopia which she affectionately calls Imamaye. It’s a positive and uplifting song which delivers a timely message to us all.

As well as the modern jazzy melodies of the saxophone and the electric guitar, the album features the sounds of Ethiopian traditional instruments such as Masinko and Kirar helping to create a harmonious blend of sounds that goes directly to the heart of the Ethiopian music audience.

This album is a true testament to Aster’s time-defying talent, her enduring commitment to quality music and her love for Ethiopia. The top-notch artist will soon be touring the world to perform songs from her new album.

Ethiopia is in the midst of the rainy months and Aster’s album will no doubt be a remedy for the winter blues for many. And many will feel that spring has arrived early. AS


Befekir Kebede is a photographer and a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.

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