Mahmoud Ahmed Biography

18 May 1941, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Ahmed sang at weddings and family gatherings from a very early age, but while he was still a child, his family became homeless when his father lost his job. Forced to work as a shoeshine boy, the young Ahmed’s education inevitably suffered and he was expelled from school for poor attendance. Following his headmaster’s advice that his only possible salvation lay in music, Ahmed soon became known locally for his powerful voice as well as his skills as a dancer of the twist and calypso. He worked as a painter’s assistant and kitchen porter at the Arizona Club, a fashionable Addis Ababa nightspot. One evening, he begged his way into performing a song with a band at the club, receiving rapturous applause and launching his musical career. He became the vocalist with the Imperial Bodyguard Band in the early 60s, subsequently remaining with them for 11 years.

Ahmed’s first album was released in 1972 and he has since made numerous recordings for the local market as well as performing with many of Ethiopia’s top bands and musicians. In 1986, the Belgian record label Crammed Discs released Erè Mèla Mèla, a compilation of Ahmed’s recordings from the 70s and one of the first albums of modern Ethiopian music available in the west. Critical response was highly favourable and a European tour followed a year later. Soul Of Addis was originally released in Ethiopia in 1985 and, while not as intense as the 70s recordings, nevertheless offered a fine showcase for Ahmed’s spellbinding voice. The Paris, France-based label Buda Musique has also released several Ahmed albums in their Éthiopiques series.

Something of a local institution, Ahmed still performs regularly in Addis Ababa, as well as owning and running a record label and a nightclub. He sings in a variety of local and international styles but consistently returns to the tizita (a slow and intense local form of the blues). His multi-octave voice is similar to that of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (who died in 1997), a veritable force of nature that combines the ecstatic devotional pleading of qawwali with the precise tone and phrasing of Western jazz singers.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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