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Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse dies at 73

Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse.
Muluken Melesse Family
Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse.

Renowned Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse died on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., after a long illness, according to his family. He was 73 years old.

The vocalist rose to fame at a time of enormous political and social unrest in Ethiopia, as the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution gave way to a military dictatorship.

Muluken's songs from the 1970s and 80s were filled with love and longing for better times.

"He came through at a time when people were really down," said Sayem Osman, who has contributed articles about contemporary Ethiopian music to blogs and magazines. "He got to the core of people's hearts."

Muluken was born in the Gojjam province of Northern Ethiopia in 1951.

His mother died when he was young, and so he moved to the capital, Addis Ababa, to live with an uncle. But the arrangement didn't work out. Muluken wound up in an orphanage, where he studied singing with a visiting musician who taught lessons there.

"And Muluken at that time got the [music] bug," Sayem said.

Muluken started performing in local clubs in the 1960s when he was barely a teenager, and eventually became a big star. Love songs like "Mewdeden Wededkut" ("I Love Being in Love"), "Hagerwa Wasamegena" ("She's from Wasamegena"), and "Nanu Nanu Neyi" ("Come Here, Girl") became hits.

"He's the king of the love songs for me," said Sayem. "It's all about how you treat a woman, how you see a woman."

Sayem said Muluken's popularity had a lot to do with the talented female lyricists he worked with on these songs, including Shewaleul Mengistu and Alem Tsehay Wodajo. "Who else but a woman would know how to be described or how to be looked upon?" said Sayem.

Muluken Melesse Muluken started performing in local clubs in the 1960s when he was barely a teenager.
/ Muluken Melesse Family
Muluken Melesse Family
Muluken Melesse Muluken started performing in local clubs in the 1960s when he was barely a teenager.

But it was tough to be an artist in a country under military rule. "There was very heavy, heavy censorship," Sayem said.

Many musicians left Ethiopia. Muluken stuck around for a while. He converted to Evangelical Christianity. Eventually, in 1984, he moved to the United States and settled in the Washington, D.C., area.

He continued performing groovy love songs for a time, before giving them up entirely in order to focus on his newfound faith.

"And that was it. He was done," said Sayem. "And he never performed this music ever again."

Instead, Muluken took to singing gospel songs at church events.

"He was a very good and sincere person, who loved people and feared God," said Muluken's widow, Mulu Kaipagyan, also a devoted Christian, in an online statement shared with NPR.

Even though Muluken turned his back on secular music during his later years, his early work has continued to influence younger generations of musicians.

"He became like a conduit into getting even deeper into the traditional music of Ethiopia for me," said Ethiopian-American singer, songwriter and composer Meklit Hadero.

Muluken Melesse as a young vocalist.
/ Muluken Melesse family
Muluken Melesse family
Muluken Melesse as a young vocalist.

Meklit's 2014 version of the folk song "Kemekem" — which the singer describes as "a love song for the person with the perfect Afro" — was inspired by a version Muluken made famous decades ago.

"I felt such a link to him," she said. "And I will be so forever grateful to him."

Meklit added she will never be able to get enough of Muluken's singing.

"It has so much movement and vibrance in it. It's alive. You don't know where he's going to go. You just are kind of on a river following his tone and it's captivating," she said. "The whole human experience was contained within that voice."

Audio and digital story edited by Jennifer Vanasco; audio produced by Alejandra Marquez Janse.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.