THE BLOG

The Beautiful Voice Being Heard in Addis Ababa

09/24/2013 02:43 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST

In Canada as well as the world -- the Armenian tragedy as well as triumph has been noted. According to the latest Canada census, there are approximately 50,000 Armenians in Canada and most like, Academy Award-nominated Director Atom Egoyan and senior Ontario public servant Ann Cavoukian are making their marks. Most Armenians in Canada came during Prime Minister John Diefenbaker years in the 1950's and in the 1990's because of the Soviet Union collapse.

In my native Ethiopia, where I traveled earlier this year, is where I also discovered the wonderful history of Aremens. It was by coincidence I was exposed to it via a Canadian-educated artist, Vahe Tilbian, who is making waves in the East African nation. The 33 year old artist who lived in British Columbia during his university years and preforms in prominent arenas in Addis Ababa including the Canadian eatery -- O Canada Restaurant and Café -- shared with me his time in Canada where he learned how to dance, his fascinating heritage as well as reflected with me on how he intends to use his rare voice for good in multiple of languages.

You have a very interesting background. You were born in Ethiopia to an Armenian heritage and went to school in Canada. Please tell me about this experience.

My family came to Ethiopia as early as the early 1900s, to find work and escape Genocide, and we've been here ever since. I finished high school in Addis and had the chance to continue my post-secondary education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Once I finished my undergraduate degree, I moved back home to Addis.

It is rare to find Armenians in Ethiopia these days. Tell me about the connection between Ethiopia and Armenia.

Unfortunately that is true. There are very few of us left in Ethiopia at the moment and most of us belong to one family. The historical connection between Armenia and Ethiopia starts in the 1500's (European Calendar) with Mateos Armenawi (Mateos the Armenian) who was sent as a diplomat to Portugal by way of India to ask for help to curb Ottoman expansion in Africa. Through the years that followed more Armenians have come to Ethiopia, especially after the 1915 massacres and expulsion of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, Armenians found themselves accepted in Ethiopia.

The fact that both Ethiopia and Armenia were Orthodox Christians helped seal the bond as the churches were always connected. Historically Armenians worked as goldsmiths, carpenters, builders, teachers, embroiders, silk makers, carpet makers, the list goes on. My great grandfather was a carpet maker in the palace during Empress Zewditu's time.

The presence of Armenians in Ethiopia was further strengthened by Emperor Haile Sellassie who adopted 40 Armenian children (Arba Lijoch) who were orphaned by the Genocide and were living in Jerusalem. By the leadership of Captain Kevork Nalbandian (the uncle of Nerses Nalbandian) they formed the first brass band of Ethiopia. Actually an aside fact also is that the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem also houses the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

When I visited Armenia for the first time in 2005, I was shocked at how similar the two countries are and realized why Armenians came to Ethiopia and stayed here. Two countries that are far away from each other have similar scenery, people's attitudes, energy, spirituality. It's amazing!

Most young people your age leave Ethiopia for promising lives to western countries. Why did you return to Ethiopia once you completed your education in British Columbia?

It's not promising. It's a suggestion. Money doesn't grow on trees in the western world as a lot of people believe. Life is just as tough as, maybe even tougher than living in Ethiopia. Primarily my decision to move back was because of my family in Ethiopia. Life is too short as it is and I made a conscious decision to be with them for as long as God allows us to be together.

I couldn't bear to be thousands of kilometers away from my parents and my sister and the rest of my very tight-knit family. To me it is more important to spend my life with them than to spend it trying to look for a suggestion of a "better" life that is never guaranteed. I feel very much at ease in Ethiopia. If anything I find it better here than anywhere else.

How did you get in to the music business?

I got into music as a joke. I happened to be at dance practice and for some reason Michael Buble's version of "Feeling Good" started playing and I sang along with it. My friend Bitik Emlaelu asked if I would be interested to join the band she was putting together. Naturally I said yes and here I am.

You are also a dancer. Tell me about that.

While I was at university I joined the UBC Dance Club to pass the time, do something new and different. I ended up loving the art of dance and was formally trained in the international style Latin American ballroom dances for about six years. I competed in many competitions mostly with my dance partner Naomi Goffman and through winning and getting points through placing (1st, 2nd or 3rd) we reached the "pre-championship" level right before I moved back to Ethiopia. (The highest level within the amateur category is championship and then one chooses to move up to be a professional dancer)

Musical critic Teddy Fikre of remarked recently that the first time he heard your song, he felt like "he died and returned from the dead" and that you had "transformed the oldest song known to mankind, mixed it with deep bass and some jazz/rock funk and delivered to me a Tizita from the distance future". That is a great compliment. What does this compliment mean to you and how do you describe your music?

You're right it is a great compliment! I feel humbled and much moved by the Teddy's reaction and even others who tell me they really liked my version of the Tizita. Of course I am grateful to everyone who open heatedly lent me their ears and thankful to my producer and fellow artist Kenny Allen who is producing my album. I describe my music I describe as a "mixology" I don't really stick to one type or one genre or one language, but within this disorder I find my order.

If there is one entertainer you would most like to collaborate with, who would that is?

It's not easy to answer this, since like I said before I don't really stick to a certain style or listen to a single artist but perhaps, Bruno Mars. I admire his work and perform a lot of his songs. It would be great to collaborate with him.

Ethiopia has changed over the years. What is one change you still want to see in Ethiopia in your lifetime.?

I would love to see the end of poverty. I would love to see everyone have access to clean drinking water. I would love to see HIV/AIDS wiped out. Musically, I would love for more international artists to visit Ethiopia and perform here. We don't get as many concerts as some other African countries. I'd love to see them collaborating with more Ethiopian artists too, much like we see happening in Nigeria and South Africa, except Ethiopia's music is so unique that the possibilities are limitless.