Ethiopian superstar Temu thrills the crowd
Given the late hour and special engagement, the scene at Union Transfer early Sunday morning was surely without precedent at the busy concert venue. Just after 2 a.m., ebullient young Ethiopian dancer-turned-pop star Temesgen Gebregziabher (a.k.a. “Temu”) was still energetically serenading the ecstatic throngs of concertgoers, who were writhing along to the music in the unique, shoulders-and-more twitching dance style of Ethiopia known as Eskista.
The six-piece Ras Band blazed on as stage dancer Abiyot excited all and Temu delivered the last of his second set, a run of songs suffused with more traditional Ethiopian flavors than his pop-hit-oriented first set. Temu covered Teddy Afro – the current biggest superstar of all Ethiopian pop, regarded as Michael Jackson-esque (which makes Temu a sort of Usher to Afro’s MJ) – and also the classic tune “Dera” by 74-year-old master of Ethio-jazz-funk, Mahmoud Ahmed.
The almost entirely Ethiopian or Eritrean expatriate audience had been treated to many slinky Temu smashes such as “Ney Jama” and “Lebe Nedo” off his relatively recent debut album, Korahubesh, and enjoyed the two warm-up stints by Ethiopian reggae singer Ras Biruk. The Ras Band, a tight D.C.-area-based combo of immigrants from Addis Ababa (directed by keyboardist Dawit Bosco), capably provided the varied music, everything informed by the signature five-note pentatonic scale, intervallic patterns, and jerky, utterly infectious rhythms of Ethiopian music.
As concert experiences of crossing over and feeling deeply immersed in a very different culture go, the Temu show at UT was exceptional. It was beyond anything that this veteran line-crossing scribe has found himself in for some time. Compared with, say, the “Regional Mexican” music-genre bills that routinely pack the nearby Club Polaris – marketed primarily to Philly’s growing Mexican populace through colorful concert posters and some AM radio, all in cognate-rich Spanish – the Temu engagement had scant promotion. (Kudos, however, are due to Addisu Habte, a long-standing prominent member of the Ethiopian Community Association of Greater Philadelphia, who ably put the show together and successfully targeted his audience through social media and fliers in Amharic distributed in restaurants, hair-braiding salons, and other establishments around West Philadelphia’s sizable Ethiopian community.
Amharic is the common tongue of 100 million Ethiopians worldwide (although there are an estimated 87 other ethnic languages native to the east African nation). It was the language used in singing and addressing the UT crowd, often in call and near-total response. When set to the ancient culture’s music, whether from the past or very-much present, it’s all quite irresistible.