Ethiojazz singer Muluken Melesse dies at 73 One of the most popular Ethiopian vocalists of the late 20th century, he rose to fame at a time of great political unrest in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian singer Muluken Melesse dies at 73

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ethiopian musician Muluken Melesse died this week in the Washington, D.C., area after a long illness, according to his family. He was 73 years old. NPR's Chloe Veltman reports he was one of the most popular Ethiopian singers of the late 20th century.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Muluken Melesse rose to fame at a time of great unrest in Ethiopia, as the 1974 revolution gave way to a military dictatorship. Muluken's songs from the 1970s, like "Hagerwa Wasamegena" - "She's From Wasamegena" - were filled with love and longing for better times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAGERWA WASAMEGENA")

MULUKEN MELESSE: (Singing in non-English language).

SAYEM OSMAN: He came through at a time when people were really down.

VELTMAN: Sayem Osman has written articles about contemporary Ethiopian music for various blogs and magazines.

OSMAN: He got to the core of people's hearts.

VELTMAN: Muluken was born in the Gojjam Province of northern Ethiopia in 1951. Sayem says his mom died when he was a kid, and so he moved to the capital, Addis Ababa, to live with an uncle. But the arrangement didn't work out. He says Muluken wound up in an orphanage, where he studied singing with a visiting musician who taught lessons there.

OSMAN: And Muluken, at that time, got the bug.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEWDEDEN WEDEDKUT")

MELESSE: (Singing in non-English language).

VELTMAN: Muluken started performing in local clubs in the 1960s, when he was barely a teenager, and eventually became a big star. "Mewdeden Wededkut" - "I Love Being In Love" - was one of his many hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEWDEDEN WEDEDKUT")

MELESSE: (Singing in non-English language).

OSMAN: He's the king of the love songs for me. It's about how you treat a woman, how you see a woman.

VELTMAN: Sayem Osman says Muluken's popularity had a lot to do with the talented female lyricists he worked with on these songs.

OSMAN: Who else but a woman would know how to be described or how to be looked upon, right?

VELTMAN: But he says it was tough to be an artist in a country under military rule.

OSMAN: There was very heavy, heavy censorship.

VELTMAN: 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. Sayem says he continued on with the groovy love songs for a while.

OSMAN: And then, at one point, he just decided to stop.

VELTMAN: He immersed himself entirely in his new faith.

OSMAN: And that was it. He was done, and he never performed this music ever again.

VELTMAN: Instead, Muluken took to singing the gospel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULUKEN MELESSE SONG, "YEYESUS WETADERNEGN")

VELTMAN: Here's "YeYesus Wetadernegn" - "I'm Jesus' Soldier" - from the late 1980s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEYESUS WETADERNEGN")

MELESSE: (Singing in non-English language).

VELTMAN: Ethiopian American singer-songwriter and composer Meklit Hadero says Muluken was a big influence on her.

MEKLIT HADERO: He became, like, a conduit into getting even deeper into the traditional music of Ethiopia for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEMEKEM")

HADERO: (Singing in non-English language).

VELTMAN: Her 2014 version of the folk song "Kemekem," an ode to someone with perfect Afro hair, was inspired by a version Muluken made famous decades ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEMEKEM")

MELESSE: (Singing in non-English language).

VELTMAN: And Meklit says she will never be able to get enough of Muluken Melesse's singing.

HADERO: 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.

VELTMAN: She says the whole human experience was contained within that voice.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEMEKEM")

HADERO: (Singing in non-English language).

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