Sunday, October 14, 2007

Girma Yifrashewa, Ethiopian Composer Born Oct. 15, 1967

(This post replaces the version dated Oct. 13)

[Elilta (Cry of Joy): Ethiopian Classical Music by Girma Yifrashewa; Elilta (7:06), Ambassel (9:40), Chewata (9:31), Sememen (9:50), My Strong Will (7:32), The Shepherd with the Flute (8:50); Girma Yifrashewa, piano; Doroteya Dimitrova, violin; Lyubomir Nikov, cello; Mikhail Zhivkov, clarinet; Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra; Dian Tchobanov, Conductor; Balkan Multimedia Center (2006)]

[Girma Yifrashewa: The Shepherd with the flute (2001)]

Elilta was initially sold only in Ethiopia. Plans for international distribution are in the works. In the meantime, all six tracks of the CD can be sampled at Girma Yifrashewa's page at We asked if Girma had any comments for the post celebrating his birthday; he made this response:

How nice and thoughtful of you to think of my birthday I really do appreciate. I have just completed rehearsals with a group of children (about 30) and we are planning to present a concert in Addis Ababa on the 19th of October. It is a choir with about eight songs on the themes of children's rights, identity, and other contemporary issues. The project has been funded by an NGO the African Child Policy Forum) and a CD will be released. I have also been preparing for some performances in the USA and I am waiting to hear from the other side to finalize arrangements for my trip.

My last concert was in London in March 2007 as you can see from my web page.

You can also see the interview I had with the BBC.”

The interview lasts about six minutes, and can also be reached via the “References” tab on Girma's home page. It has this introduction at the BBC World Service website:

BBC World Service; March 20, 2007; Classically gifted

In a basement studio here in Bush House sits a magnificent grand piano, it doesn't feature regularly on Network Africa, but this week Ethiopian concert pianist Girma Yifrashewa came to visit.

He is in the UK to perform a series of concerts at London's Guildhall School of Music.

Girma started his career at the Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa and continued his musical education in London, Sofia and Leipzig.

He has performed all over the world, enchanting audiences in Europe, Australia and Africa.”

Shen Liknaitzky heard him play and spoke to him about his life as a concert pianist.” It is hard to imagine a less traditional path to classical piano than the one followed by the Ethiopian pianist Girma Yifrashewa. He was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 40 years ago, on Oct. 15, 1967. Married and the father of one child, he lives in Addis Ababa. The pianist who has two classical CDs to his credit and has toured widely in Africa and elsewhere grew up playing a traditional Ethiopian string instrument, the kirar. Not surprisingly, passengers on Ethiopian Airlines enjoy duty-free shopping from In-Flight Services. However, along with jewelry, perfume, wine and spirits, passengers may buy Girma Yifrashewa's 2001 classical CD, The Shepherd with the flute. Ethiopian Airlines proudly sponsors its country's only prominent participant in the world of classical piano performance and composition.

The online Addis Tribune reported on May 25, 2001 that Yifrashewa first saw a piano on
the day he began his studies at the renowned Yared Music School in Addis Ababa:

"Girma first saw the piano at the Yared Music School when he was sixteen. He had just
passed the entrance examination and was about to join the school with only the love and
the ability to play the kirar, the Ethiopian stringed instrument. 'When I saw the grand
piano there in the room at the school I fell in love with it,' recalls Girma. I never had any
other choice'."

Girma's own website is bilingual in English and German, and offers audio samples of each track on the CD Elilta: The home page opens with these words:

“My life has not always been easy. I am nevertheless extremely grateful for each experience, as it has helped to make what I am today. I have been to many parts of the world and have had the honour to meet many people. I would like to thank all individuals and institutions that have made it possible for me to experience diverse cultures and share my own. I will redouble my efforts to bring my music to the world. The journey continues…”

The bio of the pianist explains the first two phases of his studies in piano:

“He studied at the Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa for four years and graduated with a diploma in piano. He then received a five-year bursary from the Ethiopian government to study at the Sofia State Conservatory of Music and graduated with a Masters in Piano.”

It was in Bulgaria that the young student established himself as a solo pianist, his bio says:

“It is in Bulgaria that he made an impact as a solo pianist holding shows throughout the country until his return to East Africa in 1995. Perhaps his best show was in the Sala Baldini Room in Rome just before returning to his home country.

His best achievement as a performer is in the sphere of romantic and impressionist repertoires, above all the piano works of Schumann, Schubert and Debussy. He has a preference and well-determined approach to the music of Bach as well as to those of Mozart and Beethoven.”

The fall of the Soviet Union had immediate impact on Yifrashewa's graduate studies in Bulgaria, as the Addis Tribune relates:

“His training in Bulgaria was never a rosy one. In the middle of his school years at the Conservatory, Girma saw the collapse of the Soviet Union that was also felt seriously in Bulgaria. Instantly, the stipend that they got as students was discontinued and [he] could not carry on with his drills as he had no access to the piano.”

The article explains that Yifrashewa's financial crisis caused him to leave Bulgaria. He arrived at a train station in Rome, Italy penniless. An Ethiopian he met there took him in, and soon Yifrashewa found shelter with the Christian Brothers in Rome. After a short period of manual labor by day and piano practice by night, financial support from the Christian Brothers enabled Yifrashewa to return to Sofia to complete his studies. He is quoted as saying:

"The brothers saved me and made me what I am today as I possibly would have ended up being somebody else," he notes. He then completed his education at the Conservatory in good standing. "His performance radiates a pure and rich mentality, a precious balance between the emotional and the rational... He manages to perfect his instrumentalist skills to a degree that permitted him to play with ease compositions requiring virtuoso technique," testified Atanas Kourtev, the professor under whose tutelage Girma perfected his skills.

We learn from Yifrashewa's bio that additional studies in piano were made possible by the governments of Germany and the United Kingdom:

Girma was privileged to have received scholarships for short-term specialization courses from the British and German Governments, at the Royal Academy of Music in London (1997) and at the Hochschule fur Music Und Theater – Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy – in Leipzig (1999), respectively.”

His teacher in Leipzig was Professor Helgcheide Schmidt. In his bio Girma also lists the professional positions he has held since completing his music studies:

“With regard to his work experience, on his return to Ethiopia in 1995, he took up a position with the Yared School of Music as a piano teacher where he worked until 2001. He was also working at the Sheraton Addis as a Pianist for one year (2000-2001). Now Girma is involved in his private work to promote Ethiopian and Classical Music throughout the continent and beyond. On his spare time, he also gives private piano lessons to students of different age groups.”

In his bio, Girma notes his first CD was the classical release called
The Shepherd with the Flute (2001). It was followed by a popular music recording, Meleya Keleme (2003). His most recent CD is the classical disc Elilta (2006). The Addis Tribune article recounts that the actual recording of the 2001 CD had been done nearly two years earlier, at the Bavaria Studio in Munich, Germany. Two days were required for the recording, which was supported by the Germany Embassy. The article notes with pride:

“In light of dreams coming true, this CD production of classical music has therefore, become the first of its kind ever to be published by an Ethiopian.”

The Shepherd with the flute includes works of Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Mozart and Schumann, as well as a new work by the pianist himself. It is called The Shepherd Flutist (7:14) and is based on The Shepherd with the Flute, a composition of Ashenafi Kebede (1938-1998), an Ethiopian composer who was a Professor of Music at Florida State University. The liner notes for Elilta tell of an important commemorative concert at which the pianist performed:

In 2005, on the occasion of the celebrations of the 100th Anniversary of the commencement of Ethio-German diplomatic relations, Girma was given the unique opportunity to perform with the German Leipzig Youth Symphony Orchestra Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 2 and Ethiopian music (Girma's own compositions.) The concert was highly praised both in Germany (Leipzig and Berlin) and Addis Ababa.”

The CD
Elilta, released in 2006, begins with four works for solo piano: Elilta (7:06), Ambassel (9:40) Chewata (9:31) and Sememen (9:50). The liner notes explain the first work:

Elilta is the vocal custom by which Ethiopians express their deepest joy. It is usually used during happy occasions like weddings and other joyous social events. It is also widely used during church festivities. Elilta, in this album, is an amalgamation of popular Ethiopian wedding songs and Girma's personal interpretation of this unique sound on the piano.”

My Strong Will (7:32) is a work for quartet. The performers are: Girma Yifrashewa, piano; Doroteya Dimitrova, violin; Lyubomir Nikov, cello; and Mikhail Zhivkov, clarinet. Ventsi Mitsov orchestrated the final work, The Shepherd with the Flute (8:50). It is performed by the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Dian Tchobanov, Conductor, and is dedicated to Ashenafi Kebede.

During his unprecedented first concert tour of 11 countries in Africa in February and March, 2002, the young Ethiopian pianist received a favorable critique from
The Herald newspaper in Harare, Zimbabwe:

“Girma successfully explores lyric music with a marked taste for romantic and impressionist repertoires.

Recently, he received the Phoenix Prize given in honour of artists contributing to the development of art in Ethiopia.”

With two classical CDs to his credit, a children's rights concert on Oct. 19 and another U.S. tour soon to be announced, Girma Yifrashewa celebrates his 40
th birthday at a high point in his career. He has a proven formula of introducing Western classical music to listeners in Africa, while employing traditional Ethiopian musical elements in Western classical forms. His latest CD runs the gamut of those forms from solo piano to quartet and on to orchestral music. We hope classical music listeners everywhere will explore what this cosmopolitan African classical composer and pianist has to offer when Elilta reaches the international market.

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