Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Ghirmai Kidane (Wedi Filipo): A multi-talented artist and a political activist

Ghirmai Kidane (Wedi Filipo): A multi-talented artist and a political activist
Mohamed Kheir
From a previous post in FB

When you listen to the masterpiece song, ‘Abbay Abbashawel’, the first thing that comes to your mind may be the name, Alamin Abdullatif, who sang the song. When you listen to songs on the radio or TV in our country or Ethiopia we are told about the singer only. All the credit goes to the singer.  Listen to a song in Sudanese and the Arab world media, they tell first about the song writer, then the music composer and last comes the singer; a culture that appreciates all the contributions.

Abbay Abbashawel, among other songs, was written and its music composed by Wedi Filipo. Girmai Kidane is not only a song writer, a musician but a political activist, too. This note which is based on an interview with him, sheds light through various milestones not only his life, but on the role of Eritrean artists on political activism.

He was born almost 72 years ago on 19.06.1942. His father, Kidane Abraha Gangoul was born in Segeneiti and his mother Leteberhan Zere Yohannes was born in Kor Barya. His father died mysteriously in 1959, in the Imperial Palace and he says that was on orders from Emperor Haile Sellasie. His family was denied the corpse. He says a living witness that this event took place is the former Ethiopian President, Girmai Woldeghiorgis, who used to work as a security agent in Eritrea during Haile Sellasie’s rule.

In 1953, he was the only Eritrean (black) is his batch who was studying in an Italian school. By 1959, he run errands for members of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM)- Mahber Shewate- which he later joined and he participated on their initiative of forming the organization that promoted Eritrean culture and traditions. Some of the colleagues in the ELM, he worked with include Seid Beshir (Gesir), Gilay Girmai, Haile Woldemichael (Haile Gebha), Kiros Yacob (Kiros tzatze).

He indicates that by 1960, members of the ELM wanted to break the monopoly of foreigners in musical bands and to mobilize the people against Ethiopian occupation and so initiated a competition on Eritrean songs through  a theater group called ‘Mahber Tewaseoo Degebat’ and Tewolde Redda’s song ‘Asmeretey’ won the first prize. But the organization was later banned by followers of the Unionist Party. Among the persons he was acquainted with in that group were Tekle Adhanom (Tekle huwket), Yohannes Gebrekidan (Gozano) and the Tigrait singer, Jabir Mahmoud.

He states that the famous Eritrean Musical group, Asmara Theatrical Group, ‘Mahber Teater Asmra’  was formed in 1961 in a meeting in ‘Piazza Mikele’ in the tea shop of Idris and later of Kahsay Michael. He mentions that as he was involved with the ELM in mobilizing the members of the Police and the public and was to participate in the Police Orchestra, he did not participate in the formation of ‘Mahber Teater Asmra’  but he contributed through song writing and by giving advice.

The other side of Tedla Ogbit and the Police Orchestra
Girmai recalls that when Brigadier General Tedla Ogbit, the Eritrean Police Chief, fell off with the Ethiopians he planned a coup d’etat. As the ELM was recruiting members of the Police, Tedla Ogbit was approached by Berhanu Ahmeddin and Haj Imam Musa. The importance of establishing the Police Orchestra was found to be important and so Tedla Ogbit formed the Police Orchestra on December 1962 to mobilize the people against Ethiopia and Wedi Filipo was one of those recruited in the Orchestra. Among those who were recruited were also Ali Mohmed (Ya Assina), Younis Ibrahim, Negash Tekie, Mohamed Burhan Atta, Kiflom Abbay and others. He recalls that Tedla Ogbit used to come regularly to Sembel to follow up the rehearsals of the band. Among the songs that were prepared for the agitation were the following:
-       Greetings from the Police Orchestra – group song
-       Adaliyuni (help me find…)                  - Younis Ibrahim
-       Yiaekel (enough is enough)                - group song
-       Sesinu  (flourish)                                 - group song
Those songs started to be aired on radio ‘Voice of Asmara’ that was owned by Cavallieri Mohamed. As the radio was broadcast through loud speakers at the grain market, ‘Idaga Ikhli’, those songs were well received by the public.

On June 6, 1963, around 4 pm, while he was in a café (in front of Bar Autisti) with Martyr Ibrahim Abdulrahman and Alamin Siraj Omer, two policemen approached him  and told me to go to Sembel and deliver his police belongings to the Sembel police station. He left his friends and went to the place where he used to meet General Tedla Ogbit. Tedla told me it was his order. He told Wedi Filipo that the zero hour where the anti-Ethiopia plans would be executed was approaching and he did not want Girmai to bear any responsibility. Tedla told him if his plans failed, he was going to take responsibility for it alone. If the coup succeeded then they would meet again. 

When Tedla Ogbit was killed by the Ethiopians, Wedi Filipo was arrested on June 1963 and taken for interrogation at the police headquarters at AGIP. Present at his interrogation were: the new police chief who was promoted to Brigadier General after Tedla’s death, Zere Mariam Azazi; the deputy of Zere Mariam, Colonel Erdatchew, Colonel Reta Demege (who according to Wedi Filipo led the special unit who came to kill Tedla Ogbit from Addis), and Colonel Mohamed Saleh. He was accused of being involved in the Tedla Ogbit revolt. Wedi Filipo recalls clarifying that he came regularly to Tedla’s office to ask for resignation. His explanation was supported by Zere Mariam Azazi and due to that he was not arrested. He was later told to go to Addis to join a musical group. Others from the police Orchestra who were accused to be involved with Tedla Ogbit and sent to Addis were: from the singers, Ali Mohmed (Ya Assina), Younis Ibrahim, Negash Tekie, Mohamed Burhan Atta, Kiflom Abbay and from the musicians Habtemichael Gebremichael, Figadu Andemichael, Yemane Yohannes, and Alto. When they arrived at Kolfe, they were told they were under arrest. They stayed there for six months. Gradually they were allowed to go to Addis for limited hours where he was able to meet some Eritrean political activists there, among them were Tekle Gebremichael (Tekle Eisenhower) who owned a hotel and Ibrahim Suleiman who was gatekeeper of Football Club Zula and later of Red Sea (Morosso). When they were released in February 1964, he returned back to Asmara.

Being aware of the role of music in political agitation, he was encouraged in 1964 by Berhanu Ahmeddin and the then music teacher (who was blind), Umberto Barboy to recruit young singers to the service of the Eritrean revolution. They used the student scout shows at Comboni, Prince Mekonen school, Itige Memen School. Among the new singers were Tekle tesfazghi, Haile Gebru and Yemane Gebermichael (Baria). To cover up his political activities and to be able to gather information and to recruit young Eritreans, he served in the Naval Base Band (there were Eritrean recruits there) as well as in the 2nd Army’s Musical Band. He also played with European musicians in Asmara and was a member of the musical band, ‘Boys’. He recalls it was difficult to be recruited to the Navy from Eritrea as one was checked thoroughly so he was advised to travel to Addis and to get recruited from as the headquarters of the navy was there. He was told to meet some Eritrean activists there who had good relations with the Commander of the Ethiopian navy then, Iskander Desta. Some of those who helped him with recruitment were Tekie Tesfay Kibrom and Biniam Kiflemariam Squar. As he was specifically recruited to form a musical band for the navy, the Massawa administration of the Navy accepted that and around March 1965, a musical band for the navy was established. He recalls that one day he was invited for lunch by Commander Mekonen Abraha (uncle of Isaias Afworki) and Commander Hailemelekot Gebrewold where he was introduced to martyr Ibrahim Affa and were since then friends. He states that his mission at the navy was to create awareness and recruit Eritreans to the national cause.

The Ethiopian security used to censure all the songs and he says we used various means to distract them. They used metaphor and also used to sing famous Amharic songs during the theatrical shows.

In 1971, he initiated contacts with the PLF faction that was stationed near Dekemare area and was advised to go to Italy to establish contacts based on his former links to Italians. He did as he was advised and in 1972, he was linked to former ELM members in Germany. By 1974, he realized that that EPLF was not going in the right direction and started to air his views to that effect. After liberation, 1991 he realized that the EPLF leadership harbors hidden agenda and has since been opposing the regime, actively.

I hope this note will generate discussion about the role of the political activism of artists then. I hope some will contribute to add or correct information presented here. My special thanks to Jelal Yassin for facilitating contacts with Wedi Filipo.
This note was written on the 23rd of December 2014, Wedi Filipo passed away on the erly morning of the 24th of September 2019


  1. ግርማይ ኪዳነ ( ወዲ ፊሊፖ) ሓደ ካብቶም ሁቡባት ተቃለስቲ፡ ብግጥምን ሙዚቃን አሰኙ ሓደ ካብቶም ንምንእሰያት አብ ቃልሲ ንኽሳተፉ ዕቢ ጊደ ዝተጻወተ ከምሙኻኑ መጠን ፍሉይ ምስገና ዝግቦኦ ሰብ እዩ።

  2. Thanks Dr. Mohamed Kheir for a story of a person who fought to liberate Eritrea starting at young age. Such people need to be remembered for what they accomplished and that is what you have done. May His Soul Rest In Peace.