Getachew Desta is a legendary disc jockey and radio show host who used to host listeners’ music choices in Radio Ethiopia in the 1960’s and early 70’s. For while, his show aired every Sunday for an hour but it was made twice a week. “Old favourites and the best of the new were played. We received many letters from listeners, lots of song requests for family members, friends and loved one. I would occasionally ask listeners to write their requests not only on a piece of paper but on a wood, animal skins, candles and fabrics. Tilahun Gessese, Assegedch Kassa, Alemayehu Esehte, Mohamed Ahmoud, Asnaketch Worku, Getachew Kassa were the favourites,” he recalls. Getachew later became a well-known TV personality, hosting the just launched Ethiopian Television’s musical program “Hibret Tirit,” starting from November 2, 1964 for twelve years. He developed a persona with his fast yet rhythmic way of speaking and sharing humorous anecdotes. Even Emperor Haile Selassie in a visit to the TV station would congratulate him for his considerable talent, with a question, “Where do you bring all your jokes from?”
Following the 1974 revolution and change of political regime in Ethiopia, Getachew left for West Germany and joined the Amharic service of Deutsche Welle. For the next 22 years, his name was closely associated with the radio, his immediately recognisable voice heard in many homes in Ethiopia and further afield. As host of the musical programme and other contents, he became a legend of the airwaves and was loved by listeners from all walks of life.
Today the 80-year-old Getachew has been in long retirement from the world of broadcasting yet involved in other projects. Following are excerpts of an Ethiopia Observe interview with Getachew Desta conducted last year in Addis Ababa.
How did you get into radio?
I started my career in Gondar as a teacher in 1958 after having a two-year college course. I taught for two years and I came back to Addis Ababa. One day passing through Ministry of Information building, I saw a group of people standing in line. I walked over and joined them. I asked what it was and they told me that they were waiting for a job testing. Funnily, I was allowed to go through the testing. I think i wrote an essay in English about the American gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, it was Wednesday and on Saturday, I discovered my name on the list of those who had passed. I was hired to handle radio station’s music library.
After working there for three months, one day the Minister dropped into our bureau and asked if I could replace the presenter who could not make it to that evening. I had no experience in broadcast and this was the early days of radio. Few people had their own radio sets, and at the time there was horns installed at markets and public squares throughout the city where people gathered to listen to the broadcasts. But I said okay. I started preparing the whole afternoon for my first day in the studio, reciting “This is Radio Ethiopia.” Well, when I got into the studio and once on-air, I was nervous as hell and I forget the line, instead I said “This is Getachew Desta” but managed to add “from Radio Ethiopia”. I did the rest. I was called to the Minister office on Monday and to my relief, he applauded me, except saying that I spoke too fast. But the important thing was, he let me do another the next weekend.
You were a disc jockey. Did you play a wide variety of music on the radio?
Yeah, I played everything listeners requested. Of course, Tilahun Gessesse’s songs were on the radio constantly, he was the number one request and I remember asking my assistants to look for letters with other requests. Since I was a friend with Tilahun, I was kind of scared of being accused of favouring him. (Getachew’s close friendship with Tilahun would last till his passing in 2009).
You also sang, is that right?
I sang at my friends’ weddings, all the songs that I was hearing on radio. I danced to them. I was Debebe Eshetu’s best man and I recall performing at his wedding. I was best man at Woubshet Workalemahu’s wedding and I also sang then. I also used to play piano and accordion.
(Tilahun Gessese, Getachew Desta and Getachew Abdi from right to left, photo courtesty of Getachew Abdi).
I heard that you accompanied the National Geographic team in 1965 when they came here to do a feature story on Ethiopia. That was when you met the camel herder whose image later became iconic.
Yes, while Emperor Haile Selassie visited the United States on October 1963, he met National Geographic team. They told him their desire to visit the country and do a feature article, for which the emperor responded enthusiastically. The team came two years later and I was assigned by the Ministry of Information to accompany them on a visit to the northern part of the country. I was chosen because I was kind of jobless since it was fasting season before Easter, there was no secular music broadcasted on the radio. I was told to try present a good image and communicate the positive aspects of the country as much as possible. In fact, i acted as their guide and interpreter. We went to major historical sites, Gondar, Axum, Lalibela and to Massawa on brand Land Rover, all equipped with fridge. Starting from Asmara, we headed to Teseney. Between Akurdet and Teseney, we came across a group of camel herders, including this young boy. He was wearing his hair in mud-stiffened ringlets.
(A nomadic Beni Amer boy wears his hair in mud-stiffened ringlets.)
The photographer was struck by his look and clicked his camera, several times. He was saying to me, “Have you seen him?” The boy at the end reacted angrily and I soon handed him a Coke and he drank too fast and he gave a loud belch and he said “alhamdulillah.” All that was mentioned in the article, of course. The photo became so famous and it was almost in every Ethiopia’s house hold. (The story was explored in a special issue of the National Geographic Magazine (April 1965) where the nomadic Beni Amer boy was featured in a photograph entitled “Ethiopian Adventure”.)
Your friends and colleagues remember you as a fashionable young man and trendsetter.
The end of 60’s and early 70’s were exciting times that had provided very fond memories for many of us. We dressed up smartly, with clothes brought to us from Europe by hostesses, we bought automobile often on credit, and went out drinking, istening to the new sounds of modern music. Personally, I was poor growing up, it was important for me to buy as much fashionable clothes as possible when I had the means to. I was also obsessed with cars ever since i got my driving licence in my twenties. While working at the radio, I started acting as a salesmen for a car company. Then I bought a famous mark then called DW. A few years later I bought a Renault 10. Yoahnnes Gedamu, an artist friend of mine installed letters of my name in the car’s signal. Whenever I brake, my name would flush. It became kind of sensational and the gossip of the town. It was time of innocence.