The return of Kuku Sebsibe
For some, Kuku Sebsibe’s best days are behind her. Changing musical trends and long absence from home might have prematurely ended her budding stardom, but the pop star’s recent musical résumé shows that may not always be the case. At 52, Kuku is still pushing boundaries with her music and is attracting new fans. In fact, the 80s star, known as much for her hair style as for her love songs, is enjoying renewed limelight. Performing every week at the renowned Jazz Amba, she has become part of the city’s music scene.Her recent track in which she pays tribute to the iconic Ethiopian female musician, Bizunesh Bekele, is remarkably well executed, and can regularly be heard playing on the radio and TV.
Another of her tracks, Yebereha Sedetegna, featuring the hugely popular younger artist Teddy Afro, has been a success too. Her association and collaboration with Teddy Afro, whose vocal charisma and lyrical touch she highly admires, has surely helped her visibility. The two provide an example of how different generations can cross the divide to come together in music.
Kuku started singing as a child and her environment provided the encouragement that first shaped her musical identity. A natural poet, her father Dejazmatch Sebsibe Shibru, left his mark on Kuku’s ability to appreciate the breadth and depth of poetry. One of her best recollections from those days was the day she met Muluken Melese, who was her musical idol when she was at grade seven. One day, she proposed to the renowned singer lyrics composed by her father and also a collection of verse by others, which he graciously accepted, created melodies for and recorded. The 15-year-old girl was over the moon when she learned that her favorite singer crooned the lyrics that she had handed him. A teenager then, the pretty Kuku would spend most of her time entertaining friends, family members and classmates at Nazareth school and later at the American Mission School. The first time she had taken the stage was at her high school graduation party at Hilton Hotel. Her classmates begged her to sing and pushed her on the stage, which led her to take a musical career. Following her high school graduation, she became deeply involved in the Addis area music scene, performing a mixture of originals, contemporary material, and pop covers. She had a regular singing gig (five days a week) at Hilton Hotel with the Walis band.
She soon recorded her first single, “Ingidayenesh” with Alemayehu Eshete and she spent the next two years working on her debut album, finding producers and songwriters available to showcase her amazing vocal talent.Working with Roha Band, Kuku released her debut album Fikirih Beretabign and almost immediately became a sensation.She also performed in such prestigious venues as Villa Verde Restaurant where she performed with Mesele Gesese on the piano. Her first video clip on ETV showcased the famous “kuku style” braids, which was became a practical style at the time. Wearing plaits tightly braided to the head and putting cowries, Kuku epitomized a life of glamour. In the 90’s she moved to America and settled in the Washington, DC, area. The record she made there “Gize” was not successful. “It was not done the way I wanted it to be. The lyrics and the rhythm were sent to me from Ethiopia. There were a lot of times that it was not matching,” she recalls.
Though she was enjoying fame there and regularly playing at Ethiopian community clubs, Kuku has disappeared from the local scene and has become something of a comfortable heritage act in her home country. In 2003 she returned to her homeland and immediately recorded her album “Tinish Gize sitgne” with Elias Melka, and most recently, the Tizita album with Express band. The tizita album, which evokes the ballads of a past era, was largely received with indifference.
In the past few years, Kuku has returned to the stage in an effort to reconnect with her fans and trying to reinvent herself as a singer and performer. Though she is under no illusions about the passing years, she is riding high again these days, appearing at the Jazz Amba every Saturday and releasing new singles alongside with notable musicians. Kuku who is said to be finalizing her latest album has matured into a glamorous woman who is trying to come up with something better. The way she sings is the way her career has turned out – in no hurry, not about to change for anybody. Her songs are in it for the long game, and so is she.
(I have used the singer’s website and various magazine interviews for biographical information.