VAHE: Two culture enthused musician

Vahe Tilbian is a young and upcoming Ethiopian artist with an Armenian heritage, who started his musical career seven years ago. His debut album Mixology released in September 2012 got acclaimed by a fast growing fan base. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle and Elias G/Selassie sat down with him to find out who Vahe is and what inspires him,  his album and his music career.  Excerpts:

Capital: How did you get into music?
Vahe Tilbian:
It started as a joke actually; I had a day job and in my off hours I was teaching Salsa, and one time we were rehearsing for a show with the people I work with and I saw a microphone lying around and just picked it up and started singing, we were just having a laugh and a friend of mine said that she wanted to get a band together and asked me if I was interested. I never sang into a microphone before but I told her that I was interested. Within a few months she called me and said that she has gotten a group of musicians together and she wanted me to join. That is how it started and it continued from then. I quit my day job and went completely into music.
Capital: When was this?
I finished college in 2005; it was in 2007 that I started singing at night while having a day job but in August of 2008 I became a full time musician.
Capital: Did you know you wanted to sing or even know you could sing before that?
Well, I sang in the Armenian Church choir since I was a child, after doing that I kind of veered away from the organized arrangement to the more modern music. And one day my friend Lij Leo, who is an artist and owner of Vibrations bar, heard me sing at the Hilton Hotel on Sundays. He asked me to come to his bar and work with him so I started singing at the bar, just guitar and voice. At that point I did not think I was capable of writing my own lyrics but he encouraged me to do so. It is because of these kinds of friends that I am who I am now. Another person who helped is Kenny Alen, he saw what I was doing and told me that he could do a few songs for me and these few songs became an entire album. Capital: When did you perform for the first time in front of a large audience, and how did you feel about it?
Before I got into music professionally, I performed at a family wedding. I did two songs at that event. The first time was very scary. Then after the wedding I didn’t go back to singing for a long time until I got into it again professionally. When I started doing it professionally my first show was at ‘Bailamos’ with the ‘Beyaynetu’s’ band. There were few audiences as it was our first time, but it was still good, I was very excited about it. After some time the band did generate more audiences and we have been working together for almost six years now.
Capital: You have an Armenian heritage; what kind of differences and similarities do you draw from the two countries’ music and do you try to mix the two together?
In my album which is called Mixology, I use three languages which are Amharic, Armenian and English. The three songs in the album are old Armenian songs that I remade. There are obviously differences between the music of the two countries. Amharic songs use a pentatonic cord whereas the rest of the world is different, but I feel that there is some sort of similarity between the two, especially when it comes to older songs, even though I can’t really pin point what that similarity is. The connection that I feel from the two sides is not just musically. There are many other similarities between Ethiopia and Armenia, people don’t get it when I say that but I always say go and visit and you will understand. Even though we live far apart, culturally we have similarities.
The energy I felt when I went to Armenia for the first time back in 2005 made me feel like I have been there before. It was amazing. So yeah, when it comes to the music, if you listen to old music from both countries I think there are a few similarities here and there but obviously Ethiopian music is very different and unique. Armenia and the surrounding area is similar to the Middle East, Turkey and Iran. They have similar music as they have similar foods and the same language family as well. Honestly my major is not music so I won’t be able to really give you the technical aspect of what exactly the differences are. Music has become my career and passion and not necessarily my scope of study.
Capital: What did you study?
I studied Biology. I wanted to go to medical school, but it was going to take too long and I was not going to be able to afford it. I decided to finish my Biology degree that I started and figured I would start teaching because that was one of the things that I have always thought of, teaching high school students.
Capital: Tell us about you album.
My album is entitled Mixology. The reason it was titled Mixology is because I use three different languages as well as different styles of music. It is mostly a pop album. There is a traditional song in the album like Tizita and some Armenian songs too. The others are mixtures of dance music, reggae and rock, so it had to be called something in the lines of Mixology. I sang about finding love, losing love and then when you stop believing in love until you decide that it is time to find love again.  This whole mix of stuff is what we go through in life. That is why it is called Mixology. The album was released in early November, and so far it is doing well.
Capital: How did your fan base react to the album?
There is a fan base that I really didn’t know I had before. I have a lot of fans on facebook and twitter and it so happened that I released the album that way, through social media networks. So far I got pretty good reviews. The album is available on my website. There are also international online radios that have been playing my songs as well as some radio stations in Armenia. I am happy with the reactions I received.
Capital: Have you collaborated with other artists on your album?
Kenny Alen produced my album, apart from the old songs, and he is also featured in one track. I worked with Betty Rock on one track; she produced the lyrics and the melody for me. My aunt, who used to be a singer in an old but famous band called Savan Band, also did a song with me. I think it is a fun album, I like it.
Capital: Do you have your own style of music? Have you figured out where you are most comfortable?
I love performing pop rock music. That is basically how I started. When I do other songs though, I only do songs that I personally like. Other than that I don’t really have a strict style of music, but I do lean towards pop rock.
Capital: Which artists inspire you, locally and internationally?
Zeritu Kebede is a huge inspiration, I really love her work. It goes without saying that Mahmud Ahmed is one of the greatest artists in Ethiopia. His music is amazing and his voice is even more amazing. I know it is out of the genre I was talking about, but internationally I like listing to Bruno Mars, Nickel Back, Daughtry and other pop rock bands. Even out of that category I like musicians like Alicia Keys. I find artists like that really inspiring, maybe not just the music style they do, but also the way they perform, the music they write and how they compose themselves. As an artist this is what I see and get inspired by. There are so many good artists that I like. I guess my scope is big and vague, but I chose it to be that way.
Capital: What is your future plan?
Making music videos for the album definitely. There are a few songs on the album that I would like to turn into music videos. I am the kind of person that just waits for the right time and if everything works out, I will go ahead with the plan.
You know it is not like the old days where you can just do a music video and release it to the public. Now you really have to make sure that you are doing the job well. It needs to be up to the standard. I am not just talking about the producers and directors but also the equipment that is used in making the video. It makes a big difference. I am waiting on things to fall in the right place and after they do, I will proceed to making the videos.
Hopefully there will also be concerts and music festivals I would take part in. I have been a part of music festivals and concerts before, but it was mostly as a backup singer. I would like to perform in festivals as Vahe.
My other plan is to do a full Amharic album if possible. There are also few things that I’m working on in Armenia that will lead to making a full Armenian album. All is in the works already, God willing it will all work out soon.
Capital: What do you think of the music industry in Ethiopia? What are the opportunities and challenges?
I think the music industry is really rising. There are a lot of opportunities; it is in the direction that it needs to be going. Ethiopian music is becoming very famous internationally, especially Ethio-jazz. It is becoming recognized to the point that foreign musicians are playing it. I think we should be proud of that.
We are used to playing covers for western music. Now seeing that Ethiopian songs are being covered by others, it means that it is recognized as a style of music that needs to be out there for a much bigger audience. The works of artists such as Mulatu Astatke and Samuel Yirga are pretty amazing.
When you come to the challenges, for me as an artist, is that people consider me a foreigner. They can’t figure me out. I say that I am Ethiopian, but I am also Armenian. My family has been in Ethiopia for more than 100 years now.
People have difficulty finding my essence. I say take me as both, why not, it is a package. You have to put yourself out there to get recognized and to get recognized by the right people and then to play in the places that you aspire to play in. You want to be able to go abroad and show your music to the outside world as well. You become an ambassador for your country, in my case for both Armenia and Ethiopia.