The Emerge Festival : Dereb The Ambassador

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The Emerge Festival : Dereb The Ambassador

Launching this Sunday June 19, the Emerge Festival celebrates the music, craft and culture of new Australian immigrants. Presented by Multicultural Arts Victoria, the six week-long festival includes a range of live events encompassing dance, visual arts, film, food, ancient crafts and ceremonies, with performances by some of Australia’s most promising new musicians, all as part of a celebration of different cultures.

Emerge also coincides with United Nations World Refugee Day and Refugee Week in Victoria, and it is designed to promote the courage, ingenuity and creativity of our most recent arrivals, offering people of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to share rich and unfamiliar cultures all the way from Africa to the Far East, from the traditional to the contemporary.

The Emerge Festival will include performances by musicians from Senegal, Barrundi, The Congo, Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe and more, with a headline performance by one of Ethopia’s most celebrated singers, Dereb Desalegn.

Dereb, who moved to Australia after falling in love with an Australian girl, was born into a family of musicians in Northern Ethiopia. He climbed up on stage at the age of four and never looked back.

“I was with my sister in a very small club and I didn’t even know how to play the instrument,” he recalls. “I had just picked up the instrument from the shop. Straight away, we went to the club and started singing and making some sound from it! We got some tips since then I never stopped.”

By age ten, Dereb had learned to play the Masenko, a kind of Ethiopian violin, and was recognised as a talented young soul singer. By the age of 16, he was drawing crowds in the bars of Addis Ababa and around Ethiopia, performing as a solo artist and with other touring bands.

His first album, KorkoroYalew, was released in 2003 and featured the hit single Wollo, which was massively popular in Addis Ababa that year. Shortly after it was released, Dereb moved to Melbourne and began a whole new career down under.

The only snag, as it turns out, was that Dereb found it “almost impossible” to establish himself as a musician in Australia, with only two or three other Ethiopian musicians working in the country and little awareness of the vintage Ethiopian soul that he sings.

“Ethiopian music just doesn’t sound like from anywhere else,” he enthuses. “It is a very distinctive sound.”

But a sound without much of an audience here, he claims, and things were tough initially. Dereb began performing in Australia with a band called Lion Of Judah and eventually hooked up with renowned world-music man-about-town Nicky Bomba. The two artists performed at WOMAD together, collaborating on a world music fusion record in 2006.

It was a “satisfying” project for Dereb, but leagues away from the classic Ethiopian sound he loves. It was only after moving to Sydney to that he finally had the opportunity to bring his musical heritage to Australian audiences.

Dereb marshalled the talents of seven Sydney musicians, including members of The Strides and Deep Sea Arcade, and became Dereb the Ambassador. With his new ensemble, he began performing soul masterpieces made famous by Ethiopians artists from the 1960s and ‘70s such as Mahmoud Ahmed and Mulatu Astatqe, which have become familiar to world music audiences through the Ethiopiques compila­tion series and to film audiences via the soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers.

The self-titled record by Dereb the Ambassador was recorded by Tony Buchen in a studio featuring only pre-1970s equipment, which has helped Dereb to recreate an authentic vintage soul sound.

It was so successful, the ABC reported earlier this year, that the producer of the Ethiopiques series has selected one of Dereb’s tracks for an upcoming compilation, saying that “The most interesting Ethiopian music happening now is happening in the diaspora because the stuff that’s happening in Addis Ababa is all very electronic.”

Dereb is keen to return to Melbourne to show off his band and their rambunctious, energetic music. After a warm up appearance at the Northcote Social Club in March, Dereb is coming back to play The Corner Hotel this Friday night and headline the Emerge Festival kick-off party on Sunday, representing the best and brightest that Australia’s new migrant musicians have to offer.