A stranger to his own land: sensational Ethiopian singer Daniel Lemma

Reporter: By Tibebeselassie Tigabu

Born in 1972 in Ethiopia, Daniel Lemma perceives music as an expression of his journey, a manifestation of his life, a tool to reveal hopes and dreams and resentments.

The singer went to Sweden when he was only a three-month-old baby through adoption but didn’t lose contacts with his biological parents.

Growing up in Sweden was not bad for him, as he reminisces, even if he was the only black kid in his class.

He did not feel segregation and alienation whatsoever, as it was usually the case with kids from Africa.

He says he is lucky because for some that travelled there decades ago things were a bit harsh.

Through the years Daniel was able to record five albums which got him critical acclaims for such songs as ‘Morning Train’, ‘Meeting at the Building’, ‘Dreamers and Fools’, ‘Somebody on Your Side’ and ‘Rebound’.

“ I found out about him when I moved to Sweden six years back and, let me tell you something, he is sensational, a musician who gave me alternative music, combining the music I love beautifully. Ethiopians should listen to his music,” said Samrawit Abera, an Ethiopian who lives in Sweden, when asked about him.

Daniel Lemma
Daniel Lemma

Daniel’s music journey starts when he was in high school where he established a band with two of his friends. He was playing drum and singing. He does not remember the name now, but he recalls the good time he had playing with them after school in the basement.

The band grew bigger and Daniel delved more into writing and started singing upfront.

The memory of his first ever performance with his high school band now brings a smile to him. Performing terribly in front of a small crowd and pausing ‘totally numb’ in stage fright is something that he recalls.

He also remembers playing Bob Dylan’s song before he got into the 1960’s soul music. He was first introduced to the reggae legend, Bob Marley, who, he says, made a lasting impression on him.

Bob Marley’s songs gave meaning to Daniel’s life and that was his first record.

“My first record was Bob Marley and, looking at him, a black superstar and growing up in Sweden, where there are no black models to look up to, it was like, ‘he looks like me’. Even if my friends heard it, his music had a different dimension to me. I was connected with the music on a different level,” said Daniel.

He also changed his appearance by locking his hair even if he says it was not the influence of reggae which made him do so.

After reading the renowned African American author Alice Walker’s (author of colour purple)’ ‘Oppressed Hair’ writings, he decided to make his hair dreadlock by understanding the mystery behind hair.

“As she (the author) says, an oppressed hair puts a ceiling on the brain. So I chose to make it natural as it is. But later, I felt trapped, so I decided to cut it,” relates Daniel.

Daniel listened to a wide variety of music and gave a special attention to rock. And later, his various musical influences led him to blues and got introduced to Bob Dylan. “This was the time where music was mixed naturally and wasn’t labelled this or that,” he said.

The styles of music he listened to over the years has sparkled in the music he does, not fitting the standard of one genre rather doing everything, diversified from soul, gospel, blues, rock, folk, the old version of Rhythm and Blues, groove, and reggae.

Studying theology and history in a university in Lund, Southern Sweden, the musician continued to play in a band even when it was not successful. When the band moved to a different city, Gothenburg, he also moved along.

For him, music is his call, so, after graduation in late 1990’s, he made a man out of himself as a struggling musician, had different gigs in different clubs but also did different jobs to pay the rent.

But later he decided to focus only on his music and to give his best shot.

Daniel then went to New York and lived there for three years when he recorded his first album. The album was not released for legal reasons though.

When he was back in New York, he was playing in different clubs and waiting, in vain, for the legal issue to be resolved. He decided to go back to Sweden.

“Waiting there was eating my energy, so I decided to come back and do my music on the smallest scale. It was a dream to have a record label in the States (US) but the dream kind of eroded. I learned to have control of my situation and freedom means to me to be in charge of controlling your own creativity,” says Daniel.

Going back to Sweden, he released his icebreaker album ‘Morning Train’ with the soundtrack for a film Jalla! Jalla! Arabic term for ‘hurry up’ in 2001, with the single: “If I Used to Love You,” which became an instant hit.

Love light by Daniel Lemma

“The film was a great success not only in Sweden but also in other Scandinavian countries.” The artist says he was not worried about the sales of the album. Rather, he wanted to spread the message and his main concern was to get the music out.

Throughout his 15-year journey as a musician, Daniel was able to do five albums. Three of the albums were released through Dextra / Warner Music, and two of them were by his own label Dextra Music.

The two albums released through his own label are ‘Somebody on Your Side’ (2007) and ‘Rebound’ (2009).

“My music is about the will and the wishes to connect to other people, lead a life in a meaningful way, to feel that you are part of something meaningful. You want to feel that you have a relationship that makes sense, you want to feel like when you get up in the morning, there is a good reason for that. My music basically covers that in general,” explains Daniel.

Singing in English, he was able to have concerts not only in Sweden but also in most Scandinavian countries where he got wide acceptance but he does not hide the fact that he was still facing racial stereotyping.

“There are a lot of stereotypes as in any minority group. An easy way to get by these stereotypes is fitting in the different characters, which means to act the way you are supposed to. In my case, I haven’t really done that. I didn’t play the music that people expected of me,” said the artist.

He was even surprised in the situation of USA where he says the stereotyping was stronger and he explains, “There is a strong black community in America and there are rules and standards. In my case, they never expected a black man to sound like that; the stereotype of black music was fixed. But in Sweden there is no strong black community; so there was no expectation,” For him, connecting with the audiences is what matters, and the crowd or the money. Now looking back at his journey, he feels fortunate and blessed in doing what he loved and making a living out of it. “These days, the music industry is on the brink of total collapse. To be able to survive that is for me good enough. I am not a rich man but I live from my earnings in music and I don’t have any other job,” explains Daniel.

He made it in his music career singing in English among a Swedish people who according to him, prefer to listen to their own language. Through all that, he still feels nostalgic for his other home, Ethiopia.

In his late twenties, Daniel came back to Ethiopia to reunite with his parents for the first time. Even if he had contacts with his parents while he was back there, the reality was different for him.

“All the way through, it was an amazing and overwhelming experience. Everything seems beautiful but in my next visit the picture kind of tented. I am still learning about my country and its music. There are many things I still don’t know about,” said Daniel.

His first performance in Ethiopia was six years ago at the Coffee House with his own band and he says he enjoyed his experience there.

Rehearsing and preparing for another concert here in Addis Ababa as part of Selam Music Festival, which is going to be held today and tomorrow at Ghion Hotel, he still does not know what to expect.

“People here don’t know my music. So it’s hard to expect anything. Even if it’s not my first time to perform for a bigger audience, now I want them to know my music. That will be the next plan I will be working on,” concludes Daniel.

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