Capital: What made you decide on a music career and how did you kick start your career?
Dawit Senbetta: I loved listening to Walias Band on the radio as a child around the time that I was 8. Hailu Mergia on the keyboard was talented. His skills mesmerized me every time I listened to him and I got hooked to music ever since. I later fell in love with the piano notes in 8th grade when the school purchased a piano and left it in one of the classrooms. I felt as though the piano was calling me and I and the musical instrument were inseparable since. Often I would be caught playing the piano during class hours and would get in trouble with our Caucasian principle at the time. One notable time I fell at the principal’s feet so that he doesn’t report my skipping of class to my parents. Touched by my gesture I was allowed to play after class and on Saturdays. This in conjunction with my first live show that I attended at school by performances by Dereje Mekonnen and Abiy Mekonnen alongside two other musicians really played an instrumental role to shape me musically so to speak. Especially from the day that I witnessed my live concert, I knew I was going to be like them one day. The rest as they say is history and I still feel the same about it to this day.
Capital: So you’re a self-taught pianist. Did you receive further training in your musical career?
Dawit Senbetta: I sure was self-taught to some degree. I would try to mimic Hailu Mergia’s style of playing. I would also play Tilahun Gessesse and Bizunesh Bekele without knowing who they were, without even knowing the names of the records I tried to imitate. I kept copying the melody I would hear in their songs on the piano and that is how I taught myself. I also attended music school in America though I felt homesick after a year and joined Yared Music School where I graduated. The other trainings were of course from life upon performing in Addis Ababa University Cultural Band without pay, performing at staff weddings. I also joined Ethio Star Band after I graduated from music school. I played in that band alongside Bezawork Asfaw, Mohammed Tawil, Girma Chibsa, and Tewodros.
Capital: Your most popular song is “Honebin Tizita” which translates to “It has become a memory.” Could you please take us through the process of making that record?
Dawit Senbetta: The video was made by 3D Productions. I wasn’t originally planning to make a video for the record but the guys at the production company insisted on it. One of the staff members called me over to their office and they showed me the video they had made for it. I was extremely moved by it. It impeccably portrayed what my music was about. It even brought back some fond memories. The video was so beautiful that I couldn’t even stop sobbing so I felt like I couldn’t play my show that evening. I even told the director, Dawit Damte, that whether the song gains traction because of the video or not, it’s something that I will always cherish. The song was written by Yilma Gebreab who is one of the most dedicated writers I’ve ever worked with. He’s truly someone who loves his work and so humble as well. He wrote 7 of the songs on my album including Honebin Tizita. 2 of my songs were written by Minilik Wesnachew. I wrote the title song on the album.
Capital: Who are some of the artists that you admire?
Dawit Senbetta: Hailu Mergia is honestly one of the most talented instrumentalists. The more I stay in music, the more I am impressed by how he plays. Dereje Mekonnen is a close second to him. Nebiyou, who was Walias band organist, is very gifted as well.
Capital: What American artist’s music did you play often?
Dawit Senbetta: My brother had lots of vinyl records of Sam Cooke, Jim Reeves, and Frank Sinatra. Jim Reeves mostly sang gospel music. He was my father’s favorite specifically for that reason. My father was quite a religious man but he found a good balance in worldly life as well. He didn’t want us to listen to music other than gospel songs. I would listen to Jim Reeves often for this reason so when I started playing live, I played his music specifically his love songs. I wasn’t planning on playing his gospel music at a bar. I slowly started playing Frank Sinatra. My Way, Love Story and Killing Me softly and Jim Reeves’ I Love you because you’re were my favorite ones to play.
Capital: How do you see the future for your music?
Dawit Senbetta: I want to refine my singing and keep building on my preexisting works. I don’t plan on releasing any more albums if I’m being honest. I enjoy performing covers very much. I would like to add my signature technics to other musicians’ records. I enjoy performing live at Radisson Blu now. This is what I’d like to keep doing. Instead of recording my albums, I enjoy making music for my daughter as well. She is almost 18 now but she’s already quite the musician.
Capital: What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists?
Dawit Senbetta: Kids and youth these days have access to almost all they desire thanks to the internet. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can teach themselves so much through watching online videos. It’s much more convenient now to train yourself remotely. All you need is passion and the instruments. Things were way more difficult for us in the old days. We would keep listening to cassettes over and over again to learn the lyrics and play the background music. You don’t have to do all that now. While this is all good as is, it is now easier than ever to compare yourself with people who have had years of training or are just naturally talented. Seeing an 8-year-old guitar protégé playing better than you ever could any time soon as a 25-year-old could be demoralizing. You have to be extremely careful when it comes to comparison. You should admire the talent and learn at your own pace.
Capital: Where can we listen to your music?
Dawit Senbetta: I currently have been performing at Radisson Blu. The show starts at 7 PM on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. You can catch me playing live there. You can also listen to my music on my YouTube channel named after myself, Dawit Senbetta. My daughter also does music. She has a telegram channel called Nani’s Covers.