Helen Meles’ biography is the story one of the biggest African stars of the early 21st century. She established herself as a talented singer, song writer and bona fide diva during her two decade long musical career. She has become one of the biggest selling Eritrean artists of all time, and has captured the hearts and minds of Eritreans and neighboring African countries alike.
In her early years, Helen Meles joined the EPLF (Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front) at the age of 13. Like many Eritreans, both her parents were also fighters of the Eritrean liberation struggle. Helen was brought up in ‘Biet tmhrti sewra’ (EPLF’s revolutionary school). Her friends describe her as a free-spirited and rebellious individual who was not afraid to show her ‘other’ sides of her personalities. During those revolutionary years, a fighter who showed other inclinations, including his/her artistic sides, could easily be misunderstood.
Helen has two sisters named Aster and Senait, and an older brother named Mikael (better known as “wedi Meles”). Like Helen, her older brother Mikael Meles was also a fighter and a singer, who was one of the first students of biet tmhrti (shool of) sewra of the EPLF. He would end up being heavily wounded in the pitched battles of the 6th Offensive in 1982, he was almost given up for dead and his comrades were ready to bury him when another comrade insisted that they first take him to the frontline’s hospital, where he was saved and through the excellent medical care fully recovered his wounds and returned to frontline duty after four months. Many of Mikael Meles’s comrades recall his exceptional intelligence and amazing heroic feats and describe him in glowing terms not only as a brave warrior, but also as a gifted and sensitive artist who composed many songs and acted in several skits on stage.
One of his memorable songs, “abiet SnAt abiet qoraSnet,” whose lyrics have hidden meanings of the heroism and martyrdom of his comrades on the HalHal Front, was later redone by his younger sister Helen Meles in her first CD release. A few days after meeting his sister Helen in 1990, Mikael, who by this time had risen to be the leader of a bren (heavy) machinegun platoon, was wounded in the battle to liberate Massawa, and martyred from enemy’s aerial bombardment while on his way to the hospital.
In 1998 BBC interview, Helen recalled the reaction of many Eritrean women from traditional communities when they first joined the battlefields. Helen Stated: “It was very difficult for them; even wearing trousers was strange and they were shocked when they had to share a blanket or bed with the men”. However, By the end of the war in 1991 the lives of Eritrean women had changed so much they were determined not to go back to their traditional old roles.
In 2007, Helen married an Eritrean saxophonist named Issac Asefaw. Their wedding was held in Asmara, Eritrea and many Eritrean musicians such as Bereket Mengisteab and others performed at her highly anticipated wedding. In early 2008, Helen gave birth to her first child, a boy. The following year, she gave birth to her second child, whom also is a boy. It is generally believed Helen is now in her late thirties or exactly 40 years of age.
Helen is a highly passionate artist who reads and is responsive to her own feelings, a trait which is not clearly exhibited in many artists, especially those from the fighter community. One can feel the throbbing of her soulful voice which sends strong vibes all over. Her beauty is mesmerising and it can be described by her proud and majestic posture and her profile can be sketched by her captivating facial expressions while doing her dance routines. Strangely, if one is not familiar with her history, she does not exhibit any indication of the harsh life she led in the battlefields of Eritrea in her looks. Indeed, she was a combatant with a strong touch of music in her. Although somewhat camouflaged, perhaps carefully depicted, she seems to elegantly include her past experiences in her some of her songs. One can’t help but wonder how she really dealt with the bloody past that miraculously generated a strong sense of love amongst the fighters. That interesting but contradictory personal struggle that took place in the battlefields of Eritrea is demonstrated in the voice and bursting and sensuous movements, not necessarily in her lyrics.
Helen’s expertise lies in popular music which encompasses a wide range of styles of both local and international origins. She takes Tigrinya music to a different level by mixing traditional and modern music which is influenced by European, Arabic and African music. For instance, (only junior to the Creator) can be described as one of the most interesting songs from the ‘ResAni’ CD because of its new style which Ms Helen introduces in the song – a mixture of South African beat accompanied by a gospel-like sound.
Helen can easily be compared to the diva of the Eritrean music scene of the sixties and seventies, Mrs Tberh Tesfahunegn, who instilled a strong patriotic feeling in many young Eritreans of the time. Both Mrs Tberh and Mrs Helen sing from the heart and their musical styles, although separated by decades of events and technological developments, are interestingly similar. It is vague how deep Mrs Helen’s knowledge of Mrs Tberh is, as there exists a generational divide between them. But they both share a precious experience in the liberation struggle within the EPLF camp.
One can feel that there is a controversy in her style, as opposed to her lyricists’ and composer/producers’ input in her songs. It is bit confusing to tell whether they compliment each other or simply tear each other apart beautifully. Whether they are at odds or compliment each other, the end product is highly interesting. On the other hand, Mr MuKtar Saleh’s smooth composition and Mr Solomon Drar, Mr Solomon Berhane, and Mr Samuel Almede’s lyrics find an excellent niche in Helen’s remarkable talents. This applies to Mrs Tberh’s songs as well, as many would question whether she was representing the feelings of the great musical master, Mr Asres Tessema, or she was equally powerful in her presentation.
It would be interesting to see how Mrs Meles’s confident demeanor, her untamed passion, her eloquent language of the heart, and most of all, her powerful voice can yet again transform Eritrean music into another level in the coming decade. Helen Meles has surpassed being Eritrea’s top diva and is only matched by South Africa’s Yvonne Chaka Chaka as Africa’s greatest female musician.