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Music With a Message

Ethiopian Band's International Chords

Singers Visiting United States Decide to Stay, Start New Life Based at Washington Church

By Arielle Levin Becker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page C05

Between classes, jobs and teaching Sunday school at their church, the four members of AFG Gospel Band squeeze in practice time, usually Saturday mornings.

It's not an unusual story for a fledgling band determined to keep up the music while trying to stay afloat.

The AFG Gospel Band -- Shewangizaw Beyene, left, Motuma Sima, Berissa Lamessa and Biniam Bezabih -- has performed in its Ethiopian homeland, Europe and the United States, and now is based in the District. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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But for Shewangizaw Beyene, Motuma Sima, Berissa Lamessa and Biniam Bezabih, it's another chapter in their musical group's history, which has spanned nearly a decade, two continents and adjustment to a new life in the United States.

It's been little more than a year since the four traveled from their native Ethiopia for a church conference in Atlanta on what was supposed to be a short stay.

Instability in Ethiopia convinced them that after they got here, they could not go back.

"We just decided that we have to leave and come here and find a place to start a new life," Beyene said.

Through a network of church leaders and family members, they made their way from Atlanta to Washington, which has one of the nation's largest communities of members of the Oromo ethnic group, which makes up about 35 percent of Ethiopia's population.

Since then, they have lived in a hostel at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northwest Washington, which holds services in Oromifa and Amharic, two languages spoken in Ethiopia, each Sunday. Though they all had completed high school back home, they enrolled in the Academy of Hope, an adult education program in the District, to earn U.S. general equivalency diplomas.

Beyene, 27, received his diploma and began taking classes at the University of the District of Columbia last week. Lamessa, 27, and Sima, 26, have also attended the Academy of Hope, and all four plan to attend colleges in the area. Bezabih, 27, who did not attend the Academy of Hope, hopes to attend Prince George's Community College.

The band -- the "AFG" in its name stands for "All for God, All From God" -- also released a CD, "The Gospel According to Reggae," which it recorded in Ethiopia. It features songs in a mix of English, Amharic and Oromifa. They focus on familiar topics such as war, hunger and AIDS, which plague their homeland and which they say the church must become more active in combating.

In Ethiopia, they said, people with AIDS are often isolated. They can lose their jobs or be kicked out of their homes.

"We have a responsibility, the church has a responsibility, and we as a group have a responsibility to address this issue," Beyene said.

The nation's high AIDS rate, particularly among young people, means nearly everyone in Ethiopia is affected by the disease, Beyene said.

"It's like almost losing the future of the country," he said.

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