Not many TV homes, yet 'Idols' raises hope in Ethiopia

MUMBAI: "You sing like a donkey" is what the not-so-good contestants on Ethiopian Idols get to hear from the judges. In a country where there are hardly any television homes, Ethiopian Idols is surely a far cry from the glamour and glitz of its US, British and more recently, its Indian counterparts.

The sets have been hastily constructed in a shabby hotel restaurant while waiters peek in to see the performances. What's more, the contestants don't even have proper power and sound systems and have to deal with frequent power cuts.

Interestingly, the format and details of the show has been copied from Pop Idol without permission from its producers FremantleMedia, which owns the global intellectual rights of the show.

However, the production house has said that it did not want to force Ethiopian Idols off the air but does intend to charge a fee per episode.

What Ethiopian Idols does have in common with its global counterparts is an acerbic judge a la Simon Cowell and / or Anu Mallik. Ethiopian Idols judge Feleke Hailu sure lives up to his predecessors. The show has fast won the highest ratings on an otherwise dull state-run TV.

While Ethiopian Idols can't promise the riches or fame enjoyed by American and British winners, it does offer hope in an impoverished country where most of the 77 million people cannot afford a TV set. The show also has broken new cultural ground in the country.

Feleke's catch phrase -"Alta Fakedem," (You didn't make it) in Amharic - may seem meek compared to Cowell's biting reviews, but it has managed to cause a sensation in this tradition-bound culture. "Sometimes they get angry. The girls burst into tears and a few weeks ago one singer threw a stick at me after I told him he had failed to get through to the next round. The problem is in our culture. It is not common to tell the truth or criticise. People cannot take criticism," Feleke was quoted in a media report as saying.

One contestant Natinel paid $10 of his hard-earned savings to travel 300 miles from Gonder in northern Ethiopia to Addis Ababa to compete for the talent show. What attracts these aspiring and hopeful contestants is the prospect of winning a local record deal and as-yet-undetermined cash prize.

Close to 2,000 contestants participated and judges will then whittle them down to 96. The winner will be decided by the public by a phone-in ballot, which is the first time such polling will be used in Ethiopia.

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