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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 January 2006, 12:01 GMT
'Pop idol' fever sweeps Ethiopia
By Abdirahman Koronto
BBC, Addis Ababa

Ethiopia is the latest country to be caught up in "Pop Idol" mania, as hopefuls of all ages audition every week to win the coveted title.

Ethiopian Idols contestant
Contestants are encouraged to highlight Ethiopia's traditions

Of the 2,000 people who registered for Ethiopian Idols, some 600 contestants have made it through to the second round.

Although the Ethiopian version does not have official rights to use the Pop Idol name, the show has gained massive ratings for state-run TV and broken new ground in this rather conservative country.

As in the UK, where Simon Cowell made a name by ruthlessly tearing into the contestants' performances, the Ethiopian judges believe you sometimes have to be cruel to be kind.

Some singers have been told that they have voices like donkeys or dogs.

Others, however, have been given constructive advice and the four judges have tried to help those who are nervous about performing in the spotlight.

Hard to judge

At just 14, Radiet is one of the younger contestants.

But she says taking part so far has been a positive experience - she overcame her nerves to make it through to the second round.

It's a good start for Ethiopian society - We are too timid, we are afraid of our talent
Ethiopian girl
"At first, I was not impressed with the show but then I saw many young people taking part, so I decided to join in," she said.

One big difference with the show in the UK and US is that contestants can perform in any one of 80 languages.

Another is that contestants can tell jokes or dance, as well as sing.

Panellist and music producer Dagmawi Ali insists that he is able to judge a performance, even if he does not understand the words.

"I've been working with a lot of singers - from the east, from the north and from the south. It's easy to judge contestants with their own melody and musical style, not just the lyrics."

Organiser Jamal Ahmed says that no one language is favoured over any other in the contest.

The winner could be anyone from anywhere in the country - whoever is the most talented, he says.

Cultural invasion?

As a judge, Mr Dagmawi says the first thing he is looking for is vocal talent, followed by highlighting their culture.

The judges have told contestants they sing like donkeys

Unsurprisingly, the show is most popular among young Ethiopians.

"It's a good start for Ethiopian society," one girl told me.

"We are too timid, we are afraid of our talent."

But not everyone sees the show in a positive light - some critics see it as a form of cultural invasion.

Helina Teferra, the managing director of a cultural and arts promoting company, denies this.

"It is not a cultural invasion - people are performing in their own languages," she says.

"We can take good parts from other countries to develop our own talent."

Copyright concern

Despite the show's huge domestic success, Mr Jamal says he is worried about the lack of copyright for Ethiopian Idols.

Cameramen filming Ethiopian Idol
The show has gained record ratings
He says he tried to contact the copyright-holders in the UK but said he would not be able to pay a large amount of money for a licence, as he is still repaying the money he borrowed to launch the show.

Whatever the legal situation internationally and the domestic controversy, Ethiopian Idols looks as though it is here to stay.

The current round of judging is only just beginning but it will be a long time before the contestants - and thousands of TV fans around the country - know who has been chosen as the winner.

The audience and professionals are not due to decide between the 10 lucky finalists until September.

BBC Network Africa will broadcast some of the entries to Ethiopian Idols on Saturday.

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