Éthiopiques: Music from Addis Ababa

by Kiko Matsing

Éthiopiques 4 Éthiopiques 7
Éthiopiques 14 Éthiopiques 20

It’s amazing how one thing leads to another: Mulatu Astatqé’s catchy music tracks in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (see my previous blog entry) has opened up a whole new world of Ethiopian jazz/funk/soul music to me. His music made such an impression (it lingered for a while in my head like smoke in cabaret lounges), that I had to know more about the artist and that entire musical milieu. Enter Éthiopiques–the series of now twenty-something CDs from Buda Musique that remastered and re-released Ethiopian/Amharic music from the 1960s and 70s. I stumbled upon Gétatchèw Mèkurya’s Éthiopiques volume at the public library whilst looking for more of Mulatu Astatqé’s and found myself equally stunned by the saxophonist’s “primal and shamanic” rhythms.

I was surprised Broken Flowers was Astatqé’s film debut, after having discovered that he was already in his fifties. How can these foot-tapping, can’t-get-outta-my-head beats not been used before? It seems that I am not alone in rediscovering Ethiopian music.

“A golden age of Ethiopian music was brought to an end by the Mengistu dictatorship (1974-1991), during which many musicians emigrated, and the current scene in Ethiopia is as a result little-known outside the country. What we do know is largely thanks to the energetic and selfless work of Francis Falceto and his hugely admired Éthiopiques series for Buda.” (from Simon Broughton, Songlines)

Today, I got my mp3 albums of volumes 4 and 20 from Amazon. Thanks to the series Éthiopiques, this long-neglected but important ramification of jazz music is slowly being brought to light.

Mulatu Astatqé

Metche dershe from Éthiopiques 4: Ethiojazz et musique instrumentale 1969-1974

An album of instrumentals, Ethiopiques Volume 4 is a case study in the inventive blending of influences that comprised the Ethiopian groove. Strains of funk and reggae timings permeate the thick and chunky bass lines, which are pushed prominently forward in the mix. Multiple saxophones swirl with the hypnotic, snake-charming sounds of the East, while at the same time resonating with jazzy tones reminiscent of John Coltrane and Lester Young.

Guitar is a main ingredient here, growling with funky distorted wah-pedaled fuzz riffs that sound like they were lifted straight out of an early ’70s black-exploitation flick. Drums and percussion combine the punchy funk of James Brown and the Meters with the heavy Latin rhythms of Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. (from John Ballon, 4 Oct 2008, www.musthear.com)

Gétatchèw Mèkurya

Shellèla from Éthiopiques 14: Negus of Ethiopian Sax

Primal and shamanic, Mekurya’s playing evokes something of saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, with all their passion and in-the-moment invention (though none of Ayler’s extended altissimo screeching), with a shot of honking tenor men Big Jay McNeely and Willis Jackson thrown in for added funk.

But the relationship is an illusory one: Mekurya’s style developed in complete isolation from the US free jazz it distantly and tangentially resembles, and is entirely Ethiopian in origin and form. It’s based on a specialised genre of traditional vocal music sung by warriors before going into battle—pumped up, epic, threatening and boastful, harsh and hoarse-voiced—with discursive modal improvisation at its core. Unlike its US resonances, it’s mostly performed in 3/4 time, from slow and menacing through fast and furious. The instrumental variant developed in Addis Ababa dancehalls in the early to mid 1950s. (from Chris May, 28 Sep 2007, www.allaboutjazz.com)

Mahmoud Ahmed

Belomi benna from Éthiopiques 7: Erè mèla mèla

Born on May 8th 1941, Mahmoud Ahmed evolved from a shoe shine boy in the rough streets of Addis Abeba to become Ethiopia’s most famous international singer. In 1986 he broke through internationally with “Erè Mèla Mèla”, a Crammed Disc re-release of his 1975 album. Modern Ethiopian music had just arrived on the Western music markets and Ahmed’s dancy urban pop, drenched in funk and jazz, made him hugely popular with the Ethiopian diaspora. His pentatonic singing has best been captured by the classic “Ethiopiques” collection. In 2005, its producer Francis Falceto brought out a 19th compilation in the series, featuring a superb 1974 concert by Ahmed. In 2007, Ahmed won a BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music. That same year, four of his songs were featured in the landmark release The Very Best of Ethiopiques. (from Daniel Brown, Aug 2007, mondomix.com)


Embi ba (gouragué) from Éthiopiques 20: Live in Addis

In 1994, Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon heard the first of Falceto’s compilations, Ethiopian Groove. Within a couple of years, the Grammy-nominated arranger began adding Ethiopian songs to the ten-piece ensemble’s already eclectic repertoire. This material became the hit of the E/O’s set, and led to contact with Falceto and ultimately an invitation to the 2004 Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Ababa, the first US big band in Ethiopia since Duke Ellington in 1973.

In Addis, the E/O wowed music fans with their contemporary interpretations of familiar popular tunes, and invited Mulatu Astatke, Getachew Mekurya, Bahta G. Hewet and others to join them on stage for a thrilling concert. (from the E/O website)

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