MUSIC OF ETHIOPIA & SOMALIA


ROUGH GUIDE TO ETHIOPIAN JAZZ (RGNET1350CD)

I know this genre has many fans. The Ethiopiques series on Buda has been growing for two decades now. In a recent interview Samy Ben Redjeb, the force behind the pathfinding Africa Analog label, said he was working on something Ethiopian, after meeting Alèmayèhu Eshèté, but the tracks he wanted ended up on Ethiopiques #28. Historians of the music say Armenians were sent there to train army musicians 40 years ago. Military and police bands were the source of the Ethiopian jazz movement. The pioneers include Mulatu Astatke who went to Wales to study engineering in the late 1950s but ended up getting involved in music instead, going on to Boston to study at Berklee College, where Quincy Jones, Jan Hammer, Juan Luis Guerra, Roy Hargrove and Donald Fagan also studied. Although most Ethiopian music is based on a pentatonic scale, Astatke found a diminished 12-tone scale among the Derashe people of Southern Ethiopia and wanted to foreground this in his music. By the late sixties Astatke was transforming the music scene in Addis with input from Gétatchèw Mekuria on saxophone. In 1973 Duke Ellington came to town with his orchestra and jammed with the locals. However only a year later a Soviet-backed military coup took over and imposed a curfew. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the failure of the Derg dictatorship in Addis that music re-emerged. In 1997 the Ethiopiques series was launched by Buda. I bought the first few then decided I didn't need 30 albums of exotic jazz, though no doubt some will say I have missed out on a great experience. (Liner notes include sentences like: "Mercifully we have not identified the alleged trumpet player," so you can guess what's in store in some of these tracks.) "Out jazz" I don't mind, but Out singing makes me edgy as manifest here on "Aykedashem Lebe" by Tlahoun Gessesse. Gabriella Ghermandi, on the other hand, sings like she listens to a lotta Lata Mangeshkar. (She has also published a novel in Italian.) Overall this is a fine introduction to the music, with some intriguing arrangements and the occasional shining talent on piano (Samuel Yirga), fiddle or sax. While Ethiopiques has put out a couple of samplers, this one takes three cuts from them and the other six are drawn from Daptone, Real World, Jazz Village and elsewhere.


LIGHT AND SOUND OF MOGADISHU (Afro7 AFRCD01)

I like Nilotic oud music, and once you get past Lake Turkana into Kenya I am all ears, but for some reason Ethiopian and Somali music doesn't grab me. Nevertheless I feel I should alert you to this new release because you may like it and in fact run out and buy it, and I wont stand in your way. It's eight tracks -- 42 minutes -- of rare grooves you've never heard before, assembled by the tireless Fred Lavik of Afro7.net -- one of the best and last places where you will find this kind of music for sale as original 45s, many of them previously unplayed. The first four tracks are from the Sharero Band who really work the seventies funk groove. Their leader, Ahmed Naaji, on organ, came from Somalia and worked at Radio Mogadishu as a bandleader, bringing Santana and James Brown sounds to town. The grooves are superb, it's the singing I can't take, I am sorry to say. Lavik licensed this compilation from the Light & Sound label and has tracked down the original artists to tell their stories (The detailed liner notes were written by Matthew Lavoie, formerly of the Voice of America). It's clear they were all much beloved throughout Somalia and the current tragic state of that country needs no explanation: suffice it to say the survivors are all expatriates now. In one bright note and a hope for renewal, John Beadle of the Likembe blog sends a link to an article (and video) about the ongoing effort to digitize the reel-to-reel tape archives of Radio Mogadishu. The second half of the disc (or B side of the LP) contains more traditional tunes, at least old melodies and instruments that remind me of John Storm Roberts' LP Jamiila -- Songs from a Somali City (Original Music, OMA 107) from 1987. The last three tracks are by a popular singer, Magool, who died in 2004 in Amsterdam. They are her hits from 1973.


DEBO BAND
FLAMINgoh (Pink Bird Dawn)

Readers sometimes ask me why I don't have a bigger Ethiopian section on here. I figure if you are into Ethiopian music you can buy all 500 volumes of Buda's Ethiopiques series and you will be happy. To me the sound is a bit too unworldly. I like some of the jazzier stuff, and even the odd funk or pop track, but the vocals, for the most part, are too much for me. Boston-based Debo Band is not that alien: they are a retro band playing 70s and 80s style Ethiopian funk. The vocals do sound strained to my ears, but there's rock guitar and jazz horns to counterbalance it. This is a live recording and they are clearly into it. It's only a 4-song EP but is packed with energy.


ADDIS ACOUSTIC PROJECT
TEWESTA ("Remembrance") (World Village 468091)

The answer to my problem with Ethiopian music is here. The melodies of the 50s and 60s, familiar to us from that endless series of CDs on Buda are revived in a different context. Instead of cheesy Farfisa and electric guitar we find mandolin and accordion. There's acoustic bass, and instead of fat horn lines a single clarinet. The whole thing has been toned down and made mellow, so mellow it's almost in the 'easy listening' category, but it has a jazz bite to keep your attention. The band is made up of veterans of the Addis scene. Formed by the accordion player Girum Mezmer, he tried out different permutations until he had the sound he wanted and then they gigged in Addis for two years before recording this, their debut album. Consequently it's really polished. The repertoire is mostly love songs. There's the occasional guest: Sudanese oud player Mahmed Elmak appears on "Fikir ayarejim (Love is eternal)" and "Enigenagnalen (We shall meet again)," a folk song, features mandolin and clarinet. The music is authentic yet has been updated with a jazzy sensibility which makes it timeless.


ETHIOPIQUES 8
SWINGING ADDIS (CRC 829282-2)

Some people can't get too much of a good thing, which is why the Ethiopiques series has now reached close to a thousand volumes. For me a little goes a long way. I have one album, Ahmed Mahmoud's ERE MELE MELA, that I like, on vinyl. I had it before the Ethiopiques series came along. It too has been reissued as part of the series, number 7, with extra tracks which don't improve it: in fact I prefer the LP, without the alternate takes. This is strange music, R&B backed, sometimes Bollywood-flavoured, strangely familiar but certainly strange. To me it's a music of extremes: either there's soporific sax or stressful singing. I am not comfortable with the Ethiopian vocal style and whenever there's a familiar sound, like a guitar solo, it seems highly derivative. When people would bug Cheb i Sabbah to play a certain tune he would ask them if they had the album, when they said yes, he would tell them to rush home and listen to it! When pseudo-hipsters would call during my radio show to ask for Ethiopian music I would put on Jabba the Hutt's palace band from the Star Wars soundtrack. Check it out, a pure Ethiopique groove! (It was one of the few things in the station library I could play, everything else was planned and brought from home in a large post office mail tub.) But just to make you ETHIOPIQUES devotees happy I present one outstanding album from the series. Alèmayèhu Eshèté (included here with 6 selections) is one of the best exponents of this music. His largest debt is to Soul Brother Number One James Brown. But it's not your average afro-funk groove. There's army fanfare guys playing the big horn choruses, cheesy wheezy Farfisa organ, and above all that Amharic plaint. This album is a bunch of hits (we must presume) from 1969 to 1975, put out by AMHA Records, a small local label during the final days of Haile Selassie. Influences from Archie Dell and the Drells to Wilson Pickett are apparent in every song. During the rule of the tinpot demi-urge most music was restricted to the Army Band, the Police Band, or the band of the Imperial Body Guard. AMHA was able to record and issue music without going to the censorship committee because things were in such turmoil. But things got worse after Selassie was deposed and a military junta took over putting an end to the swinging sixties that had flourished briefly in Addis. If you want to dip into the ETHIOPIQUES series this is a good introduction to the funkier (& slightly more accessible) flavours.


DUB COLOSSUS
A TOWN CALLED ADDIS (RealWorld USCDRW155)

Dub Colossus is Nick Page, I don't know how big he is (the only other colossus I know is Rhodes which is reduced to submerged ankles), but dub he does. Page started out working with Steel Pulse before taking up bass and mixology himself. He was a founder of Trans-global Underground and a major part of their 6 albums, writing, performing and producing. Now he is indulging his passion for the Ethiopiques series of CDs on Buda Musique which document the sound of swinging Addis in the waning years of the reign of Haile Selassie before the oppressive military regime of Mengistu wiped music off the sand-encrusted map. For A Town Called Addis he found some of the old nightclub crooners and musicians still extant and added a 70s dub sensibility. Imagine playing the Mighty Diamonds in one channel and Alemayehu Eshete in the other, but ultimately that's as close at it comes. Saxophonist Feleke Hailu (a classical composer, lecturer and head of music at the Yared Music School) sounds a bit like Kenny G, maybe it's just the echo, but then the pianist Samuel Yirga also opts for space rather than sound. Teremag Weretow adds his plaintive voice; while his messenqo, a scrapey one-string fiddle, is the most interesting non-Western instrument here. The Dub takes away the exotic edge of Ethiopia but it still has a dreamlike quality as snatches of organ or flute float by. It's not earth-shaking and I don't know how much I will listen to it, but it's worth checking out.