Ethiopian Popular Music

Ethiopia

Self-proclaimed “obsessive music nut, journal-keeper and review-writer” William Hall wrote a guest post for us last August about his specialist music blog Dig That Treasure! This month Will has kindly agreed to share with us a further ten handpicked tracks from one of his own favourite musical genres…

Type a quick search into Google containing the words ‘African music’ and ‘indie’ and various music media outlets will enthusiastically point you in the direction of the influence of West African afrobeat and/or highlife on the Western Hemisphere’s independent rock scene. They’re not wrong: David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label has bridged continents while maintaining a sense of authenticity, and, less faithfully, bands like Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer have played around with diluted ‘Afro-’ influences. Yet the region of Africa that piques my interest most is the East and, more specifically, Ethiopia. Buda Musique’s ‘Éthiopiques’ series brought traditional Ethiopian music to the fore and legendary filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers soundtrack created waves with its seriously cool Ethio-Jazz stylings. Éthiopiques - click to zoom image in new window

As for influence on the actual sound of Western pop, one only needs to look as far as Ariel Pink’s 2010 track ‘Reminiscences(see original source), The Go! Team’s jumble sale sampling on ‘Back Like 8 Track(see original source) or the sunny pop of LA’s Fool’s Gold on ‘Nadine‘ for examples of Ethiopia’s musical outreach. This fascination with Ethiopia’s music may be due to the country’s rich cultural history; the country is Africa’s only state to have never been colonised. And, other than when the Russian Empire’s Tsar Nicholas II supposedly gave a few dozen brass instruments to Ethiopia as a gift at the end of the 19th century, outside influence on the country has been minimal. Naturally, Ethiopia’s music scene has developed with technological advances – synthesisers and computers becoming more prominent – but rather than compromising Ethiopian heritage and adopting the stylings of Western Pop, Ethiopian music has instead taken these tools and blended them effortlessly with their own musical tradition.

BODEGA BLOGS

A rise in what I like to call ‘bodega blogs’ has also led to an increase in awareness for Ethiopian pop music. While the Éthiopiques series has formally released anthologies of the country’s music, these blogs (often run by just one person) post biographies of otherwise unheard of artists that are available at the simple click of a button. Bodega Pop

Of course, just as many have criticised the digitalisation of Ethiopian music, many will also criticise the rise of these ‘bodega blogs’. Some may argue they devalue the music and make it too readily available for too low a cost, or often none at all; others may criticise the lack of contextual knowledge and understanding that the author of the blog holds. Regardless, what these people are doing is exposing fantastic art to a wider audience. Old lo-fi cassette releases, likely sold in the market stalls of Addis Ababa, are converted to mp3 where they can then be consumed in a far easier and more modernistic way. Ethiopian fans will offer a helping hand and translate biographies, track names and lyrics, and the collaborative result is an online library of stunning, completely ‘new’ musics. This is cyber crate-digging; internet-age ethnomusicological field work.Ethio-Pain-Music blog

Acts previously unheard before in the West are being lauded, booked for shows and – in many cases – making money from work that they’d never previously earned from. Most importantly, however, is the indelible value of opening the minds (and ears) of new audiences outside of Ethiopia. A rich history of folk musics, jazz and ever-developing pop music has been unearthed and is ready for the ears of the internet. This music, passionate, emotive and curious is ready for a new audience’s passion, emotion and curiosity!

TEN OF THE BEST

Picking only a handful of acts from the country’s range of fantastic performers was difficult, but I’ve settled with ten that I’d like to share, starting with arguably the country’s most influential group, Roha Band. Roha Band

Recording literally hundreds of songs over their career (1979 – 1994), Roha Band defined a sound that blended keyboards with more traditional live brass, along with typically hypnotic basslines and polyrhythms. A group like no other, they’ve been described as “to Ethiopia what The Beatles were to Britain” and acted as a backing band to some of Ethiopia’s finest singers. For instance Mahmoud Ahmed (hear his entire 1986 album with the group), Neway Debebe (see his song ‘Maebel‘) and Hamelmal Abate (check out ‘Endemal Kere‘). The latter two singers also performed on Roha Band’s 1990 North American tour (see album sleeve above), a recording of which I posted online. It is highly recommended and a great place to start with Ethiopian Pop. It also includes the classic ‘Maebel’, a favourite of mine, referred to earlier.

Another Roha Band regular was 90s icon Aster Aweke, an artist who remains one of Ethiopia’s most popular recording artists, despite having spent over thirty years living in the US. Her song ‘Segno‘ is unlike most Ethiopian Pop due to its glossy, polished production. Aster Aweke

The song’s rhythmic hyperactivity and – most notably – Amharic vocals keep it characteristically Ethiopian, just also with a hint of American glamour. The song also features one of my favourite introductions, one that throws the listener right into the middle of the melodic mayhem, before settling down into a smooth Jazzy groove. Offering what is probably the most idiosyncratic voice in Ethiopian Pop is Yeshimebet Dubale whose spine-tingling vocals, for me, somehow set her apart from a crowd of already ridiculously talented musicians. It was her song ‘I Remember A Man‘ that was covered by Ariel Pink in 2010. This artist’s standout recording has got to be her duet ‘Liyish‘ (below) with Kennedy Mengesha, whose stunning vocals compliment Dubale’s perfectly. A saxophone provides a third ‘voice’ in the mix, completing what is one of my favourite Ethiopian pop songs ever.

Moving towards more traditional Ethiopian sounds, Selomon Shibeshi is a musician who seemingly only released one single. Nevertheless, that single, ‘Fikre Tetchawetchi‘, is about as cool as music gets, a horn-driven jam that makes you wish Shibeshi had released more! The late (Colonel) Lemma Demissew took a slightly different approach to traditional Ethio-Jazz, opting for piano as his weapon of choice. His track ‘Lezelalem Nuri‘ is as fun as it is tight – and it’s pretty damn tight! His obituary gives a detailed account of his life and is available to read on the Addis Journal. The tenth and final musician I’d like to talk about is one who also utilised the piano as the centre of their music, the one-of-a-kind Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

As a child she studied in Switzerland before being taken prisoner in Italy during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. When the war ended, she moved back over to her home country and joined a monastery where she became a nun, whilst also continuing to study piano and violin. As a result, her music comes across as a fragile, yet sophisticated and wise. A great example of her work is ‘Présentiment’, a piece that, like the rest of her compositions, has touches of Erik Satie to it but is ultimately a unique blend of life experience and rare talent.

So there you have it: ten of the finest, most talented Ethiopian musicians to explore, appreciate and learn from. Each of these musicians embodied the traditions of their unique and historically rich country in different ways, whilst also unintentionally influencing a whole new generation of musicians in the West. They not only wrote the history of Ethiopia’s popular music, but have changed the sound of the Western Hemisphere’s, too.

Will Hall

Guest Post by William Hall You can follow Will on Twitter and Facebook. You can also subscribe to his RSS feed for regular updates of obscure releases, lost demos, alternate versions and underrated new releases posted at digthattreasure.blogspot.co.uk

Guest Post

One of a series of guest posts from bands, bloggers and other colleagues writing about their current projects.

3 Comments

  1. Tom

    Thanks so much for a brilliantly informative guest blog Will – all of these were new to me and a real joy to discover…

  2. Tom, don’t forget Haiki from Ethiopia, now living in Nottingham, was featured on your show a couple of years ago, and on London Live TV last week

  3. great website for ethiopian music

    http://www.zafany.com/

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