THE SOUND OF ETHIO-JAZZ:
Shift through the many varied moods of Ethiopian Jazz music with my picks to get you started:
1. MULATU ASTATKE:
“Tezetayé Antchi Lidj (Baby, My Unforgettable Remembrance)” from Ethiopiques Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz and Musique Instrumentals 1969-1974 (2003)
Long regarded as the pinnacle of the whole Ethiopiques series, this grooving compilation presents all the facets of the early Astatke sound. Its no wonder Duke Ellington was taken by Mulatu’s music when he visited Ethiopia in the early 1970s. My favorite is this utterly sublime Mulatu piano-led track featuring the snaking horns and impressionistic rhythm section typifying the best Mulatu tracks.
2. MAHMOUD AHMED:
“Belaya Belaya” from Ethiopiques Vol. 19: Alemye 1974 (2004)
One of the few, full complete albums available from the eastern Soul Brother #1: Mahmoud Ahmed. This track shows the heavy mix of polyrhythmic grooves and horn accompaniment Mahmoud favored for his soul-pleading vocalizations.
3. TILAHUN GESSESSE
“Aykedashem Lebe” from Ethiopiques Vol. 17: Tlahoun Gésséssé (2005)
All it takes is mere seconds of this track to realize why Tilahun is nicknamed “The Voice.” This ex-Imperial Bodyguard matches the dexterity of his note jumping horn and funk guitar rhythm section with vocal gymnastics most musicians would fail to land.
4. GETATCHEW MEKURYA:
“Almaz Yeharerwa” from Ethiopiques Vol. 14: Negus of Ethiopian Sax (2004)
Treating the sax like a battle cry, this former Police Orchestra member attacked melodies with unmatched ferocity. So unconventional is Getatchew’s free jazz style that a post-punk band like The Ex wouldn’t sound out of place backing him up.
5. ALEMAYEHU ESHETE AND HIRUT BEQELE:
“Temeles” from Ethiopiques Golden Years of Ethiopian Music (2009)
A two-fer. This was the golden era when two titans of Ethiopian pop were bridging the gap from the past to the future with a Motown-meets-African psychedelia sound.
6. AYALEW MESFIN AND THE BLACK LION BAND:
“Feqer Aydelem Wey” from Ethiopiques Vol. 13: Ethiopian Groove (2004)
Favoring melodies either played on the harp or electric guitar, Feqer aptly named his backing group the Black Lion Band. When those first angular notes start playing, it’s best to just give this sound its proper respect. It’s Ayalew’s vocals that will play band tamer in the end…
7. TSEGUE-MARYAM GUÉBROU:
“Mother’s Love” from Ethiopiques Vol. 21: Emahoy (2005)
If, I had the time, and the wherewithal, whole reams of stories can be penned of Tsegue-Maryam. Devoting her life to helping the poor and exalting Ethiopian music from its beginnings, her minimalist self-penned piano works drawn from such influences, display a subtlety that wouldn’t sound out of place in any modern classical concert hall.
8. ALI MOHAMMED BIRRA:
“Eshurruru” from Ethiopiques Vol. 28: Great Oromo Music (2013)
Born in the eastern region of Ethiopia, Ali would be lucky to scratch out a living. Deploying a unique kirar-influenced guitar picking style he became the Oromo people’s unofficial musical ambassador.
9. TSEHAYTU BERAKI:
“Hadarey” from Ethiopiques Vol. 5: Tigrigna Music 1970-1975 (2004)
These are the gems still being rediscovered. A true guitar hero, Tsehaytu created an unique form of Eritrean blues which drew from her mastery of kirar and choice to play all instruments that were laid on tape.
10. MULATU ASTATKE AND THE HELIOCENTRICS:
“Blue Nile” from Inspiration Information 3 (2009)
Proving that Ethio-Jazz still has plenty to say, Mulatu’s recent work with experimental jazz-funkateers the Heliocentrics defines how malleable this music is. The instruments may be a little different but the spirit remains the same…