I'll never forget the first time I heard Ethiopian music. I was in a restaurant called The Blue Nile in Tribeca around 1982 or '83, long since closed although I believe there is now another restaurant by that name in Manhattan. There was a scratchy, much-dubbed cassette playing on the sound system. The instrumentation was pure American R&B, but the vocals, well, the vocals were something else entirely. It was hard to explain but the overall effect sent chills up and down my spine. Other people have since told me that they had the exact same reaction the first time they heard these enigmatic sounds.
In 1985 I started doing "African Beat," a weekly program for WYMS-FM in Milwaukee, and through the show started to come in contact with Ethiopians living in town. Most of them described themselves as political exiles, Ethiopia at that time being ruled by a military dictatorship, the Derg, that called itself "Scientific Socialist." Of course I nagged them mercilessly for music from their homeland, and they were happy to comply. They loaned me about ten cassettes, and my love affair with Ethiopian music was rekindled.
The music industry in Ethiopia in the 1980s was in a state of meltdown. Shortly after the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, production of vinyl recordings ended, and the political turmoil of the time, with the Derg and its rivals engaged in a bloody civil war, meant a more or less permanent curfew and the resulting disappearance of nightlife.
But Ethiopian music persevered. There being no record pressing plants or professional cassette-duplicating facilities, the various music shops - Electra, Ambassel, Kaifa and the like - took matters into their own hands. Musicians were contracted with, master tapes were recorded, cassettes were dubbed one-by-one on cheap boomboxes, and distributed throughout Ethiopia by the hundreds of thousands.
Francis Falceto's Ethiopiques series on Buda is justly renowned for bringing to light the classic Ethiopian recordings of the Imperial Era. In the liner notes of Ethiopiques 20: Either/Orchestra (Buda 860121, 2005), Falceto decries the current state of Ethiopian music for its lack of adventurousness and reliance on junky synthesizers, as contrasted with the artistic expermentation and professionalism of "The Golden Years."
I certainly don't disagree with Falceto's assessment of the current state of the Ethiopian music scene, but I just can't buy his implicit dismissal of the Derg years as a musical desert. Keep in mind that it was during this era that the renowned singer Aster Aweke began her career, as did Efrem Tamirru, Hamelmal Abate, Martha Ashegare and a host of other artists. Moreover, the great singers of the classic period - Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud Ahmed and the like - did some of their most memorable work under the Derg (Ere Mela Mela, anyone?).
One of the singers who got her start in Addis Ababa in the early Eighties is Kuku Sebsebe, whose cassette Munaye (Electra Music Shop, ca. 1985) ranks as one of the greatest Ethiopian recordings ever. I would rate it, actually, one of my ten favorite African recordings of all time. Like many Ethiopians, Kuku lived in exile in Washington, DC, and recorded several CDs there. She is said to have returned permanently to Ethiopia in 2003.
My fervent hope is that someday Munaye will be reissued in the format that it deserves, remastered from the original master tapes. Until that day I present it to you now, digitized from one of those homemade Ethiopian cassettes. I have also included three tunes by Kuku Sebsebe from the compilation tape Ambassel Bidiyona Muziqa Mdbere (Ambassel Music Shop, ca. 1985). In case you want to make your own CD, I've provided front and back covers.
Kuku Sebsebe - Benafeqote Newe
Kuku Sebsebe - Hodiya
Kuku Sebsebe - Yagere Watat
Kuku Sebsebe - Feqreh Beretabenye
Kuku Sebsebe - Munaye
Kuku Sebsebe - Bleby Gwadana (Instrumental)
Kuku Sebsebe - Bleby Gwadana
Kuku Sebsebe - Iny Webe Qonjo
Kuku Sebsebe - Sayehe Dese Yeloale
Kuku Sebsebe - Yanene Yegy Uga
Kuku Sebsebe - Dany Belewe
Kuku Sebsebe - Instrumental
Kuku Sebsebe - Ugawe Glegamy
Kuku Sebsebe - Iaregale
Kuku Sebsebe - Klete Igy Mewe Dede
Not knowing even a shred of Amharic, I transliterated the song titles from the cassette track listing (right), using a table of the Ge'ez Syllabary. The results don't look quite "right," so anybody with knowledge of the language is warmly invited to correct me.