Back in the '80s Ethiopian music was extremely hard to come by outside of Ethiopia. Mahmoud Ahmed's brilliant Ere Mela Mela was released on LP by the Belgian label Crammed Discs around 1985, and later in the decade the exile singer Aster Aweke released Aster, recorded in the UK with mainly non-Ethiopian backup musicians. That was just about it, unless you were lucky enough to know Ethiopians who could supply you with scratchy, poorly dubbed cassettes from the motherland.
All that changed in the '90s when political change opened the country up. A fine collection of traditional and modern music, Music From Ethiopia (Caprice CAP 21432) came out in 1992, and within a few years the incredible Ethiopiques series opened the world's ears to the classic sounds of "Swingin' Addis" from the '60s and early '70s.
When it became possible for Ethiopian musicians to travel freely it was only natural that they would gravitate to U.S. recording studios, and in the last 15 years there has arisen a robust market in CDs made here. For the most part these are "under the radar" - not available through the usual "World Music™" outlets like Sterns. The main issue I have with these American recordings is the overwhelming use of synthesizers. That said, many of these productions are surprisingly sophisticated, a far cry from the rinky-dink keyboards and drum machines of much contemporary African music.
Let's listen to some of these recordings from "Digital Ethiopia." This is Part One of a two-part post.
I became familiar with Tilahun Gessesse through Ethiopian friends in the '80s. A brilliant and passionate singer, Gessesse got his start during the 1950s with the Hager Fikr Theater and later moved on to the Imperial Bodyguard Band. I didn't want to like his debut US release, the 2-CD set Tilahun Gessesse in the US (Ethio-Groove MCD-1181, 1992). Its slick production, presenting the great maestro in "crooner" mode, varies greatly from the raw, unbridled sound of his Ethiopian recordings, but damn if it didn't grow on me - what a singer! At this point I'd rate Tilahun Gessesse in the US one of my fave African recordings. Here are two songs from the 27-track setlist, and I promise that sometime in the future I will post some of Tilahun's wonderful Ethiopian recordings:
Tilahun Gessesse - Melelayet Mot New
Tilahun Gessesse - Ewedish Nebere
Menelik Wossenachew is another old-timer who was a member of the Haile Sellasie I Theatre Orchestra and the Ras Band back in the 1960s and had a number of hits including "Fiqir Bastergwami," "Fiqir Ayaregim" and "Sukuar Sukuar." You can hear one of his early recordings here. I really enjoyed his CD Gash Jembere! (Ethio-Grooves EG95-2, 1995), especially this, the title track:
Menelik Wossenachew - Gash Jembere!
And I just had to include this peculiar but very enjoyable, almost "country-western" tune from the same CD. Check out the wonderful tenor sax solo by Moges Habte:
Menelik Wossenechew - Yeayne Tesfa
The Oromo people are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, although they have been historically subordinated by the dominant Amhara. One of the most popular Oromo musicians back in the '80s was Mohammed Tawil, who now apparently lives in the US. You can see a video by him here. Here's a tune from his 1997 CD Changes (Tawil Production):
Mohammed Tawil - Si-Si
In all of Africa, American-style "jazz" music (as opposed to the various "jazz" groups that play local styles) has taken root in only two countries, South Africa and Ethiopia. That jazz has caught on at all in the latter country is due mainly to the efforts of one man, the pianist and vibraphonist Mulatu Astatqé. His "Ethio-Jazz" style, combining the results of ten years studying and playing music in London and New York with Ethiopian tradition, is brilliantly showcased in the CD Ethiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974 (Buda Musique 82964-2). Serendipitously, this record was the basis for the soundtrack of the 2005 movie Broken Flowers, directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Bill Murray.
During a later US sojourn, Astatqé recorded Assiyo Bellema (Ethio-Grooves, 1994) with a group of mainly American musicians. While not as interesting in my opinion as his Ethiopian recordings, it has its moments. Here's a tune featuring the vocalist Teshome Mitiku:
Mulatu Astatke w. Teshome Mitiku - Wello
Tilaye Gebre also stakes his claim to the jazz idiom. His Endless Dream (Shakisso Music Productions 001, 1995) wouldn't be out of place on one of those "Smooth Jazz" radio stations, with it seamless blend of synthesizer and saxophone, but I love it nonetheless - Gebre's just too talented a musician. He too served his musical apprenticeship at the Haile Sellasse I Theatre, then graduated to the Equators and Dahlak Bands. While on a tour of the U.S. with the Walias Band, he decided to stay, and has become a sought-after session musician for acts like Aster Aweke and Mahmoud Ahmed. Here's my favorite tune from Endless Dream:
Tilaye Gebre - Yenigat Kokeb/Yelelit Berehane
If you're interested in getting some of these recordings online, I can't promise anything, but you might try AIT Records or Nahom Records. Otherwise, investigate your nearest Ethiopian restaurant or grocery store. In "Digital Ethiopia Pt. 2" I'll be posting songs by some great female singers as well as some other goodies.