Various Artists - Ethiopiques, Vol. 1: Golden Years Of Modern Ethiopian Music [Buda Musique, 1998]


The Ethiopiques series, chronicling the Golden Age of Ethiopian Jazz from 1969 - 1978, was brought to mass consciousness due to Jim Jarmusch's 2005 film Broken Flowers. In this film, Don Johnston (Bill Murray) receives a letter informing him he has a 19 year old son, but the mother does not reveal herself. He embarks upon a cross-country quest, seeking to solve the mystery. The spirit of travel, of mystery, of romance and heart-break is captured eloquently with the tight and fierce souljazzfunk of Ethiopian Jazz.

Drawing mainly from the archives of Amha Records, these recordings were captured after the end of the reign of Halle Salaisse, where an unexpected freedom brought forth a flowering of creativity, that found traditional ethiopian sounds blending with James Brown funk, Otis Redding style R&B, and various rhythms from around the world. The marriage of smooth-as-oriental-silk brass sections, with late night Hammond B-3 lines, and propelled with driving African poly-rhythms, is a powerful animal. It will sink its fangs into your marrow and shake rattle and roll!

Volume 1 features 5 artists: Mulugèn Mèllèssè, Mahmoud Ahmed (who was a sort of superstar), Sèyfu Yohannès, Tèshomé Meteku (whose four tracks comprise his whole recorded output), and Gétatchew Adamassu. Mulugèn Mèllèssè opens with 3 tracks, ranging from cool roadhouse funk to bright, sunshiny African pop (Wètètié Maré) that will put a smile on your face.

Featured next is the legendary Mahmoud Ahmed, of the powerful pipes. Sort of like an African James Brown, the driving rhythms punctuated with bright brass stabs will please any fan of the Stax/Volt or Motown labels.

The instrumental 'Ewnèt Yèt Lagegnesh' is sweet and sultry, a whiff of jasmine incense on the breeze, smooth and seductive. Sounds a bit like Duke Ellington playing on an Astrud Gilberto record. This segues nicely into two tracks by Sèyfu Yohannès, playing a slow version of the traditional 'Tezeta'. Two versions of the same song, performed by Gétatchew Kassa (the fast version being the biggest selling single on the label), illustrate how much can be done with similar source-material, similar to American blues, and ultimately highlight the soul of the performer. 'Mèla Mèla', also by Sèyfu Yohannès, is tough as brass nails; pounding tribal drums with an African chorus and growling saxophone. A fine example of African rhythm, infectious, hypnotic, and undeniable.

The tracks by Tèshomé Meteku are playful 60s go-go numbers, light-hearted and fun, calling to mind white platform boots and paisley, with some excellent boogie-woogie sax riffs and mod organ soul. Make sure to put one of these on yr next swinging bachelor pad mix.

There is one more instrumental, 'Heywèté', featuring more laid back saxophone narcosis with bossa-nova beats that is mysterious and somehow chilling, bringing to mind gumshoes and black-hearted dames, and alleyways that glisten like black glass. Introspective, but still grooving. Oh, and check that sweet guitar solo around 2 minutes! That's what i'm talking about!

This brings us to our conclusion, with the two other versions of the traditional 'Tezeta' by Gétatchew Adamassu, the slow featuring some beefy B3 riffs and slick guitar ornamentation, that has a sort of reggae flavor to it, that blends seamlessly with the chicken-scratch of the fast, that reminds me of The Meters or other classic New Orleans funk.

All in all, this release is essential, and your life is incomplete without it. A compelling introduction into a colossal musical legacy, that is shamefully obscure. The range of moods and tempos make this suitable for any number of occasions, but the consistency of the laid-back sax, organ groove, polyrhthms, and soulful vocals give it a consistent feel that make it a pleasure to listen to entirely. This is the first in 23 volumes (so far), so take the plunge into these sparkling, cool waters.

J. Simpson

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Various Artists - Ethiopiques, Vol. 1: Golden Years Of Modern Ethiopian Music