Ethio Jazz: Basic Coordinates to Get Lost in the Music

Words by Pierluigi Ledda
Photographs from the book Vintage Addis Ababa

“As musicians, we should go back, all the way back, because you’ll always find something very interesting.” 
Mulatu Astatke

In the attempt to capture the spirit of Ethiopian music, in particular the adventurous, hybrid, multiform music that goes by the name of Ethio Jazz, we are aided by this short but enlightening thought of Mulatu Astatke, deemed the father of the genre, from the excellent lecture given at the Redbull Music Academy in 2007. As the quotation suggests, Ethio Jazz is the result of a process that looks towards Ethiopian musical traditions, a past that is both cultural inheritance and ancestral imaginary, to hybridize them through contemporary stylistic elements and instruments. Astatke’s brilliant work in combining these various sources has changed the musical’s original DNA, to draw new perspectives, mould a language that certainly maintains the deep musical sentiment of a place, Ethiopia, but is above all moved by a sense of abstraction and the drive towards other worlds. 

A good starting point to gain confidence with the genre is the first album by Astatke, Mulatu of Ethiopia from 1972, a sparkling hybrid in which it is not the virtuoso performance that makes an impression so much as the musical vision, the fresh new colours, the round grooves. Far from being a mish-mash of styles, it is an at once scientific and playful prototype in which the result is more than the sum of the influences behind it: Ethiopian melodic scales, Latin jazz rhythms, a funky synthesis, suspensions and cinematic atmospheres. The album was recently reprinted by the British producers Strut, proving the growing international interest in Ethiopian musical experimentation.  

Another leading light in Ethiopian music is Hailu Mergia, keyboard player transplanted to Washington where he accompanied his musical career with the job of cab driver. A less exposed and institutionalized figure than Astatke, he has been no less crucial in forming Ethio Jazz prototypes, drawing the classic ancestral sounds into the future also thanks to the addition of “other” instruments such as the accordion, Rhodes piano and drum machine. While his debut album, Tche Belew from 1977 and the recent collection Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye, put together by Awesome Tapes from Africa, are key pieces in the scene and these days are considered small classics, it is in his latest work Lala Belu from 2018 that we can make out new drives and an untiring sense of research, showing how classicism and a fresh outlook, paradigmatic optimism and a veil of complexity can be combined. 

If this music has been able to go beyond the borders of its original birthplace, a lot of the credit goes to another fundamental figure, the French man Francis Falceto, who looked after the now famous Éthiopiques collections. The series, begun in 1997 by the Buda Musique label, recently reached its thirtieth release. Falceto’s compilation work has given great emphasis to both the so-called Golden Age of the outset, and the most recent appearances on the Ethiopian music scene, collecting material from labels such as Amha, Kaifa and Philips-Ethiopia, and from a rich set of artists. In addition to the abovementioned Astatke, other leading names brought together in the compilations are Alemayehu Eshete, Asnaketch Worku, Mahmoud Ahmed and Tilahun Gessesse. With the care taken over the mastering and the notes, these collections have enabled a rational and at the same time adventurous approach to a formerly unknown musical universe, and they remind us of the importance of these musical guides, the true archivists of the future. The main feeling one gets on visiting these marvellous places is of artistic experimentation that is difficult to classify but incredibly fascinating, a music that is both distant but instinctively familiar, which brings with it light, roots and new visions. 

Photo Courtesy Vintage Addis. The photography book Vintage Addis Ababa (Ayaana, 2018) explores facets of a bygone era hidden from mainstream history. It presents an intimate cross-section of life in Ethiopia’s capital through 242 images and their accompanying stories.

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