Swinging Addis

Rachel Aspden

New Statesman, UK
Aug 16 2007

Ethiopian pop was killed off by dictatorship, but left a rich and
eccentric legacy.

Ethiopian pop was born not in a smoky downtown nightclub, but in
the unpromisingly austere corridors of an Orthodox monastery. On
a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1924, Ras Tafari – soon to become
the emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings and Lion of Judah – met
a marching band of young Armenians orphaned in the recent Ottoman
massacres. After a brief consultation with the Armenian Patriarch,
he shipped the "Arba Lijoch" ("Forty Kids") back to Addis Ababa and
installed them as the imperial band. Trumpets, trombones and military
music arrived, colliding with the traditional krar (lyre) and begena
(King David’s harp).

Unlike its West African cousins, the weird, haunted music that
resulted has remained largely unknown in the west. In the 1960s and
1970s, while Accra, Bamako and Dakar were turning out perfect R’n’B
pop songs, soul ballads and full-on psychedelia (collected on the
recent Luaka Bop CD Love’s a Real Thing: the Funky Fuzzy Sounds of
West Africa), Addis musicians were playing downbeat jazz overlaid
with the snake-charmer discordancies of traditional Ethiopian vocals.

The music’s eccentricity may have saved it from "nomad chic" or
"global fusion". Now, its undeserved obscurity is challenged by The
Very Best of Ethiopiques, the French collector Francis Falceto’s pick
of what was originally a 22-CD series of 1960s and 1970s Ethiopiana.

The story – or myth – traced on Ethiopiques is partly one of historical
accident. Mountainous, anciently Christian, fiercely insular and the
only nation in Africa to escape colonisation, Ethiopia has little in
common with its neighbours. Its adoption of 20th-century saxophone,
trumpet and guitar intruders was slow and suspicious. Independent
western-style groups were banned, but the emperor’s favourite Armenians
were allowed to train approved (and salaried) institutional ensembles:
the Imperial Bodyguard Band, the Army Band, the Police Band, the
Municipality Band and the Haile Selassie Theatre Band.

But not even Selassie could fend off American jazz, R’n’B and pop. By
the 1950s, the Imperial Bodyguard Band was moonlighting as a dapper,
tuxedo-clad, Glen Miller-style set-up. Then, in the mid-1960s, 6,000
US Peace Corps volunteers arrived bearing (besides more essential gear)
flares, miniskirts, guitars and Stax and Motown records.

Soldiers from the US army base at Asmara, now the capital of Eritrea,
lent out their records and played jazz in bars around town. As the
ageing emperor’s grip on power weakened, institutional musicians
skipped off after work to play new-style jazz, funk and soul in
the nightclubs of Addis. For a few years, for a few Ethiopians,
their capital swung. Then, in 1974, the Derg military dictatorship
closed the clubs, instituted a curfew that lasted 17 years, and killed
Ethiopian pop stone dead.

Ethiopiques’s tale of the rise and fall of Swinging Addis is an
exercise in nostalgia – a mind- set so Ethiopian, that it has given
its name to the country’s own version of the blues, tezeta. Mulatu
Astatqe’s "Tezeta", "Yekermo Sew", "Yekatit" and "Gubelye" are
tezeta with a jazz twist: slinky, skewed instrumentals punctuated
by mournful sax solos. Astatqe was the first Ethiopian musician to
train in the west (in New York, where he played in Harlem clubs),
and his "Ethiojazz" is the most polished and cinematic music of this
collection. It is also – uncoincidentally – the best known in the
west, after Jim Jarmusch used it on the soundtrack to his 2005 study
of one man and his past, Broken Flowers.

But the nostalgia of Ethiopiques is not simply atmospheric. Having
struggled their way out of the imperial-era institutional bands, the
country’s big stars faced, from the mid-1970s, censorship, intimidation
and exile. Falceto’s liner notes make sad reading: Girma Beyene "sank
into the limbo of the anonymous Ethiopian diaspora"; Bahta Gebre-Heywet
"gave up singing to become an accountant at the Ambassador Cinema" in
Addis; Ayalew Mesfin "left some years ago to try his luck in the USA";
Tewelde Redda "lives as a refugee in the Netherlands"; Muluqen Mellesse
"emigrated to the United States and abandoned his career to embrace
Pentecostalism". A few still scrape a living by playing at weddings
or the Ethiopian restaurants around Washington, DC, a shadow-world
described in Dinaw Mengestu’s recent novel Children of the Revolution.

The musical remains of their "golden age" (which Falceto estimates
consists of "500 seven inches and 30 LPs") are eccentrically varied.

Typically recorded with a couple of microphones in the clubs, they are
also rougher-edged than Astatqe’s urbane arabesques. Mahmoud Ahmed’s
"Atawurulegn Lela", "Fetsum Denq Ledj Nesh", "Metche New" and "Ere
Mela Mela" – the first Ethiopian song that Falceto released, in 1986
– are nasal, powerfully sung anthems. Alemayehu Eshete borrows his
grunts, snarls and chuckles from James Brown, while Getatchew Mekurya
translates old war cries into manically over blown saxophone solos on

These are defiantly urban styles, but there are also traces of
Ethiopia’s traditional music, largely played by azmari, the slightly
disreputable minstrel class famed for its satirical wordplay and
skill with the krar. One of the best tracks on Ethiopiques is Tewelde
Redda’s Eritrean independence song "Milenu", a mesmeric mix of loping,
hitching beat, blurred bassline and a tangle of lyre and guitar. It’s
sunny and surprising, and a reminder that Ethiopia’s answer to western
music was more than picturesque melancholy.

"The Very Best of Ethiopiques" (Union Square/ Manteca) is out now.