ETHIOPIQUES, VOL. 2: Tetchawet - Urban Azmaris Of The 90's 
ETHIOPIQUES, VOL. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974 
ETHIOPIQUES, VOL. 10: Tezeta: Ethiopian Blues and Ballads
~reviews by Kevin Filan

Too much of today’s “world music” is sanitized, sterilized, and “dumbed down” for a “Western audience.”  Much of what remains is treated to a “scholarly approach.”  Preserved “in the wild” and treated with reverent respect, it resembles a tagged and chloroformed butterfly—pretty enough, but dead as a doornail.  

French label Budamusique has taken a wiser approach to Ethiopian pop ... they’ve let the music do the talking.  Their Ethiopiques series (currently up to 18 CDs and growing) presents Ethiopian popular music from the 1960s to the present.  There are no samples here, no glossy production... just Ethiopian music in all its funky glory.

And it’s nothing if not glorious.  Ethiopia’s musicians are as creative and as vibrant as those on the more famous Senegalese and South African scenes.  In the 60s and early 70s, Addis Ababa was one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan and swinging cities.  Ethiopian popular musicians had ready access to the best of American and European music, and were happy to include “Western” instrumentation and scales alongside more traditional instruments  and musical modes.  A 1975 coup and twenty years of brutal dictatorship drove most of Ethiopia’s artists underground or into exile, leaving only a few recordings and a lot of memories.  

Most of the tracks on Ethiopiques 4 come from Ethiopian composer and arranger Mulatu Astatqe.  Astatqe studied music in Britain, and graduated from Boston’s Berklee School of Music in the early sixties before returning to Ethiopia.  He has played with numerous jazz legends, including Duke Ellington, and his “Yegelle tezeta” (My Own Memory) was one of the first Ethiopian songs to receive attention outside the country.  Astatqe’s music occaionally evokes Miles Davis or Dizzie Gilespie... but with a strange and wonderful twist.  Astatqe’s compositions may owe a great deal to American Jazz, but he regularly uses the scales and chord progressions of his homeland.  This would be an excellent choice for an introductory disk:

Astatqe’s riffs will be easy listening for anyone who is used to “hard bop” or 50s jazz.

Ethiopiques 10 is dedicated to “Tezeta”—an Amharic word for “memory” or “nostalgia”. Like American blues or Portuguese fado,  Tezeta songs feature slow, emotional tunes which transmute pain into beauty.   As with the other entries in this series, you’ll find the familiar and the alien closely juxtaposed.  “Eyètègnu Nèqu” by Frèw Haylou sounds like a Muzzein’s call to prayer performed by a Delta Bluesman, while Mahmoud Ahmed’s “Tezeta,” has an eerie Farfisa organ that you might hear playing at the House of the Rising Sun (Addis Ababa branch).  Other tracks show an influence of American soul: “Hédètch Alu” combines Muluqèn Mèllèssè’s unearthly voice with an amazingly infectious rhythm guitar and Alemayehu Eshete’s “Tèrèdtchéwalèhu” has a tinkly vibraphone and longing vocal alongside a guitar riff that would do Curtis Mayfield proud.

With Ethiopiqes 2 we see how Ethiopian popular music has come back after the 1991 fall of the military dictatorship.  This second installment catalogues the efforts of the “Azmaris,” wandering singers and entertainers who provide a musical backdrop to daily life in Ethiopia.  As in the “Golden Years” of the 1960s and 1970s, they have incorporated elements of modern life and foreign music into their songs while preserving traditional forms. Ethiopia is the “Holy Land” of Jamaica’s Rastafarian movement.  Adanèh Tèka’s “Bob Marley” returns the compliment, with a fractured rendition of Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” (Tèka, alas, doesn’t speak a word of English or Jamaican Patois ... but he’s so joyfully enthusiastic that you’ll hardly notice his creative and frequent mispronounciations).   “Ethopia Hagèré,” an instrumental performance by krar (Ethiopian Lute) virtuoso Messele Asmamaw, is probably the standout performance on this CD.  It sounds like a hybrid between a Spanish classical guitar and a dueling banjo, but you’ll find yourself humming it long after it’s done.

Ethiopian music is nothing like the “World Music” you may be used to: neither does it bear much resemblance to other African music.  “Ethiopiques” gives us a glimpse of a little-known culture... and American Soul and Jazz reflected in a lovely but distorted mirror.  Budamusique has received numerous well-deserved accolades for this series.  Pick up a few of these CDs today, and you’ll know just why.

Buda Music Website