Ethiopian CDs put the world at your fingertips

by Cary Darling

McClatchy Newspapers

21 November 2006


African music began to seep into America’s pop consciousness in the `60s, thanks to such South African acts as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. In the `70s, the focus shifted to West Africa (Manu Dibango, Fela Kuti), while the `80s and `90s showed off a broader range of interest in almost the entire continent, from the Algerian “rai” music of Cheb Khaled to the bluesy wail of Mali’s Ali Farka Toure and the ethno-folk of South Africa’s Johnny Clegg.

Even non-African artists, such as Talking Heads, were beginning to experiment with African rhythms. Yet East Africa somehow got left out of the West’s cultural curiosity.

The new century has brought a new attitude. American avant-pop producer Bill Laswell blended Ethiopian styles and electro on the 2001 self-titled debut from Addis Ababa-born/San Francisco-based chanteuse Gigi. Now, two new producer-driven, Ethiopian-infused discs have hit U.S. shelves this month: “Bole2Harlem Vol. 1” is a New York-based multi-artist mix of funk and hip-hop as squeezed through an Ethiopian prism; and keyboardist/producer Idan Raichel’s just-released “The Idan Raichel Project,” already a hit in his native Israel, blends Ethiopian grooves and vocals with Arabic, Hebrew and Caribbean influences.

Israel is in the news a lot - but not for its pop music scene.

Raichel, 29, wanted to do something about that. He intended to create an album accessible to global audiences but one that still reflected Israel’s unique cultural ingredients, especially that of the Falasha, the name given to the country’s estimated 80,000 Ethiopian Jews. The resulting “The Idan Raichel Project” is one of the most striking world-music releases of the year.

Raichel became enamored of Ethiopian music several years ago while working as a counselor to immigrant teenagers. They turned him on to such performers as Mahmoud Ahmed and Aster Aweke.

“The school was for teenagers who had immigrated alone from Ethiopia and Russia, two different groups that knew nothing about each other and didn’t want to know about each other,” recalls Raichel, who is of Eastern European descent. “I started to learn about the Ethiopian community in Israel, their ceremonies, their music. I went to all the places you could hear it in Israel, like underground clubs and at private occasions.”

Later, while working as a session musician but dreaming of doing something on his own, Raichel tapped into those memories. “I took some friends of mine from the Ethiopian community, did some traditional arrangements, and, like Paul Simon did with `Graceland,’ I combined those songs with Hebrew (and other elements).”

He shopped what he considered to be just a demo to local record companies, but one, Helicon Records, was interested in the disc as-is. The album went on to sell more than 150,000 units in Israel in 2002, spawning a hit single, “Bo’ee (Come With Me).”

It was such a giant hit there that it began to make waves in bigger markets, especially in cities where there are large Jewish and Ethiopian communities. Raichel’s like-titled band, the Idan Raichel Project, has played in Addis Ababa as well as headlined shows at New York’s Apollo Theater and Los Angeles’ Kodak Theatre (home of the Oscars). He recently played New York again (at B.B. King Blues Club) and in January headlines at Miami’s new Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.

The American “Idan Raichel Project,” the first release on world-music Putumayo Records’ Cumbancha imprint, is a compilation of two of Raichel’s Israeli albums. A portion of the record’s proceeds go to Search for Common Ground (www.sfcg.org), which is dedicated to helping societies deal with conflict.

The songs on his album are apolitical, but Raichel hopes that exposure to his group’s multiracial and multilingual pluralism will help dispel stereotypes about his homeland. “It gives the audience a special point of view about the Israeli melting pot, how Israel is one of the most multicultural places,” he says. “All over the world, when we are traveling, they think we ride camels in the desert, but Israel is a very up-to-date country.”

There’s at least one American who doesn’t need the social studies lesson. New York producer/percussionist David Schommer is one of Raichel’s biggest fans.

“I saw him in Addis (Ababa) and they shot a live DVD, so if you see a bald-headed, bearded foreigner (jumping) onstage, that’s me,” Schommer says with a laugh. “I listened to the record and was really blown away, but live, they just floored me.”

Schommer is doing some flooring of his own these days. His vibrant, joyous “Bole2Harlem Vol. 1” is irresistible. Like the Idan Raichel Project, it tosses together a diverse group of musicians. (“Bole,” pronounced bo-LAY, is the name of Ethiopia’s main airport and is slang for a taxi.)

He, too, was inspired by Ethiopian immigrants - except his experience of their culture was in New York. “This is about reflecting what’s happening in Harlem,” he explains. “It’s an exciting place to be if you’re a musician. Walking to the post office, I’ll be exposed to gospel, merengue, hip-hop and Islamic music.

“I came from the major-label world,” continues the 40-year-old Schommer, who was one of the original cast members of the American version of “Stomp” and who has played on discs by Janet Jackson and Gloria Estefan. “But I love world music that my friends and I listen to. So I said `Let’s make a record purely for the sake of making a record that we want to hear.’ “

He was really intrigued by Ethiopian culture, as his father had lived there in the late `50s, helping to start Addis Ababa’s first university, and introduced the family to the country’s art, music and folklore. Schommer visited Ethiopia but was disappointed with much of the urban youth culture, which he found to be “a watered-down version of West Coast hip-hop.”

Schommer wanted to combine these twin impulses, so he tapped Ethiopian singer Tigist Shibabaw (Gigi’s sister), Ethiopian-American rapper Maki Siraj and Malian kora (keyboard) player Bala Tounkara, among others, to come up with his multiculti fusion.

Schommer likes the musical synchronicity that sees albums by him and Idan Raichel coming out at the same time, but he’s not sure how big a splash his record will make in terms of generating interest in Ethiopian music. “Bole2Harlem” is on a small label, Sounds of the Mushroom.

“I would love (that), but I’m not in a position to say that this effort is going to be seminal in terms of leading the way,” he explains.

Schommer’s not sure what he’s doing next. A Brazilian-American project, “Bahia2Harlem,” is a possibility. “But Indian music fascinates me,” he says. “Maybe `Bombay2Harlem’”?

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