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Straight out of Addis (and London), groups find their own path

Earlier this year, I reviewed the debut record by Debo Band, a musical collective from Massachusetts fronted by two Ethiopian Americans. This amazing band is able to take the distinctive music of Ethiopia — especially as portrayed in the jazzy, funky work of Mulatu Astatke — and rework it into exciting new ways. I rated this record very highly, an evaluation it still richly deserves.


As it turns out, however, this is just one of many albums in 2012 to use Ethiopian music as their main reference point get to exciting new places; but they all do so in very different ways. Krar Collective takes a stripped-down and electrified approach to rural musical forms; Dub Colossus and Invisible System (both of which started with the same team) incorporate dub and electronica; and Samuel Yirga steps out as a jazz-focused piano prodigy. In many ways, at least for those who know where to find these records, 2012 is turning out to be The Year Ethiopia Broke.


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Krar Collective

Ethiopia Super Krar

(Riverboat; US: 11 Sep 2012; UK: 10 Sep 2012)

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Invisible System

Introducing Invisible System

(Real World; US: 10 Sep 2012; UK: 10 Sep 2012)

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Invisible System

Live and Raw

(Harper Diabate; US: 1 Oct 2012; UK: 1 Oct 2012)

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Dub Colossus

Addis Through The Looking Glass

(Real World; US: 30 Oct 2012; UK: 25 Apr 2011)

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Samuel Yirga

Guzo

(Real World; US: 25 Sep 2012; UK: 9 Jul 2012)

Review [7.Jan.2013]

Krar Collective is a three-person band originally from Ethiopia but centered in London for the last few years. Attention always centers on Temesgen Zeleke and Genet Assefa, the band’s two singers, especially because Temesgen also plays the krar featured in the band’s name. This lyre-like instrument, a cross between a harp and a guitar, is said to derive from the harp of King David. More importantly, it produces a staggering array of sounds, especially when it is plugged into a wall of amplifiers. But those who have heard or seen them know that Krar Collective would be nothing without drummer Robel Taye’s subtle touch.




Their debut record, Ethiopia Super Krar, has no interest in messing around. It starts out blasting with “Guragigna”, all momentum and krar shredding, and never looks back. The genius of this record is that most of the songs are taken directly from different regional musical styles from around Ethiopia, and then… well, urbanized through electronics and a rocking attitude. For this reason, the ballad “Ambassel” — with a haunting and ululating vocal performance from Gemet — sounds completely unlike the tense “Konso” or the anthemic “Welaita”, which features a number of amazing instrumental breaks that make math rock seem easy.


Even when they cover a classic Ethiopian children’s song like “Ete-Mete” or nod to the master with “Mr. Astatke” (Temesgen studied with Mulatu for several years in Addis Ababa), Krar Collective manages to nod to Ethiopia’s many different regional cultures while still honoring the urban suavity of Addis and London audiences. By the time they wrap up everything here with “Ende Eyerusalem” — sounding as much like Patti Smith working with early Television as anything else — Krar Collective proves that they are tapping into one of the world’s great musical cultures in a way that is entirely their own.


Several years ago, two other groups sprang up at about the same time; Dub Colossus and Invisible System have been intertwined since British musicians and friends Nick Page and Dan Harper started to work together in Addis in the middle of last decade. Both projects take Ethiopian music into dub and electronic places while still respecting the original sources by working with Ethiopian musicians.




Invisible System actually has two new records out this year, although both of them incorporate already-released material. The group’s music is featured on a digital-only album issued by World Music as part of the compilation entitled The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Music. This disc features earlier material; this enables Dan Harper to welcome new listeners to his canny mix of dark dub, metal, Ethiopian pop, and techno stylings.


Traditional-sounding songs, such as “Hode Baba (I’m Worried He’s Moving)”, rock along nicely, balancing jangling guitars with a rocksteady groove and lamenting vocals. On later tracks, like “Skunk Funk” — taken from their 2011 album, Street Clan, my favorite record of last year — Harper swirls things up a bit with psychedelic wah-wah work, lovely drifty melodies, and a spooky vocal performance from Tewabe Tadesse. This is also a great way to experience tracks from The Cauldron EP, including the disorienting dub spectacular “Azmari Fuze”, with vocals from wonderful singer/clubowner Mimi Zenebe.


But the more ambitious project from Invisible System this year is the Live and Raw compilation. It features four similar (but not identical) live sets: one from Addis Ababa, and three from different areas in Great Britain. This is an innovative approach, and definitely that Harper is as skilled a musician and bandleader as he is a producer. The pulsing and precise “Milash Situgn” must have slayed and slightly confused its audience in Addis; the passionate “Woman’s Touch” sounds lovely in its easy-rocking “Live Up North” set, but is transformed into something both pointillist and metallic in its “Live in the Midlands” dubstep stomp.




Interestingly, Invisible System’s English sets all seem to go away from the Ethiopian template, relying instead on reggae vocalist Dennis Wint. Wint certainly does not lack conviction, plowing directly through heartfelt tracks such as “Backyard” and “Queen’s Coffee” in any mode offered — the “Live Down South” version of the latter is old-fashioned drum’n’bass flavored with sitar drone noises, with Wint riding that rhythm as easily as he does in the other sets. I’m a little sad that Harper seems to be turning away from Ethiopian music as a base for his investigations; but if he ends up with a hybrid of dub, heavy metal, and dance music, it might be just as fruitful a direction as anything he’s done before.


This year’s Dub Colossus disc, Addis Through the Looking Glass, is actually a reissue of LAST year’s album of the same name. No matter what year you’re coming to this record, however, it’s stirring stuff. Nick Page, a.k.a. Count Dubulah, is firmly rooted in Addis musical culture, but then branch out into other musical cultures. “Yeh Shimbraw Tir Tir”, for example, is all circular structure and call-and-response vocals at first, but then starts layering guitar noises (slide, jangle-pop, folk) until the track has turned into something completely different. “Wehgene”, which at first sounds like roots reggae, turns East African very quickly with the introduction of vocals in Amharic. (Quick reminder that Rastafarianism comes from Ras Tafari, the title of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.) And they bring it all back home with a crosscultural cover of “Uptown Top Ranking”.




But what really stands out here are the tightrope-walking tracks. “Anchihoye Piano” is a ten-minute solo piece by young pianist Samuel Yirga, veering back and forth between Mulatu Astatke and Keith Jarrett. “Tringo Dub,” a skippy and trippy double-time hybrid, seems to invent itself as it goes along. And “Gubeliye” could easily have been a track on either Mulatu Steps Ahead or John Coltrane’s Africa Brass sessions.


I don’t mean to slight Addis Through the Looking Glass; after all, it is now in full distribution, and could certainly be counted as a 2012 record for everyone who didn’t hear it last year. But what I want to truly highlight is the solo debut from Samuel Yirga. This 27-year-old musician’s work goes beyond just the work he’s done with Invisible System and Dub Colossus — it is one of the most lovely and inventive albums of 2012 in any genre.


Guzo opens with “Abet Abet”, a track that goes a lot of different ways in its five minutes. There is the opening blast of strong propulsive melody; the dropout sections for one-string fiddle and piano solos; the extreme dropout section featuring Ben Somers’ increasingly frenetic saxophone solo; and then a slow build back to the opening theme. It’s canny stuff for someone so young.




While Nick Page is the producer here, “Abet Abet” and many other tracks sound nothing like Dub Colossus. “My Head” is part Caribbean bounce and part avant-big-band jam. “Dance With the Legend” and “Yeh Bati Koyita” are solo pieces that meander and trickle along, with subtle production touches here and there. Other songs, like “The Blues of Wollo” and “Firma Ene Wereket”, might worship at the gates of Mulatu a little too long, but they are still fresh and fun and funky.


And then there are the big-ticket items: “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” covers the Rotary Connection with wide-screen pop hooks and backing vocals by the Creold Choir of Cuba, sounding A LOT like Esperanza Spalding’s pop experiments in Radio Music Society, and bonus track “African Diaspora” takes a slightly lower-key approach to similar material. All in all, Guzo and the other albums here prove that Ethiopian hybrid music is peaking as an international force of creativity. Whether or not other acts will be able to take up the gauntlet remains to be seen.


Ethiopia Super Krar

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Introducing Invisible System

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Live and Raw

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Addis Through The Looking Glass

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Guzo

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