Eritrea, says Bruno Blum in the CD booklet, is “near-perfect.” Eritrea, says Reporters Without Borders, has no free press. Eritrea, says the BBC’s country factfile, is assumed to keep itself afloat with money sent back by the Eritrean diaspora. Eritrea won independence from neighbouring Ethiopia 17 years ago, and now it asserts that independence by engaging in periodic border wars. Most of its citizens are involved in soldiery or agriculture. The development of a tourism industry is hampered by certain obstacles: poverty, lack of infrastructure, and fields of unexploded land mines. Cows walk across the land mines and are never seen again.
But! says Blum. Culturally? Musically? Perfect! The Middle East to one side, the wide body of Africa to the other! Centuries of local culture, percolating, percolating, here on the western banks of the Red Sea.
“A near-perfect mix of Middle East, Asia, Africa and Europe, squeezed between Black Africa and the Arab world, and in touch with India, Eritrea nurtures a glowing, one-of-a-kind cultural patchwork.”
Invited to Eritrea to teach music, he decided instead to invite the country’s best musicians together in the capital and record an album. The project was helped and hampered by Eritrean bureaucracy and delayed by the musicians themselves, who regarded him warily at first, wondering what was going on. He struggled. Eventually—it’s not difficult to imagine the man’s relief and tiredness rising out of the print—it was done.
The compilation that emerged from the other side of all this effort reminds me of Sally Nyolo’s Studio Cameroon—not the music itself, but the feel of the album, the impression that these people have been invited to perform with no particular mandate. “Do your best,” they might have been told, “record your favourite thing. You say you’ve got an interesting idea? Try it. You know a song people like? Sing it.” The words “Asmara All Stars” on the album cover suggests a united group, and Blum describes a nucleus band of about 14 instrumentalists, but the songs sound like the work of separate musicians, some expert, some shaky, some traditional, some modern, with roughly the same saxophones and keyboards running through most of the tracks, but the singing different, and the sensibilities changed.
Yosef Tsehaye, who “started hanging around the studio” and “[insisting] to be recorded” wobbles around on “Haki”. Feytinga, “a fine, gifted singer” steers herself through “Amajo” with utter certainty, neat and tough as a glass kitten. “Feytinga performed songs for fellow soldiers during the war, soon becoming a national symbol of resistance,” notes Blum. Other musicians share her military background. “Tigré” singer Brkti Weldeslassie penned [“Wushate”] as she left home to fight in the war. With lines like “Leaving me breathless, the heavy artillery / I carry on my back”, it bears a special weight in the dramatic collective memory shared by the Eritrean people.”
Temasgen Belni’s falsetto, fluttering thin as crepe over big-band slink, is succeeded by a reggae-rap intro from Temasgen Hip Hop, and the contrast between the voices leaves hip-hop sounding at first like a formless grunt. Usefully, he introduces different instruments. “Here comes the krar!” There are a few awkward transitions like this.
The louder tracks, reggae, and 1970s-style big band nightclub music, are loaded towards the front of the playlist, with the quieter tracks toward the back. Bob Marley’s ghost hangs over much of it. Some English-speaking listeners, exposed for years to Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques, will probably approach Eritrea’s Got Soul wondering if Eritrea sounds like Ethiopia, and the answer is yes, to a degree. The connection between the two countries is a sensitive one, and Blum is cagey in the booklet, insisting that Eritrea is distinct and different, yet unable to hide the fact that so many of these musicians are going to sound, to their new audience, as if their ears are somewhere else. “Music lovers around the world have been showing a huge interest in Ethiopian reissues from the ‘70s—yet a closer look reveals that many of the musicians on vintage Ethiopian music were actually Eritrean.” Feytinga’s voice sounds very similar to the voices of the southerners she was fighting against—the same high and imperious sinuous fineness.
The balance of power between the two countries is uneven. Ethiopia has the larger profile, musically and in every other way, and the craving for legitimacy and recognition on the Eritrean side must be enormous, hungry, wounding. Eritrea’s Got Soul isn’t perfect, it won’t mend the wound, but it’s a start.
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