The Ethiopian singer Alèmayèhu Eshèté had his first hit in the 1960s during the reign of the emperor Haile Selassie, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Then in 1974 a military junta overthrew Selassie and the brilliant nightlife of Addis Ababa went dark. People stayed indoors, afraid, and the capital’s live music scene was stifled. When the songs of some African countries filtered through to an English-speaking audience, Ethiopia’s music was not there with the rest. The country didn’t have the outside connections or the relatively rich labels of South Africa. There was no breakthrough act, no Fela, no King Sunny Adé. The language didn’t sound familiar and its alphabet looked unbelievably strange. Ethiopia didn’t even have apartheid to act as a flashpoint, drawing international interest. Eventually it had a famine instead.
So when Francis Falceto began to compile the Éthiopiques series in 1997, re-releasing songs that had been recorded during the 1960s and ‘70s, it was as if this music had sprung like flowers from a blighted moonscape. Starvation and war was the idea we’d been given of Ethiopia. It was as if it was the natural lot of an Ethiopian to starve and suffer, as it seems to be the natural lot of people in other parts of the word to suffer annual flooding, cyclones, or fire. No, no, said the Éthiopiques. It is the natural lot of an Ethiopian to be very cool, play the saxophone, and sing about people of the opposite sex whose “beauty has impassioned me.” “Here we are really”, it says. “Here we are, in our hearts. Here is Alèmayèhu Eshèté. Is he starving? No he is the low sleek sneak of sex snaking towards you. Observe his Afro quiff and come-get-me moustache.”
Eshèté is in his 60s now and still performing. In 2001, Buda made him the subject of Éthiopiques 9. His songs have been scattered across Éthiopiques 3, 8, 10, and 13. Now they’re bringing out more of him. Éthiopiques 22 covers his career between 1972 and 1974. Among his influences, he says, were Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, and Little Richard. The way he uses his voice sometimes suggests that Elvis would have sounded better in Amharic.
The man comes into this album with a shiver and a stammer. He’s using a lazy Elvis-swing that goes back and forth, swiveling its hips. It doesn’t have the old Elvis explosiveness though, nothing like that moment in “Hound Dog” when it all goes bang and we’re into the song. He stays with that low, dirty sound, prolonging it, breaking for a wet-throated, “Ah!” as if he’s just thrown back a drink. He teases out the possibilities of that pelvic swivel in his voice, on and on. Coming to “Ambassèl” he records the song at first slowly and then all over again quickly, just to show us how it changes.
Slowly, it stretches him out with the calculating passivity of an androgyne. When he sings quickly the instruments are more aggressive but there’s still that lazy sound in his voice, as if he’s lying on a velvet divan, waiting for peeled grapes.
Then there are songs like “Men Tetchiyé Medritu”, tracks that have a clean cut sound. Here he serenades, bringing out his Pat Boone side. It’s the slinky, quivery songs that make the firmest impression, though, the “Nèy-Nèy Wèlèbas” and the “Yebèqanals”, with their beat that seems to bounce and then wind itself backwards, go one jump forward, then draw back, then go forward again. This weird switchabout is so singular, so familiar-yet-not, that Jim Jarmusch used it in the soundtrack to Broken Flowers, a film about the strangeness of everyday things, like children and the country you grew up in and your own self, whatever that is. The music Jarmusch borrowed came from Mulatu Astatke, not Eshèté, but the similarities between them are unmistakable. Every time Astatke rose out of the soundtrack Bill Murray seemed isolated.
The Éthiopiques are the musical equivalent of that auteur director who makes the film that no one else thought of making, something that you couldn’t imagine before it came along but afterwards you don’t want to do without. If you haven’t tried the series before then Eshèté is a handy place to start, a coaxing finger beckoning you further in. Look also to the recently released Very Best of Ethiopiques, out on Manteca.