[11 November 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
What do Ethiopia and reggae have in common? In fact, the African nation of Ethiopia has had quite an influence on the development of reggae music. Reggae, native to Jamaica, is closely intertwined with the practice of Rastafarianism. Many of the most notable reggae artists, Bob Marley among them, have been Rastafarians. While the term “Rastafari” often brings to mind a dread-wearing, patois-speaking, spliff-smoking stereotype, there’s more to it than that. With A Town Called Addis, it helps to know a little bit of that history.
Rastafarianism got its name from Prince Regent Ras Tafari Makonnen of Ethiopia. In 1930, he was named king and took on the title Emperor Halie Selassie I. According to Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton’s definitive The Rough Guide to Reggae, Rastafarianism in Jamaica evolved from a synergy of outside forces, including the Voice of Ethiopia newspaper and Jamaica’s social and political struggles following independence from the UK in 1962. By the 1970s, artists like Marley and Burning Spear were taking Rastafarianism to the brink of the Western mainstream.
Given such a historical and cultural connection, it’s surprising there hasn’t until now been a high-profile attempt to combine reggae with traditional Ethiopian music. The British producer/musician Nick Page, aka Count Dubulah, aka Dub Colossus, has taken on just such a project with A Town Called Addis.
In terms of perception, Page was fighting an uphill battle from the beginning. Myriad attempts to merge “world music” with Reggae have been made. Most of these end up sounding like ill-conceived shotgun weddings, producing albums whose names sound much more interesting than the music behind them. Case in point: 2006’s Bombay Dub Orchestra. But, against the odds, Page has succeeded. A Town Called Addis is respectful, authentic, and, most importantly, a mostly compelling listen. The Real World label adds credibility, as does Page’s pedigree in combining the traditional “ethnic” and modern styles, as a founding member of Transglobal Underground and beyond. A Town Called Addis‘s backstory helps, too.
Page actually met with preeminent Ethiopian singer and musicians in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in the summer of 2006. Here, the basic tracks for A Town Called Addis were recorded. Several Ethiopian collaborators later traveled back to England with Page, and finished the album at Real World Studios. None of the “exchanging tapes through the mail” business was involved.
Still, the way A Town Called Addis starts off, you could be forgiven for being a bit skeptical. Despite featuring “the Ethiopian Edith Piaf”, Sintayehu ‘Mimi’ Zenebe, opener “Azmari Dub” is just the kind of obvious collision of sounds you may have been fearing. Towering horns accentuate a fairly generic, pop-leaning reggae rhythm, while Zenebe emotes over the top. The effect, while not horrible, recalls mushy radio-friendly projects like Enigma and Deep Forest.
Thankfully, “Entoto” rights that impression right away. Opening with a train whistle blast of horns, it sinks into a thick, heavy swamp of reverb, guitar noodling, and genuinely spooky chanting before a massive horn sequence pulls it out. This is the grimily authentic sound that fulfills the promise of a project like this without pandering to popular tastes.
A Town Called Addis does offer plenty of prettiness. “Tazeb Kush” is driven by breezy acoustic guitars and moody synths and strings, and adds some soulful saxophone from Feleke Hailu. The minimal “Tizita Dub” features gorgeous female vocals, twirling flute, and a steady reggae beat to otherworldly effect, while the Brazilian-leaning piano ballad “Neh Yelginete” is a stunner in any language. This track, like the rest of the album’s best, has relatively few vestiges of reggae or dub. That’s fine, though. “Shegye Shegite” is a transcontinental psychedelic blues jam, with dobro, guitar, double bass, and one-stringed fiddle providing the seductive backdrop for co-ed call-and-response vocals. Chances are you haven’t heard anything else like it. “Mercato Music” closes the album out with a breathless spy-jazz workout, all nervous sax, frenzied rhythm, and twinkling Fender Rhodes. Underneath it all, the bassline still hints at dub, though tracks like this move far beyond it. The album never completely gets away from its grounding in dub, however. Zenebe makes a much more effective turn on the pure dub track “Ambassel”, with its swinging hi-hat, drifting horns, and towering piano figure combining with her powerful voice for a sinister effect.
In A Town Called Addis, Page and his collaborators have made an album that keeps you looking forward to what’s ahead, wondering what new sounds and ideas the next track has to offer. And there’s very little novelty at play, either. You’ll continue uncovering new details with repeated listening, and you’ll want to listen again because the music is just plain good…and groovy. It’s not perfect. Several tracks are longer than necessary, and at times you may find yourself drifting off or wondering if you accidentally put on two different albums at once. Overall, though, A Town Called Addis is a rare creation indeed, a “world music” album with genuine soul.