Asmara All Stars: Eritrea's Got Soul

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.

Asmara All Stars

Eritrea's Got Soul

Label: Out Here
US Release Date: 2010-10-26
UK Release Date: 2010-10-18

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.







The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.