Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia (Second Edition)

This second edition follows the same basic model as the first: some artists from the Éthiopiques, some from new albums.

Various Artists

The Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia (Second Edition)

Label: World Music Network
US Release Date: 2012-08-28
UK Release Date: 2012-09-10

This second edition follows the same basic model as the first – some artists from the Éthiopiques, some from new albums. You realise that what the Éthiopiques have done is press a sense of age on Ethiopian popular music in the perception of foreign listeners. There were the fruitful 1960s and '70s where Francis Falceto's series found its material, and then a long gap, and then the present. I remember one of the musicians from the diaspora band Bole 2 Harlem saying in 2006, when their debut was being released, that they had been perversely inspired by a trip to Addis Ababa that had them looking around at the music on offer and thinking, “We can do better than this.” The Derg regime, which had had a shattering effect on the nation's music, had lost power in the late '80s, but the country was still bruised, there were tussles with the neighbours, and life was disrupted.

From overseas it looks as though the shape of Ethiopian music over the past few decades has not been a natural progression from style to style but a brilliant island cut off from the mainland of the modern day: we stand on the modern and look at it in the distance with nothing but muddled water in the middle.

So it's good to see that the compiler, whose name I can't find anywhere, has thrown in at least one song from Ethiopia itself to represent modern popular music and hasn't rested completely on the creations of the diaspora, because now we, the foreigners, the listeners, the ones who've bought the album, can have some small idea that the situation described by Bole 2 Harlem's representative in 2006 either might not have been as bad as he thought, or else is getting better. The booklet notes suggest Option Two. But even this homegrown Ethiopian track, "Gue" by Tirudel Zenebe, has been borrowed from an album released outside the musician's home country. It came out on a compilation called Ililta!: New Ethiopian Dance Music from the Terp label in Belgium.

So this Rough Guide is a third-hand filtering: other people have assembled the primary source material into secondary material and now this is tertiary material, the mass has been refined even further, it has been modified by yet another one of those conglomerations of taste we call people, and the expression of that taste is qualified by the music itself, the taste has to express itself in an Ethiopian flavour, and so here is the Ethiopian version of that taste, the compiler reaching out with a new limb that he or she has put together from the bits they found lying around, this limb called The Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia.

What can I say about the compiler, whose name has to be on here somewhere but strike me dead if I know where? They like to go out quietly, because they put Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou's "Homesickness" last, an understated piano piece that's so humble you can hear the old wood in the piano – it gives the notes a faintly muffled and thick undertone: the sound of an aged upright in a large school hall. Compiler thinks you should be hit with the biggest meteor first – that's Bole 2 Harlem's "Ametballe". Dazzling, fast, smashy, inspired by hip-hop, the song operates at a high, flattened register without the fatty nuance of Guebrou's piano keys: the American song has had the material world refined out of it in the studio though it also draws its strength and individuality from that world's artefacts, vocal cords humming, mm-mm-mm-mm, skilled wordless mouth-noises, and instruments wriggling like snakes.

Then comes Dub Colossus, and I remember Nick Page in the Adelaide heat a few years ago pointing out to us that the keyboardist was wearing brilliant two-toned shoes. The man held up a foot so that we had a better view, and it was true, the shoes were very nice. This song is another one that goes for your attention span with both hands, but it swirls and mingles and comes indirectly from all sides where the Bole 2 Harlem track approaches with a punch from the front and even comes with a narrative opening to make sure the audience knows where it's meant to be, mentally speaking, the singer starting matters off like any good storyteller, shouting, "Yo! This is Bole 2 Harlem crew! With brand new song!" – and then clapping and trilling.

Compiler thinks that it's important that we hear different instruments – one track has been chosen specifically to show off the begena harp, which has a basso reverberation that sounds like something played at the bottom of a well, through the water in that well. Compiler relies on the things he sees at home – World Music Network is a British outfit, and one of the newest songs here is the brainchild of a British man who set up a studio in Ethiopia to record musicians and mix them. You wonder what an Ethiopian compilation would have looked like, would it have had this track? Compiler is probably following a series of guidelines set down by World Music Network itself, since all of the compilations have more or less the same bedrock characteristics. His taste in music might be similar to mine, since "Ney-Ney Waleba" is the same track I would have chosen off that Alemayehu Eshete album, and "Amatballe" is the one I would have selected from Bole 2 Harlem.

I'm going to assume that this compiler enjoys the uncanniness of Ethiopian music, or what he or she describes in the booklet as, "the use of a five-note pentatonic scale; this intervallic pattern includes large leaps that imbue the music with a pondering, unresolved feel" as well as "the idiomatic use of irregular rhythms," otherwise they wouldn't have volunteered for the job in the first place.

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