I looked into Samuel Yirga online earlier this year after he appeared on the Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia, and when I had watched the video for his version of the 1971 Rotary Connection track, “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” with the fuzz guitar removed and more jazz inserted and British-Nigerian Nicolette licking into a birdy vocal flutter, I thought, “I’ll volunteer for the album if it ever comes up for review,” and so it did and so I did.
Yirga, twentysomething, studied at the Yared Music School in Addis Ababa, afterwards playing with several local bands and also with Dub Colossus, the London-based Ethiopian dub collective managed by the producer Nick Page, formerly keyboardist Count Dubalah of Transglobal Underground. Page was the one who suggested “Black Gold of the Sun” to Yirga when the idea of an album was mooted and he’s quoted in the album literature: a supportive presence.
My father, says Yirga, wanted me to be academic not musical, and the press kit makes a story out of this parental interference in a young man’s dreams, but an awareness of hard work and thoughtful study has not done badly for him even if it is not appearing in the shape of a written thesis. Yirga knows his North American jazz — though this is not an unusual enthusiasm for Yerard students — and he is on a self-appointed mission to protect and further Ethiopia’s own traditional music — this is more unusual, he says: The other students preferred pop — he combines the two, he integrates the four Ethiopian kinits, he unites three of them in a solo piano number, he reworks classics, he has produced his own “Ambassel” which he calls “The Blues of Wollo (Dessye Mix)”, with the piano crawling maliciously, lightening itself with tiny high chords as smiling Genet Masresha pulls out a set of tasty vocal cords and smashes herself into the opening ululation.
Guzo is ambitious and the discipline makes an irrepressible impact, the standard of playing from Yerard teachers or professional Ethiopian or British musicians is high, and everyone sounds tightly united, but the jazz makes it limber, the jazz sensibility sets it loose and twitchy, the piano coils off in “Tiwista (Tinish Mix)”, “Firma Ena Wereket” grinds down into an Ethio-boogie, the one-string masenko cruises like a free agent, the piano starts to dance, which, in an Addis-Ethiopian context, means that it rocks into a rhythmic loose-jointed shrug-shrug-shrug. Nothing is settled but it hangs together so clearly that you feel the controlling intelligence stepping from one idea to the next with its eyes on culmination.
The other Ethiopian piano album that people might know is Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s Ethiopia Song, dignified and plaintive, but there’s a long distance between that and this. If Yirga’s slow three-kinit solo does echo the lonely sound of the pianist nun, then that’s probably a result of common ethnic roots rather than personal affinity. Guzo means “journey”, a keen and humble title — I search, I learn rather than I sit firm, I have made it — but it is also self-advertisement: Here I am, able and determined, with a strong idea of what I want — though that vision does get screwed up on the last track with Nicolette’s “African Diaspora”, a sad torch song that doesn’t have much of a relationship to anything that has come before.