The press kit describes Bole2Harlem's sound as the work of a group of friends from different countries who like to get together in the same club and jam, and that collective neighbourliness has rubbed off on the songs.
Most African-language hip-hop never makes it out of Africa. Some of it finds a way into migrant communities, or onto blogs, but then it stops there, stymied by the barriers of language and money that keep it out of the wider foreign mainstream.
Of course the barrier isn't completely impenetrable. Barriers against the arts never are. Every year or so a Daara J or an Emmanuel Jal appears, seemingly from nowhere, and a little beam of light streams through the crack they've created and slightly illuminates whatever is standing in the landscape behind them (child soldiers and strange adoptions on one hand; Positive Black Soul on the other) but then the crack closes and the spotlight wanders off to point at something else and there's no follow-up, no headline news of a fresh Senegalese group with an album to put Boomerang in perspective, and, once again, if you want the stuff then you've got to go out of your way to hunt it down.
Bole2Harlem steps into this field with an immediate advantage. The group is based in New York, a hub of international communication and a city that provides it with the kind of access to good equipment and long-armed promotion that no African city is able to match. And New York seems to pride itself on its cultural mish-mashing, turning out melanges of gypsy and punk, or klezmer and rap, or tin-pan alley blues, throat singing, and cymbaloms. Bole2Harlem, Volume 1 is one of those mish-mashes. The songs on the album are indebted to African-American street music, rap and hip-hop, but the sounds that go to make up the beats and rhythms are Ethiopian ('though there's evidence of some other African countries in here, too). They blend so well that the album seems destined to appeal to either side of any cultural debate, both to the people who want the work of overseas Ethiopian musicians to stay relevant in their homeland, and also to those who say, "I couldn't care less, just give me a good song in a style I can recognise and I'll be happy."
The album is a collaborative effort spearheaded by the American producer and percussionist Dave Schwommer, whose father Norbert helped to establish Addis Ababa's first university in the early 1950s (thus the adult son's attraction to Ethiopian culture), but the voice we hear most prominently is that of Schwommer's friend, an American-Ethiopian computer technician named Maki Siraj, who raps smartly in Amharic and Arabic. The seed of Volume 1 was planted a few years ago when Siraj and Schwommer visited Ethiopia and were disappointed to discover that the local rappers were doing less to distinguish their music from American product than their contemporaries in some other African countries. "I was surprised," Schwommer said, speaking to WNYC in early December, "that some of the newer hip-hop, in particular, that was coming out of the country, was not tapping into what I see as this vast musical gene pool that Ethiopia has to offer."
They've responded with songs that combine American beat-patterns with tizita and ululating women; and with lyrics that address Ethiopia from an insider's viewpoint. Singing on "Ametballe", Siraj chuckles, name-checks an Addis dance club, and raps about upstart men borrowing their uncles' flash cars to make themselves look good. Tigist Shibabaw takes a wedding song usually sung by the best man, and turns it into a female thing. (If you're recognising the surname then yes, she's related. Gigi is her older sister. They sometimes sing together. Tigist has appeared on Man.De.Ng's Elektrik but otherwise we haven't heard much of her. She's off pursuing spirituality in Ethiopia at the moment, but, as the note in the dedications says, "we hope your Spiritual Journey brings you back to your gift for music". She has a strong voice and ought to get it out more often.)
It's upbeat music, good-humoured rap. The press kit describes Bole2Harlem's sound as the work of a group of friends from different countries who like to get together in the same club and jam, and that collective neighbourliness has rubbed off on the songs. Siraj does most of the solo singing, but he never comes across as the album's raison d'etre in the way that an Eminem or a 50 Cent would. His rapping is punchy without being combative; and his normal tone is delight. The rest come in around him with chants and trills, horns, whistling, "Moroccan clapping" from Khalid M'Zouz, excitingly staggered beats, and flutes. They even find space for Bala Tounkara, a Malian who rises up on "Harlem 2 Bole" and instantly sounds like nobody else on the CD. His kora (running a cool, clear path through the middle of an album that has, up to this point, been beat-driven) melts through the speakers and waterfalls itself into a puddle on the floor. When he sings, it's as if he's deliberately setting out to show how different the voices from two separate countries can be. He has that dignified West African vocal style that always seems to be announcing the second coming, while the Ethiopians bounce and jab. Is this the difference between a country with an ongoing griot tradition and one without, or is it simply that they're angling themselves toward a rap audience and he isn't?
Listening to the album as I'm writing this, it occurs to me that it would make a nifty present for kids whose parents are sick of listening to the usual children's groups, the Wiggles, and so on. That must sound like backhanded praise, but I mean it as a compliment. It has a generous all-ages vibe: clapping and dancing for the children, coupled with a more complicated overlay for the adults. It's not one of those world fusion albums that founders under the weight of its own ambitions and winds up sounding diluted and fuddled. Volume 1 makes me hope that Bole2Harlem's peers in Addis Ababa will take the hint and start turning out ambitious, indigenously inflected music of their own to challenge it. Schwommer and Siraj must be pleased.