From the very start, a cosmic feeling elevates Gili Yalo’s debut album. As instrumental track “Tadese” begins, we hear familiar Ethio-jazz modes wind upward, laced with unexpectedly futuristic synths and rich swirls of electric guitar. It sets the stage well on Gili Yalo, introducing us to an artist who knows his roots and aims to actualize his own potential.
No doubt about it, that potential is vast. Gili’s voice is versatile, his compositions fresh blends of funk, jazz, and Afropop. “Africa”, a duet with artist Keren Dun, is an obvious standout that packs a soulful heap of heat, brass, and punch into five uplifting minutes. An encouraging repetition of “Be happy!” punctuates each verse, and as simple as the lyrics are, they ring true – especially given Gili’s background.
The story is a heavy one; now based in Tel Aviv, Gili Yalo was evacuated from famine-stricken Sudan along with thousands of other Ethiopian Jews in 1984. While it’s been a few decades since the relocation, the artist’s familiarity with struggle echoes in his work. “Hot Shot” questions a subject estranged from an origin: “You’re bleeding for your own / What are you at all when you’re coming home?” “Coffee” features the melancholy sounds of subtle horns and an Ethiopian krar behind frustrated lyrics: “Coffee or cigarettes / Get me through the day / And nobody / Nobody is my friend.” By the end of the track, the mourning becomes an anxious frenzy.
He continues to reflect on hardships on ’70s-style funk track “City Life” (“Everybody’s making money / You can’t pay the rent…”) and finds the strength to overcome them within the resolute Ethio-jazz of “Fire” (“There is another pack of us / We want to break these vanity walls”). At the album’s finale, though, comes the stark emotional climax: “New Life”, a rallying cry of holding the line within oneself as life bears down: “They say a storm is coming / I say, well, let it come / The wind is blowing and humming / I ain’t got nowhere to run,” Gili sings, and as a flute spirals upward, the suitably simple melody’s only ornamentation, his voice holds steady, battle-hardened and prepared for whatever comes next.
Surrounding the introspections are the smoky, sinuous hits of Ethio-jazz, electrified and stunning. Penultimate cut “T’ebik’iu” is undoubtedly the most intriguing of these, featuring Gili’s voice at its most sensual and offering a timeless sense of melody, effortlessly balancing classic and modern. More upbeat dance tracks like “Sab Sam” and catchy “Selam” move and charm with straightforward beats and modes that don’t aim to challenge so much as they aim to stay tight and engaging. They’re the best kind of familiar, evoking warmth without being carbon copies of past tunes.
Gili Yalo sings with the authority and skill of a veteran musician; that his self-titled album is his first is a thing to be grateful for. Gili Yalo is one of those rare debuts with a clear sense of purpose and style, and its creator one of those rare artists who knows exactly how to process his past to create his vision for this very moment. He doesn’t sugarcoat the present, but he knows how to make it a satisfying listen.