Orchestra Ethiopia: Éthiopiques 23

Éthiopiques 23 sits partway between the countryside folk music atmosphere of Éthiopiques 12 and the modern professionalism of an Alèmayèhu Eshèté, between trained singing and artless strum.

Orchestra Ethiopia

Éthiopiques 23

Label: Buda
US Release Date: 2008-02-12
UK Release Date: 2007-09-24

The breadth of Ethiopian music made available by the Éthiopiques is one of the series' great strengths. In 23 albums we've crossed from the rustic songs of farmers strumming bluntly on handmade guitars to mid-century pop singers in sharp shirts. Armed with this set of discs we can jump from a thoughtful pianist nun to a set of 12 songs dedicated to a specific instrument, the square-angled, 10-stringed begena harp. Not many countries get such a sustained examination of their musical output unless they are able to fund it wholly themselves, and few of those examinations are as popular outside the source nation as the Éthiopiques have come to be.

Éthiopiques 23 is devoted to Orchestra Ethiopia. It arrives with a lengthy biographical piece from one of the Orchestra's past leaders, an American Peace Corps volunteer named Charles Sutton who describes the development of the band. Sutton says that he became interested in the group's brand of southern Ethiopian folk when he stumbled on a room of musicians performing down an Addis Ababa alleyway in 1966. "It must be a great thing to play the mèssengo," he remembers himself thinking afterwards as he walked back to his hotel.

The mèssengo is a fiddle with a soundbox shaped like a diamond and he did indeed get to play it, as we find out on this album in "Shègitu". He sings too. We can hear the crowd breaking into waves of applause every time this tall, thin foreigner with his curved flop of hair manages to get his lines out in their native language. His voice is less sure of itself than those of the Ethiopian singers who appear in the rest of the disc, but you can hear that he was up for the challenge, a determined man in spite of the critics who labelled him with the insulting word ferenj, meaning white outsider.

A number of these old tracks have a muffled sound, as if they were recorded in the open air and it drew away some of their precise edges. This muffledness affects some tracks more than others, and some instruments more than others. The beating of drums in "Tennesh Mèkèdda" sounds distant, but the noises of flutes and strange winding instruments on the same track are very clear. The result is like the sound effects from a short cartoon, full of knocks, squeaks, and whees, the noise of unsuspecting animated cats being blattered on the head.

Other songs are more obviously folk-based. "Goraw" is a reworking of the traditional shellèla boasts exchanged by competing warriors before a fight. The boasts here have a ring of formality that in a European would sound mediaeval: knights calling to their rivals. The singer is accompanied by a washent flute and a punctuating rumble of threatening strings from a krar harp. "A discussion of shellèla may be found in Éthiopiques 14," the liner notes for "Goraw" tell us in case we want to follow our exposure to this war song by learning more. This series has grown so dense that the notes habitually refer backwards as if they were part of an extensive library, which in fact they are. "Other fine Tezetas, as well as a discussion of the genre, may be found on Éthiopiques 10," they point out in the information for "Tezeta," while the details for "Kèto Ayqèrem Motu" state that the technique of the harpist on the song "differs, both texturally and melodically, from that of begenist Alèmu Aga, presented in Éthiopiques 11."

Even if you don't own all of the albums they're referring to, you should still come away from these asides with the impression that you're walking into a musical world that can expand indefinitely, one CD opening out into another, a musician on one disc reminding you of something that happened ten discs before. The out of kilter combination of voice and begena in "Kèto Ayqèrem Motu" harks back to the strangely similar sound of Alèmayèhu Eshèté from the album before it, Éthiopiques 22. It's as if Eshèté with his fashionable suit and dreamboat hair had pulled this older, slower sound out of a bog where it had been preserved in situ like Tollund Man and sexed it up for a nightclub audience. That wobble swells out and establishes itself as a presence.

Like Eshèté and every other musician in Ethiopia, the Orchestra suffered with the arrival of the dictatorial Derg junta in 1974. In '75 the group fell apart. The legacy it left behind, as presented by Buda, is an eerie-sounding one, sitting partway between the countryside folk music atmosphere of Éthiopiques 12 and the modern professionalism of an Eshèté, between trained singing and artless strum. A good, solid folk group -- in other words, talented musicians who were willing to tweak the old sounds and not take themselves too seriously while they were doing it. In the photographs that come with the CD almost all of them are smiling.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.