Words by Marlon Bishop
Electrified lyres. Auto-tuned vocal acrobatics. Undulating digital synths. Extremely funky dance moves, all happening above the shoulders. Those are just a few of the awesome things to expect when you go to see an Ethiopian pop music concert in 2013.
African pop music is steadily gaining exposure abroad as Nigerian afrobeats take over Europe,azonto goes viral and South African rappers get big record deals. Yet up in the Northeast corner of Africa, nothing of the sort is happening. The modern music of Ethiopia is very little known outside the country and its diaspora. That’s a shame, because Ethiopian music is amazing and sounds like nothing else on the continent — or in the rest of the world, for that matter.
If Ethiopia sounds different from the rest of Africa, that’s because the country is pretty different. It was the center of some of Africa’s most powerful historical empires, home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, and the only African territory (other than Liberia) to stay independent through the colonial era. Ethiopian languages are written in their own cool-looking alphabet. Culturally, it’s long been influenced by the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian Ocean as well as the rest of Africa. Chances are you’ve tried that spongy injera bread once or twice.
Most people familiar with Ethiopian music know it for the “ethio-jazz” sound which thrived in 1970s Addis Ababa, during the final years of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign. Musicians like Mulatu Astatke took American jazz and soul and refashioned it with the eerie, ancient-sounding pentatonic scales of Ethiopian traditional music, with swinging results.The sound has made popular abroad by the 28-disc Ethiopiques series put out by the French Buda Musique label over the last decade.Ethiopiques piqued the interest of beatniks the world over and has inspired a number of revivalist groups, likeDaptone Records‘ Budos Band.
While bands in New York and Tokyo relive the 1970s, Ethiopia has moved on to make pop music for the present day. Those same ancient scales and melismatic vocals are there, but instead of jazz, the tracks are influenced by tinges of synthy funk, reggae and R&B. It’s a sound that was developed to a large degree by a guy named Abegaz Shiota, a Japanese-Ethiopian producer who has cut records for virtually every major Ethiopian pop singer over the past few decades. For much of that time, Shiota worked out of the Ethiopian community in Washington DC, where the music scene largely relocated during the military dictatorship years of the 70s and 80s.
“There’s a really strong focus on vocals and lyricism,” says Danny Mekonnen, leader of the Boston based “ethio-groove” group Debo Band. Mekonnen says he’s not crazy about the reliance on digital synth sounds in the musical arrangements, but he thinks there’s still a lot to love about Ethiopian pop. “A lot of artists are taking pop music forward by pulling elements from the past, not in a nostalgic way, but honoring the past to create something new.”
Unlike many other regions of Africa, where hip-hop and other foreign styles are coming to dominate the soundscape, Ethiopia sticks close to its roots in sound and style. A lot of younger artists are even including the traditional masengo fiddle and krar lyre on the tracks, playing along with the high-flying synthesizers. And while it’s true that the production-quality can be a bit chintzy, the success of South African Shangaan electro music and digital-traditional artists like Omar Souleyman has proven that younger “world music” audiences can get into the lo-fi aesthetics of the developing world. If you find yourself able to get down, Ethiopian pop music is hypnotizing and hot all at once.
The following list isn’t a top ten of the most famous groups, or the most influential ones. It’s meant to be more of a smorgasbord where you can taste the different kinds of artists making music in Ethiopia and its diaspora today, from the big name pop stars to more experimental musicians taking Ethiopian music in fresh directions. Meanwhile, practice your neck-dancing skills — you’ll be itching for a trip to Addis by the end.
There’s no question about it: Ethiopia’s most famous musician, by far, is Teddy Afro, who has been making Ethiopian shoulders shimmy since his 2001 debut album, Abugida. His sound, full of traditional melodies played on fluttering synths and boosted with stadium-level reverb on the vocals, has helped define Ethiopian pop music over the last decade. He was also one of the first artists to make reggae popular, by mixing in the roots one-drop with Ethiopian sounds and themes. Amazingly, part of Teddy Afro’s appeal in Ethiopia is that he eschews frivolous lyrics for big, historical topics – for example, his 2012 album Tikur Sew (meaning “Black Man” in Amharic) is a tribute to 19th century Ethiopian emperor Menelik II. The video for the lead singleis an insanely epic reenactment of the 1896 battle in which Ethiopia defeated the Italian army and secured the empire’s independence.
Nobody in Ethiopia is breaking the mold quite likeJano Band, a 10-piece “ethio-rock” band experimenting with how to rock out Ethiopian-style. Their music is full of distorted metal guitar riffing on the serpentine pentatonic scales used in Ethiopian music, over a mix of East African and rock beats, with some occasional jazzy flourishes mixed in. The band, whose members all live and rehearse together in an old house in Addis Ababa, was put together by an Ethiopian music biz heavyweight named Addis Gessese who has been pushing them on the international market. Jano Band’s debut album, Ertale, is fittingly named after a fearsome, lava-spewing Ethiopian volcano and was recorded by producer Bill Laswell (who happens to be married to a famous Ethiopian singer named Gigi).
There’s a long tradition of great Ethiopian female singers, from top Amharic-language stars likeAbeba Desalegn and Helen Berhe, to Tigrigna singer Eden Gebreselassie and Beza Mekuanent, who in addition to singing, plays the traditional krar lyre like a total badass (really, check it out). Enter to that list Yegna, an act being marketed as “Ethiopia’s first girl group.” The group is made up of five women, each representing an Ethiopian female “type” (the humble country girl, the flashy city girl, the tom-boy, for example). In addition to making music, they star in a radio drama and host a talk show about youth-related issues. They recently performed a big debut concert in Ethiopia where all you had to do to attend was “be a girl or bring a girl.” Across their various platforms, everything Yegna does has a really high production value. Their hit song “Abet” starts with a kind of R&B take on the Ethiopian pop sound and wraps up with a funky house section (corresponding with an obligatory dance circle scene in the song’s well-done video).
Gossaye Kellemu, alias Jacky Gosee, is one of vocalists from the younger generation rising to Ethiopian stardom, along with guys like Temesgen Gebregziabher and Ziggy Zaga. Gosee lives in Amsterdam, and brings something of a modern, urban image to the Ethiopian pop sound.
Judging by the number of Facebook pages with titles like “I Love Jacky Gosee,” it appears that the baby-faced singer is particularly popular with the ladies. His biggest hit, “Sela Bey” features a nasty solo on the traditional mesengo fiddle and some wild choreographies.
The concept at the heart of Ethiopian-Israeli singerEster Rada’s music is so brilliant, it would get attention even if it wasn’t so well executed. Ester’s big idea was to take golden age ethio-jazz from the ’70s and smash it together with classic American R&B – two soulful genres from the same time in history that were happening on different sides of the world.
Luckily for us, she’s pulling it off masterfully and writing retro-flavored songs that still sound fresh, blending English-language lyrics, Ethiopian horn lines, bluesy organs and sizzling synth parts. We’re still waiting for the full-length to drop, but Ester Rada’s tasty four-track Life Happens EP gives us a sense we’re going to like it.
You don’t need to be a reggae head to know that Ethiopia has an important place in the Jamaican imagination. Rastafarians worship 20th century Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as the second coming of Christ, and the color scheme of the Ethiopian flag (red-yellow-green) has been adopted as the universally recognized “reggae colors.” It’s no surprise that Ethiopia has returned the love and embraced reggae music. (In 2005 Bob Marley was even treated to a splashy posthumous 60th birthday celebration in downtown Addis). The most famous reggae performer in Ethiopia is Jah Lude, who sings Jamaican-style roots reggae in Amharic.
MC MIKE & YONI YOYE
Hip-hop hasn’t made anywhere near the same impact in Ethiopia as it has elsewhere in Africa – after all, it’s a fairly conservative and pious society, and there’s a real resistance to music that wanders too far from tradition. But it has made some inroads among the younger generation – even if it’s not quite hip-hop in the Jay-Z or Lil Wayne sense. One example is the song “Godergna” by MC Mike and Yoni Yoye, which was a hit in 2012 and finds a kind of middle ground between hip-hop and Ethiopian culture. The track features an ’80s funk beat and some melodic rapping (along with some bitching spike fiddle playing), as dancers in the video pop b-boy moves in street wear along with Ethiopia’s trademark neck and shoulder moves.
It’s not exactly modern Ethiopian pop music, but Boston’s Debo Band is undeniably a party and certainly worth a mention on our list. You’d have to feel sorry for somebody who heard that Debo was a roots band and showed up for a concert expecting some light, world music pitter-patter. Instead, they’d be treated to a roaring orchestra of tubas, violins and accordions blasting through Ethiopian wedding standards, played with jazz nerd chops and punk rock intensity. Led by Ethiopian-American saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, Debo Band has come to lead the pack among the various Ethiopian revival projects that have popped up around the world on heels of the Ethiopiques releases, so much so that the venerable Sub Pop Records snatched them up to release their self-titled 2012 debut record. It’s a great album, but to get a sense of what they’re really about, check out their live sound with this track off Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn), documenting the group’s 2010 East African tour.