It's been almost twenty years since the release of the first volume of the Éthiopiques series introduced the rest of the world to the vintage sounds of Ethiopia's so-called “Golden Age," and what was once a lonely mission of cultural retrieval and historical memory has become the inspiration for a whole new generation of living, breathing artists.
A little backstory: in 1997 French label Buda Musique released Éthiopiques Volume 1: The Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music, followed by three more volumes in 1998. These albums were a revelation; documenting the wild, exhilarating sonic collision of jazz, r&b, soul and international pop with Ethiopia's unique musical traditions in the late '60s and early '70s — and breaking the seal on a music scene that had been virtually entombed two decades earlier.
Thanks to some intensive intercontinental sleuthing by French producer Francis Falcetto, a treasure trove of master tapes from the defunct Ahma label was unearthed in a warehouse in Athens, Greece. Label founder Amha Eshete's original recordings documented the heyday of “Swinging Addis”: the brief cultural flowering of Ethiopia's capital between the end of the 1960s — when the repressive grip of Emperor Haile Selassie began to loosen — and the rise of the even more repressive Derg regime which toppled him in 1974.
The Ahma Records masters survived to become the backbone of the Éthiopiques series, introducing the wider world to such Ethiopian stars as Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete, Getatchew Mekuria, Tilahun Gessesse and Mulatu Astatke. Those first volumes were an international success, and since then, the series has expanded to nearly 30 albums and focused on an even larger larger spectrum of Ethiopian music, including folk, regional, and contemporary pop. Éthiopiques is so successful as a brand, it's easy to mistake it for a genre unto itself.
The series also helped revive the careers of more than a few of the artists that it featured, most notably beloved singer Mahmoud Ahmed, vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke, and the late, great saxophone genius Getatchew Mekuria, who passed in April. All three embarked on surprising collaborations in recent years: Ahmed with Boston-based improvisational big band Either/Orchestra, Mekuria recording and touring with Dutch post-punk weirdo experimentalists The Ex, and Astatke making a series of albums with Either/Orchestra, London jazz-funk outfit The Heliocentrics, and his own band.
But the biggest surprise has been the new generation of bands that have been inspired by the series; not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a jumping-off point for something entirely new. So far 2016 has offered up three exciting new albums from three young(ish) bands exploring different facets of the Éthiopiques legacy.
The French-Ethiopian project uKanDanZ provides a direct link to Éthiopiques. Not only were they signed to the Buda Musique label by Francis Falcetto himself, the Lyon-based quartet also collaborate with veteran Ethiopian vocalist Asnake Guebreyes, featured on Volume 18 of the series.
uKanDanZ describe their sound as “Ethio-Crunch” and it's clear from their sound and lineup — guitar, bass, drums and sax — that they're heavily inspired by Getatchew Mekuria's skronky improvisational work with The Ex.
Awo is the group's second recording, after their 2012 debut Yetchalal, and it's heavy listening. Guilhem Meier's thunderous drumming, Benoit Lecomte's rattling bass, and Damien Cluzel's metallic guitarwork churn out a surprisingly nimble post-rock groove that begins somewhere between System of a Down and vintage Black Sabbath, and ends up in a much, much weirder place. But the real stars here are Lionel Martin's agitated sax improvisations and Guebreyes's plaintive Amharic vocals.
Standout tracks include minor-key fever-dream “Gela Gela," the bombastic No-Wave skronk of “Sèwotch Men Yelalu," and a stunning cover of Tilahun Gésséssé's classic “Tchuhetén Betsèmu” that showcases Martin and Cluzel's delirious unison playing. But brace yourself for the album's final cut, which clocks in at almost 18 minutes, challenging the resolve of the weak and uncommitted.
Find the band online: www.ukandanz.com
Qwanqwa is another trans-national, intergenerational project, initiated by American violinist Kaethe Hostetter (a founding member of Debo Band — more on them next), who moved to Addis Ababa in 2012 to immerse herself in authentic Ethiopian sounds at their source. There she teamed up with Mesele Asmamaw (electric krar), Dawit Seyoum (electric bass krar), and Samson Sendekou (percussion) to record two albums so far.
Volume Two follows up Qwanqwa's 2014 debut with six gorgeously atmospheric compositions built around the interplay between the krar — Ethiopia's iconic five-stringed lyre — and the violin. The group's electrified two-krar attack creates an almost psychedelic effect: scratchy, hypnotic strings and discrete percussion underpin the violin's sweetness as gorgeous pentatonic melodies float above the treble-y funk.
Most of the tracks here are instrumentals, like the dreamy “Gelani” and the frenetic funk workout “Gorage”; while “Tezata” and “Mela Mela” offer a change of pace with two inspired takes on Mahmoud Ahmed classics. This is a quiet surprise of a record that doesn't announce itself immediately, but repeated spins reward the listener with hidden gems.
Before we go any further, bookmark this page and find a Debo Band show near you. No matter how good this Boston-based eleven-piece is on record — and their latest record is very, very good — their live show is absolutely incandescent. They're tighter than a tourniquet onstage, and they tour a lot. Go. Buy a ticket. We'll wait…
Okay, let's dive in: we saved the best for last. Ere Gobez is Debo Band's extraordinary second full-length set, and one of the best records of 2016 so far. You don't know Debo Band? That's okay, we can still be friends…
Debo came together in 2006, led by Ethiopian-American saxophonist and ethnomusicologist Danny Makonnen, and heavily inspired by Getatchew Mekuria. The group put in the work and mastered a small repertoire of Ethiopian classics, some of which showed up on their debut EP, Flamingoh, recorded live in 2010 on a visit to Ethiopia.
But don't confuse Debo Band with a revival act. What made them exciting from the beginning was their refusal to be fit with a four decade-old musical straitjacket; going beyond mere covers to write original songs grounded in the music of Ethiopia. Even their instrumentation is unique: a proper, four-piece brass section grafted onto a standard, drums/bass/guitar rock combo, with an accordion, a sousaphone and two violinists for good measure.
Debo's self-titled 2012 release on Sub Pop brimmed over with restless energy, bold ideas, and fearless fusions of Ethiopian motifs with free jazz improvisation and punk rock energy — and they had the chops to back it all up.
Ere Gobez exceeds the promise of that record right out of the gate with the dancefloor scorcher “Ele” — based on the uptempo gurage dance from Southwestern Ethiopia —propelling the album forward with a breakneck backbeat, an insistent fiddle riff, and Bruck Tesfaye's urgent Amharic vocals. The punishing pace continues with the heavy guitar-and-horn driven funk of “Kehulum Abliche” leavened by swirling accordion breaks. And it just keeps getting better from there.
A gorgeous cover of Mamhoud Ahmed's 1978 side “Jeguol Naw Betwa” reminds us that Ethiopian pop continued to evolve after the close of the “Golden Age," while “Yalanchi” builds a polished funk juggernaut from the bass riff of a traditional wedding song.
Debo re-imagines an alternate timeline where Duke Ellington's “Blue Pepper” is filtered through the Addis Ababa Police Band on “Blue Awaze," while “Kehulum Abliche” adapts an '80s Somali hit, “Rafaad iyo Raaxo," from that country's legendary Dur Dur band.
"Hiyamikachi Bushi" (excerpt)
One of the most remarkable tracks is “Hiyamikachi Bushi,” a beloved Okinawan pop song from the 1950s arranged by Debo's Japanese-American accordionist, Marié Abe. Hardly a random choice, it invites parallels between Okinawa's post-WWII rebuilding and Ethiopia's own rebuilding from civil war and famine in the 1980s while also subtly alluding to the Ethiopian Kagnew battalions who rotated through Okinawa during the Korean War.
That's the kind of historically-informed smarts and passionate musical fearlessness that's at the heart of Ere Gobez, whose title is an all-purpose Amharic exhortation for courage and excellence. It's also what makes Debo Band so compelling, reminding us that the Éthiopiques legacy is alive and well, and still evolving every day. - Tom Pryor