Samuel Yirga - Guzo
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Samuel Yirga
Real World (

We’re told Ethiopian pianist-composer Samuel Yirga never played an instrument before age 16, when he auditioned successfully for a spot at Addis Ababa’s Yared School of Music, where classical ruled. But Yirga was most inspired by home-grown Ethiopian traditional, pop and jazz music, as well as American funk, R&B and the likes of Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Set loose on the 88s, Yirga practiced 12 hours a day for three years, but his open ears and ecumenical bent took him far beyond what the conservatory could offer. An experimentalist, Yirga began composing and gigging around town in a variety of decidedly non-classical venues, eventually hooking up with producer-guitarist Nick Page, Dub Colossus and the Real World label.

Fiercely original, Yirga’s music defies categorization. Where else can one find an inspired remake of Rotary Connection and Minnie Riperton’s (1971) psychedelic era “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” (featuring the Creole Choir of Cuba) alongside a traditional Amharic song (“The Blues Of Wollo”), brassy, reedy, percussive Ethiopian funk (“Abet Abet”) or cultural anthems like “African Diaspora,” featuring the airy vocals of Nicolette Suwoton?

Yirga’s composing is potent, profoundly melodic and ever surprising. “Tiwista” builds on an Eastern-tinged five-note bass piano riff, layering bass, drums, reeds and flute in a slow burn, gliding into a bluesy, insistent, octave-laden hard-bop jam, while his “Drop Me There” flirts with a Latin montuno as it loops jubilantly into deep swing territory. Perhaps most expressive of Yirga’s singular musical imagination is his solo work, as on “Yeh Bati Koyita,” “Dance with the Legend,” and the meditative poignancy of “Drop Me There” [which opens the video, below]. Very simply, a brilliant recording debut of abundant promise. - Michael Stone

See a live performance recorded at Momo in London:

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