Where would we be without scenes? All of the art forms have benefitted from a group of people with a common vision, political leaning, fashion sense or possibly a location in common. What propagates a scene can differ. It can be cheap rents, a social climate or just simply similar haircuts. Whatever the prevailing conditions, the participants come to the fore, flourish briefly and then move on, either dying away or integrating into the wider environment. Tonight’s gig was by a prime mover in a scene that broke big in his native country fifty years ago.
I’d picked up a compilation of Ethiopian music a few years ago, via the Ethiopiques label. The label specialises in reissues of classic music from the sixties onwards from the African country.
After a failed violent coup in 1960, Haile Selassie realised that he had to open the country up and modernise. It created a swinging Addis Ababa scene that was analogous to Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club music. Music prospered, especially jazz, before a military clampdown in 1975. The first bands were inspired by western military marching bands formed by the police and the security forces amongst others. Selassie had gone on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1924 and met a band of abandoned Armenia orphans. He took the band in question back to Addis Ababa and formed the “Forty Kids” who became the Imperial band for the Emperor.
Ethiopia was surrounded by mountains and within this hermetically sealed atmosphere, a unique Ethiopian sound emerged, particularly at the jazzier end of the spectrum. The melodies were eastern in feel but with a more rhythmic base. This was further influenced by the arrival of US peace keeping soldiers in the mid sixties bringing their soul, R’n’B and jazz records. The local musicians learned these licks as a local scene emerged. The music still retained the unusual melodic scales and the loping beat. It remained and still is distant from what most Western audiences would typically recognise as jazz.
Selassie died in 1975 imprisoned after the Soviet backed coup d’etat. Of course, Selassie had hugely important cultural role in music, as he is worshipped as the Rastafari god incarnate.
After his death, many of the key musicians fled the country to keep their freedom. The dictatorship introduced a permanent curfew and not surprisingly, the music and arts scene suffered, especially when state censorship was thrown into the melting pot. Vinyl stopped being produced with the main form of media for distributing music being the good old cassette.
Mulatu Astatke’s story is somewhat different though. He was sent away by his family to Wales to study engineering in the 1950’s. He ended up with a musical education instead and moved to the USA to become the first African musician to enrole at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Hearing Latin music, he started cutting his own records, specialising on the vibraphone and percussion. He took his jazz sound back to Ethiopia in the early 70’s, evening playing with the great Duke Ellington there. He cut more records on Amha Eshtete’s Amha record label.
The Ethiopian independent recording industry had a short life. There was a state monopoly and when Eshete set up Amha he was warned off. He persevered in starting his label though:
“I thought “Nobody’s going to kill me for this. At most I might land in jail for a while.” I talked my plans over with lots of people at the Haile Selassie I theatre and at Agher Feqer Mahber (literally the Love Of Country Association). They all warned me that I was headed for serious trouble. I was already importing foreign records. I had my first records, two 45/s by Alemayehu (known as the Ethiopian James Brown!) stamped in India – it was nearby and cheap. When the records arrived, Agher Feqer threatened me, brandishing the Emperor’s order, but without much conviction. They knew that they had produced almost nothing in the past years, and it all just died down. I didn’t even have to pay them anything, as they claimed I should.”
Mulatu stuck around but his music fell into obscurity until in the French label Buda Musique started re-releasing vintage Ethiopian records. Astatqe’s album, Volume 4 in the series of reissues, became a hit. The Buda releases created a new interest in Ethiopian music. Robert Plant is a big fan of Mahmoud Ahmed in particular and Elvis Costello wrote some of the sleeve notes for the Ethiopiques “Very Best Of” compilation.
The album became a sampler’s favourite and Mulatu got a second musical life. He began touring again and now at the age of 72 is a regular on the European circuit.
So what did we think of the show. Sadly not a lot. The gig was in the round again and as a result were behind the drummer and percussionist, four rows back. The un-amplified sound of both sets of instruments drowned out pretty much everything else to migraine inducing levels. Add to this that Mulatu was drowned out on vibraphone and electric piano, and the other five musicians (sax, trumpet, cello, bass, piano) not quite gelling, and what we ended up with was a rather unedifying jazz soup. It was the second time in three days that sound quality at the Roundhouse has let the gig down and they really need to sort this out.
The other issue was a lack of directness. What I enjoy about the recorded versions of Mulatu’s songs is that they are concise with just a couple of runs through the head theme, a solo and back to the head. Tonight the songs stretched out but the poor sound just meant we got 10 minutes of mush each time around rather then the vignette of life in Addis Ababa in the early seventies that we were hoping for.
Here’s Mulatu seventies recording of “Yekermo Sew”, his signature piece. The title translates as a man of wisdom and experience, which is a pretty good description of Mulatu. The two hit bass line is pure Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”. The melody is hypnotic and dramatic though. Played as a pentatonic scale, the Arabesque nature of much Ethiopian music is evident.
This is Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” to compare. The Mulatu song is very much an Ethiopian take on the Blue Note standard. Silver recorded the title track of his album in 1963 at Rudi Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey, which coincided with Mulatu’s time in New York. Silver’s family had been originally from the Portuguese governed island of Cape Verde and his dad hosted Saturday night parties in Connecticut where the old island favourites were rolled out. Silver later headed down to Rio and you can hear a Brazilian influence to the song too.
So essentially, we start in Cape Verde, head to Connecticut, down to Rio, back to New Jersey, over to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and we end up with the music being given a second life in Paris.
Here’s some Mahmoud Ahmed to finish off with. The music has that lovely lazy almost Cuban stroll to it but there is a wonderful fuzz tone guitar solo at the end.