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September 05, 2008

Ethiopia: Swinging Addis Comes Back

Mahmoud Ahmed
Mahmoud Ahmed, back in the day.

by John Oseid

Get your streamers ready. Enqutatash, the Ethiopian New Year, arrives September 11; it will be the year 2001 in the Orthodox calendar. Now's your chance to get hooked--like me--on one of the coolest, most beguiling, and most unlikely musical revivals in years.

At a French embassy soirée in Addis Ababa some years ago, I was told that Ethiopian jazz was all the rage in the waning years of Haile Selassie's long reign, and that the swell society used to gather in posh hotels and party away to the music. "Swinging Addis," they called it. Then came the Mengistu regime in the mid-seventies and the fun door was slammed shut for 18 years.

The Golden Era stars, now septuagenarians, have made an improbable comeback, and their R&B- and soul-inflected jazz is a huge hit both on disc and in concert. A number of them recently gave a smashing Lincoln Center performance.

Here's an enthusiastic review of the packed spectacle I caught in late August at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park bandshell. Ethiopians of all ages were there, and so was the porkpie-hatted, goateed Brooklyn hipster crowd. Among the audience members, I stumbled upon Saturday Night Live's ridiculously talented Fred Armisen, who said he was mesmerized by the show.

Elegant singer Mahmoud Ahmed, dressed in a white tunic with a red sash, had the crowd on its feet with his shimmying and clapping. Alemayehu Eshete, a singer known for his James Brown-like persona, joined him on stage. They were backed by the Massachusetts-based jazz group Either/Orchestra, which some years ago latched on to the Ethio pentatonic sound and now plays regularly with these guys. Saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya fronted a hard driving set with Dutch punk band The Ex. Here's a fun amateur video.

The Horn of Africa musical explosion can be traced to one man's labor of love. A decade ago, Frenchman Francis Falceto began compiling Golden Era music. By now, his Paris-based label Buda Musique has released well over 20 volumes in the Ethiopique series. Not only have European and American hipsters caught on, but also director Jim Jarmusch employed the dean of Ethio-jazz, arranger and vibraphone player Mulatu Astatke, for the sound track of his film Broken Flowers.

For Ethiopian New Years, I will be partying at New York City's popular downtown nightclub SOB's on Friday, September 12, where the young singer Zeritu Kebede is coming directly from Ethiopia. Here's a clip of her in action. America's larger cities now all have vibrant Habesha (as Ethiopians call themselves) communities. Keep your eyes open for shows and get ready for an awesome new experience.

Further reading:
* Britain's Independent newspaper profiles Francis Falceto's Ethiopique compilations and previews a UK performance.
* In an NPR interview, Falceto discusses the history of his Ethiopique series.
* Falceto's Abyssinie Swing is a coffee table book of black and white photographs.


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