Éthiopiques, Volumes 22 & 23: A Review

Alèmayèhu Eshèté – Ethiopiques 22: More Vintage!
Orchestra Ethiopia – Ethiopiques 23: Orchestra Ethiopia
(BudaMusique CDs)

Alèmayèhu Eshèté will already be a familiar name to followers of Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques series – a major star of the thriving Ethiopian pop scene of the 1960s and 1970s, up there with the more driving rock sounds of Mahmound Ahmed or the soulful vocals of Tlahoun Gèssèssè. More Vintage! makes available all the Ethiopian disk recordings Eshèté made that were not issued on Ethiopiques 9, which was also devoted to his work. Eshèté was strongly influenced by American R and B, both in terms of his James Brown style haircut and Mr. Please Please Please moves, and his sound which fused cutting funk-style guitar with pentatonic scale horn riffs, psychedelic keyboards and arrangements by the great Girma Beyene. The tracks on offer here, which date from the 1972-4 period, don’t offer any particular new news concerning this period of Ethiopian music – if anything , the grooves are less frenzied than on Ethiopiques 9, and a swinging sixties R and B Little Willie John style vibe is more prevalent – but almost everything here is exquisitely nuanced pop music, drenched in a nostalgia all the more powerful because of the brutal years of dictatorship that silenced the music.

Orchestra Ethiopia was an ensemble that existed from 1963 during the period of Haile Selassie’s reign in Ethiopia, to preserve and develop Ethiopian traditional music. Originally borne in the Haile Sellasse University in Addis, the Orchestra was the love-child of an Egyptian composer Halim el-Dab who, funded by a Rockefeller Foundation ethnomusicology grant, wished to bring together many different Ethiopian folk forms and musicians. Later the ensemble was run by American Peace Corps worker Charles Sutton and others, who all contributed their own compositions, so the Orchestra itself could hardly be called an embodiment of pure folk form. The CD’s accompanying booklet describes the fascinating complexities of a group trying to represent and fuse diverse “Ethiopian” traditions at a moment where modern westernized sounds of the kind so well documented by the Ethiopiques series were in the ascendant. Predictably, it was a successful tour of the US in 1969 that finally got the Orchestra real respect back home. The sound on these previously unissued recordings is terrific and the performances, combining vocals, with traditional woodwinds, strings and drums are vibrant, although they could also be described as generically ethnic, at least to someone not familiar with the forms being mixed and matched. Ironically, the Azmari minstrels who formed part of the backbone of the Orchestra, are still alive and strong in Addis Ababa today, a timely reminder that living folk musics don’t require preservation. Nevertheless, the reconfigured traditions on display here certainly have their own unique charm.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

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