Ethiopian Jazz: Thrilling Music That You Should Hear

Contemporary Ethiopian musicians reinvigorate traditional jazz stylings for new audiences in America and Addis Ababa.

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During the second half of the 20th century, cosmopolitan Ethiopians were delighted to see jazz giant Duke Ellington receive their country's Medal of Honor from Emperor Haile Selassie. At the same time, by contrast, a Berklee College of Music-trained Ethiopian jazz legend, Mulatu Astatke, who fused jazz and funk with his country's folk and Coptic Church melodies, was unknown in the United States.

In the 1960s, as the tastes of American jazz fans shifted from bebop to avant-garde, Ethiopian musicians were establishing a tradition whose compositions are just reaching American ears. Why did it take so long for this riveting, emotionally charged music to arrive?

Ethiopian musicians like Astatke, singer Alemayehu Eshete, and guitarist and arranger Girma Beyene have devoted their lives to blending Ethiopia's traditional five tones per octave, or pentatonic scale, with Western chords. Listening to the music they have produced shows the variety of influences on their approach to jazz.

Astatke traveled to London, Boston and New York in the 1960s, where he heard African-American and Latin jazz to which he added pentatonic scales. This spawned "Ethio Jazz."

Eshete and Beyene created a subgenre called swinging Addis by combining the songs they learned from the Ethiopian Police Band and the Haile Selassie I Theatre Orchestra with the rhythms they heard on the records of Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole and James Brown, brought to Ethiopia by Peace Corps volunteers. As Ethiopian musicologist Simeneh Betreyohannes says, "Most Ethiopian jazz artists did not go abroad; music was their way of traveling."

The result is music that is primeval and present-day. French musical curator Francis Falceto was so entranced by the music's rawness and funky, haunting virtuosity that he has spent 30 years collecting it. The result is a monumental 23-volume series, much of it available on YouTube, called Éthiopiques.

Politics and geography contributed to the music's late U.S. arrival. In the 1950s and 1960s, jazz was considered an American art form, except among Latin jazz fans. Much of the history of jazz in Africa focuses on musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Oliver Nelson, who toured the continent for the U.S. State Department, rather than on Africans creating a parallel jazz movement.

Another reason specific to Ethiopia was the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by a communist military junta. Until that group was ousted in 1991, Ethiopia's popular music was censored, nightclubs were shuttered and only patriotic songs could be recorded. A generation grew up with scant memory of folk music, the root of Ethiopian jazz.

Today's jazz revival in Ethiopia can be attributed to the success of the Éthiopiques series and the popularity of the Addis Acoustic Renaissance Group. Led by guitarist Girum Mezmur, 35, the band performs in Addis Ababa weekly at the packed Club Alize. The group's mission when it rearranges Ethiopian songs from the 1950s and 1960s is to invigorate "a new generation of Ethiopian club goers with melodies of the past."

Members of the band also play traditional instruments like double bass, accordion and mandolin, as well as the kebero, a type of drum, and clarinet to make the old new.

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