I don’t remember if I went to Ethiopia first or listened to the album Ethiopiques first- the two events were more or less simultaneous- but my first impression was that here was some really wild really weird stuff, nice but in a curious way. My second impression was that this was not so different from what I was hearing on the buses- like maybe an earlier version- tripping through the Ethiopian outback from Addis to Bahir Dar or Gonder- the Selam bus, that is (don’t even think about the others, at least not from the Mercato at 5am). The music is hard to describe and inquiries about it are usually handled best by responses like, “Here, you take a listen.” It’s something like jazz, with healthy doses of psychedelia, Rai, and Afro-beat… fun-kee, all wrapped up in one big plate of injera bread. Now try to imagine an unplugged acoustic version of that same music, and you’ll have to listen to Addis Acoustic Project’s Tewesta “Remembrance”, out next week on the World Village label.
Now Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world whose culture is truly autochthonous. Despite the waves of peoples who have passed through or stayed on since the origin of homo sapiens sapiens, that which is Ethiopian was pretty much created right there, and direct foreign influences are few. That doesn’t make description any easier of course. It’s African, but not THAT African. It’s Semitic, but not THAT Semitic. It’s Christian, but not THAT Christian. Truth be told, Ethiopia is no one distinct thing, but an amalgamation, a collection, all gathered up within borders… more or less. The separate countries of Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan all share certain characteristics with their neighbors across the border, just to complicate matters, it seems sometimes. Amharic is the ‘working language’ of Ethiopia, but spoken as first language by little more than half of it, and Arabic would be more useful in much of it.
All of this concoction is reflected in the cacophony of the music, loosely held together by a common thread of musical history and culture and a desire for sonic nourishment. ‘Selam Yihoun Lehoulachin’ is the album's opening song and something of a sleeper, combining clarinet and mandolin with various forms of percussion to create a hypnotic trancelike lullabye. ‘Ambassel’ kicks up the tempo a notch with drums and accordion, pretty much setting the standard for what’s to come sonically. ‘Almaz YeHarrarwa’ gives the lead over to clarinet, alternating musical dialog with mandolin and percussion. ‘Ante Timeta Ene’ betrays an Italian influence, and you might be forgiven for thinking you were on a gondola in Venice if you happened to snooze.
It’s time to wake up with ‘Fikir Ayarejim’ (Love is Eternal) one of the album’s best songs and once a popular hit in its own right. ‘Etitu Beredegn’ ups the ante nicely, adding a dramatic touch to what was previously a certain sonic symmetry. Now you might imagine you’re in the middle of some whodunit, film noir, where everyone thinks the other has something to hide, each as he’s hiding something himself. ‘Anchim Ende Lela’ slows things down a bit again, getting into long low clarinettic grooves interwoven with percussion and mandolin that suggests nothing so much as old movies and old times. ‘Mashena’ continues in a similar vein, albeit more on the side of mandolins and choruses calling-and-responding across the field, across the aisle, across the centuries. This is nothing so much as visual music, music to free your imagination.
Once the tone and tenor is established, there are no great surprises from song to song. The great surprise is the album itself. Where did such a unique form of music derive from? Maybe if you explained the concept of jazz to a group of Ethiopian musicians and asked them to play what they imagine that to be, then this is what you’d get. I don’t know. I like it the same way that I like jazz, just let it play and imagine visual scenarios to accompany. There are no hooks or hangers, and few vocals even. Still it has a compelling quality tht makes me want to listen to it again. Of course, I’m attaching scenes from Ethiopia to it while I listen, so maybe that’s cheating. So go eat some wots with injera, then come back and put this on. If you liked Ethiopiques, then chances are you’ll like this, too. If you didn’t like Ethiopiques, then you should still try this, especially if you like jazz… and not so much funk. If you’ve never tried either, then start right here, tenderfoot, times a-wasting. Savor the flavor. That’s Addis Acoustic Project’s Tewesta - “Remembrance” out Aug. 9 on World Village. Check it out.