Welcome to my first blog. Common sense would say that I should start my weekly blog on music with an artist that most people know, or something accessible, in order to draw people in. But where would the fun in that be? To that end, I have decided to write about a young man from Ethiopia named Samuel Yirga. Samuel is a jazz pianist and composer who was signed to Real World Records (owned by Peter Gabriel- yup, that Peter Gabriel). Before releasing solo work on the label, Samuel was part of Dub Colossus, a UK/Ethiopian based jazz fusion band that started in 2006. Come 2012, he released his second full length solo record: Guzo on Real World Records.
Before discussing the album, it might be worth a quick introduction to the genre Ethiojazz. Interestingly, this style of music was born from the mind of an Armenian immigrant to Ethiopia- Nerses Nalbandian. He inherited the role of Head of the National Opera of Ethiopia from his uncle, Kervok, in the 1950s. Emperor Halsie Selassie had Narses compose for the National Opera. He married traditional Ethiopian scales and ideals and married them to the popular big band instrumentation of the Western world. Ethiojazz, or at least a precursor of the genre, was born.
The major player in Ethiojazz is Mulatu Astatke- a Welsh and US educated Ethiopian who effectively stumbled into music during his time studying aeronautic engineering. Inspired by other African students playing overseas and bringing their respective homeland’s music to an international audience, Astatke proceeded to do the same for Ethiopia. Using Nerses Nalbandian’s exeriments as a basis, he combined Western jazz, of the style of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane, with traditional Ethiopian music. The coming together of Ethiopia’s unique pentatonic based melodies and Western 12-tone scales and instrumentation is what truly heralded the coming of this new genre. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that he brought Ethiojazz to it’s spiritual home.
Throughout the 1960s through until the mid-’70s, the arts as a whole was booming in Ethiopia. However, it took a while for Astatke’s new music to gain real popularity, due to a traditionalist society initially unwilling to embrace anything Western after an age of colonisation. Through persistence, Astatke fought through this, and Ethiojazz became accepted throughout society, with other artists such as the Alern-Girna Band emerging.
1974 saw a low point for all art forms in Ethiopia, with the Marxist Deng regime censoring anything it deemed as being Western. This continued through until 1991, when Ethiopia became a democratic state. During these 17 years, many musicians fled Ethiopia, yet continued to bring Ethiojazz to the rest of the world- even though many in Ethiopia itself grew up with no knowledge of the genre. Eventually musicians returned to the country, and Ethiojazz has exploded into a second golden age, still spearheaded by Mulatu Astatke, who received an honourary doctorate of music from his alma mater, the Berklee College of Music in 2012, at the age of 79.
There is obviously a lot more to the story of Ethiojazz, and there are many excellent resources on the web for those interested further. I ended the history lesson in 2012, which is incidentally the year the album I will be reviewing was released- Samuel Yirga’s Guzo.
Samuel Yirga’s sophomore record comprises of 11 tracks and clocks in at just over an hour. The opening track, Abet Abet is an instrumental track that starts with a repeating motif from Yirga, which is mirrored by the other instruments when they kick in a few bars later. This is interspersed with melodic passages, utilising Western jazz stables such as the saxophone,trumpet and trombone, alongside the traditional Ethiopian kebero (a type of drum) and the mesenqo (a single string fiddle- often an accompaniment, but due to it’s construction is very difficult to play). There is little in the way of solo piano, Samuel showing his ability to compose an ensemble. Abet Abet is an interesting piece that really defines the sound of modern Ethiojazz.
The second track, Tiwista, follows a similar formula concerning a repeating motif, but here we start to hear a bit more of Samuel’s impressive piano playing. His use of syncopation and interesting phrasing over a walking bass line is a lot more “jazz sounding” than the previous track, and is therefore probably a good track for existing jazz fans to begin with. We also have a traditional Western drum kit rather than the previous track’s Ethiopian percussion.
Firma Ena Wereket is the happy medium between the previous tracks. Whilst the invocation of traditional Ethiopian music is here, we again get to hear Yirga using the piano as a melodic, leading instrument. The middle section again utilises syncopation and interesting phrasing ideas, but the song does come back to the central idea. Although there is a lot of repetition, it is mesmerising enough not to become boring.
The next track, Yeh Bati Koyita, is a departure. A solo piano piece that moves between melancholy and little flits of uplifting charm. His virtuosity shines through without feeling overindulgent, as jazz can oft seem to be. Yirga is constantly serving the song here, almost like a jazz version of Ludovico Einaudi- showing that throwing a plethora at notes at the stave and seeing what sticks only makes for a technical exercise rather than a song.
Track five is our first introduction to vocals. Nou de Soleil is an uplifting, mid-tempoed segue into the track I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun. A choir of female voices leads to a short piano flourish into a track that is full of soul and not a small amount of light funk. It is a fun song, with vocal harmonies reminiscent of the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire. The solo female vocalist has a wonderful timbre to her voice, and the answering melodies from the flute accent it beautifully. There are two short piano sections through the second half of the song, which don’t feel like they are particularly necessary, but this does little to detract from the vocal performance and song as a whole.
Dance With The Legend is another solo piano piece. It has a bit more swing to it, showing Yirga’s influences from an earlier period of Western jazz. At no point does he go over the top with self indulgence, nor does he allow the track to become stale. there are little flourishes and melodic sections that really grab you and had me smiling on more than one occasion.
This is followed by My Head, and we’re brought back to musical ground similar to the first and third tracks. Whilst the instrumentation is mainly Western as far as I can tell, the use of Ethiopian pentatonic melodies is present throughout.
Drop Me There is another solo piano piece. Hauntingly beautiful, it is generally sparse, until later on where you can imagine it being played in a smokey jazz club with a female singer putting the sad story Yirga wants to tell into words.
The penultimate track is the oddity. The Blues of Wollo is mainly a flute piece which did little for me. Whilst the underlying orchestration is fine, the flute seems a bit too much at times. The flute gives way to a vocal performance that is accented by the piano. Images of Mosques and the Middle East are brought up during this section, with the ululating of the female vocalist. The piece finishes with one of the best solo pieces of piano on the record, with Yirga’s signature use of syncopation.
We finish with African Diaspora, a pop-jazz song with a large latin influence. The lead vocalist has a wonderful voice and utilises vibrato to lovely effect. I can see this song being many listener’s favourite, as it’s a lot more accessible than other tracks on this album. I love the minimal use of a Hammond Organ, and a short guitar solo. The song breaks into more of a big band feel, with a number of brass instruments coming in, before finishing with an a cappella performance from a vocal choir.
All in all, an enjoyable album, yet potentially challenging listening to those that may not already be a listener of jazz music. There are, however, some tracks that are really easy to tap a foot and relate to. What is a great thing about this album is Yirga’s taken this as a chance to really show off his compositional skills, rather than take the listener through an hour of high tempo scales “artistic” dissonance and, frankly, listener alienation. Peter Gabriel really has a gem here on his record label and I hope that he keeps writing and performing. He may be a few years and records away from being the next Mulatu Astatke, but I see him being able to carve his own name into the history and future of Ethiojazz.
Guzo is available to buy from Amazon, or can be listened to on Spotify. For more examples of Ethiojazz, visit http://8tracks.com/explore/ethio_jazz. Thank you for reading, please comment!