It’s hard to believe that one man could have brought a lost musical generation to the world, but that’s exactly what happened in the case of Ethiopia. French music journalist Francis Falceto became obsessed with Ethiopian jazz from the 1960s and ’70s upon first hearing it in the ’80s. Because of the political situation in that African nation, the music was banned for many years. It took Falceto nearly two decades to compile and release the first of his “Ethiopiques” series.
Today, the series is 30 albums deep. Falceto’s story is immortalized in the recent documentary “Ethiopiques: Revolt of the Soul,” which I saw last month at the U.S. premiere in Los Angeles.
Like most Americans, I discovered Ethiopian jazz via “Ethiopiques” 18 years ago while working as an international music journalist. Some of the biggest names from that era—Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed, Girma Bèyènè—are represented in this month’s playlist. Yet so is a new crop of artists fascinated by the golden era of Ethiopian music who have taken that incredible sound and continue to honor it with new interpretations and compositions today.
For the last three years, I’ve created playlists for 24Life to coincide with the magazine’s monthly theme. This year, I’m doing something different. I’ll be exploring a different country or genre each month in hopes of introducing the incredible music of the world to people who might not be familiar with the sonic terrain. Music is the quickest means for learning about other cultures; it also happens to be the most fun (except for cuisine, perhaps). We’ll start this journey with one of the most fascinating and grooving sounds on the planet.
The first half of the playlist is dedicated to the originators of the style along with those who emulate them. Bands like Akalé Wubé and Tezeta Band have dedicated their careers to pursuing the classic sounds of Ethiopian jazz. Many others, such as Anbessa Orchestra, the Souljazz Orchestra, Karl Hector & The Malcouns, Ikebe Shakedown, The Daktaris and The Sorcerers survey African music more generally, often Afrobeat (another genre to explore this year), yet give love to Ethiopia in the process.
Then there’s varying shades of Ethiopian sounds—it’s not all jazz. Dub Colossus is a collective based in Addis Ababa produced by Nick Page, aka Dubulah, who founded global electronica outfit Transglobal Underground in 1990. Their blend of dub and Ethiopian on original compositions will hook you, but it works even better on the remix of San Francisco’s Meklit, an Ethiopian-American who fuses her own history into an eclectic blend of jazz, soul and folk. She’s featured near the end of the playlist on her song with Andrew Bird, “Yerakeh Yeresal.”
Gigi is an amazing Ethiopian singer who created a handful of albums with her producer (and husband) Bill Laswell. “Gud Fella” was her introduction to the world back in 2001. Gigi’s sister, the late Tigist, is featured on Bole 2 Harlem’s upbeat hip-hop take on Ethiopian jazz, while rap superstar Common samples Ethiopian horns from the golden era on his track “The Game.” The set closes with the incredible pianist Samuel Yirga, paying tribute to his education in both Western and Ethiopian classical styles on a gorgeous solo.
Since it’s not available on Spotify, I’ll include this Ethiopian jazz remix that I created with my production partner David “Duke Mushroom” Schommer, who was also behind Bole 2 Harlem, below. As EarthRise SoundSystem, we took a classic Nina Simone track, “Come Ye,” and turned it into an Ethiopian jazz track to pay tribute to the era. Schommer’s father helped create one of the first schools of higher education in Ethiopia; he has a long history with the music and culture. Listening to this playlist, you’ll find it hard not to explore the catalog of Ethiopian music in much more depth.
Photo credit: Syldavia, Thinkstock