(by Bob Tarte, The Miami New Times, July 15, 1999)



In the rich, varied, and bizarre history of African pop music, the absurd tragedy of the Ethiopian pop recording industry stands alone. Less than a decade separates cradle from grave. When 24-year-old Amha Eshèté took the gutsy move of founding Amha Records in 1969, he did so in defiance of a 1948 imperial edict that gave sole control of record production to a government agency. Agher Feqeq Mehber (The Love of Country Association), an arm of the Ethiopian National Theater, had reduced its trickle of traditional-music 45s to the occasional drip by the mid-1960s. Anything modernist was completely ignored, so Eshèté had the burgeoning local pop scene all to himself.

Risking imprisonment, Eshèté gambled that the time was right to spin the momentum of a tape underground into a vinyl defiance of the recording ban. By 1970, the declining power of Emperor Haile Sellassie coupled with the huge commercial success of Amha Records sunk the 1948 edict under its own weight. Sellassie chose to bless the homegrown recording industry, spurring an artistic explosion unlike anything else on the continent. The intensity was so great, it was as almost as if the producers and performers recognized that they had only a short while to get as much music released as possible. In 1974, a military junta known as the Derg led by Colonel Haile Mariam Mengistu overthrew--and ultimately murdered--the emperor, establishing a puritanical Marxist regime that turned a deaf ear toward personal expression. It strangled the nightclub scene with curfews and put such strictures on recording artists that by 1978 the industry returned to the dust from whence it came.

After the dictatorship crumbled in 1992, record production limped back to life. While new performers have begun to put 'Swinging Addis' back on the cultural map, today's scene, based on traditional instead of modern forms, is a denouement to the thrilling years of artistic risk-taking rather than a true rebirth. Pure pop continues the decline of 20 years ago, its stars now scattered across the globe. Both the old and new are chronicled on the first five CDs of a projected ten-disc Éthiopiques series from the Paris-based Buda Musique label (distributed in the US by Allegro Music, www.allegro-music.com and available from Tower Records).


Though the series doesn't follow a chronological order, the first volume is the place to start. Éthiopiques 1, Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975 includes the cream of the Amha Records crop, beginning with wünderkind Muluqén Mélléssé who began his career at 13 with various police bands and recorded disc opener "Hédèth Alu" at the ripe old age of 19.

With its vaguely sinister atmosphere and thick air of mystery suggesting a back alley rendezvous and romantic desolation, "Hédèth Alu" tells you at least half of what you need to know about early-'70s Addis pop--a.k.a. zèmènawi muziqa. A unison stuck-key piano-and-guitar figure paves the way for the undulating vocals of Mélléssé as he waxes tragic about unrequited love. His yearning voice is laden with the characteristic microtonality of Arabic-influenced pop but uncoiled more snakily and with spine-tingling verve. A saxophone surfaces through the pain with inflections that match the traditional Abyssinian singing style. Just in time for the closing bars as Mélléssé launches a series of falsetto arpeggios that convey a faint rainbow of hope, Tèklè Adhanom broadens the song's outreach with tasty bits of jazz guitar. Mélléssé's second performance, "Wètètié Maré," recorded as the Derg was tightening the screws, adds sophisticated R&B horn parts and a loosened vocal backbone. But you'll never mistake this for the Bar-Kays.

The only star on Éthiopiques 1 to win a smattering of international acclaim is Mahmoud Ahmed, subject of the 1986 anthology Eré Mèla Mèla on the Belgian Crammed Disc label, released later in the U.S. by Hannibal/Rykodisc. His Éthiopiques 1 cuts have an even darker ambiance than those by either Mélléssé or the elastic-voiced Tèshomè Meteku, whose four percolations here represent his entire recorded output before his self-exile to Sweden. Meteku's engaging pieces seem to indicate a familiarity with the nightclub scenes in old TV episodes of Ironsides, but Ahmed's weary intensity drinks up any instrumental playfulness, especially in the brooding masterpiece "Gizié Dègu Nègèr" where a Doors-style organ burbles beneath a sax as Ahmed slings off Amharic lyrics that almost sound recorded backwards.

More Ahmed and Mélléssé can be found on Éthiopiques 3, also confusingly subtitled "Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975" but featuring backing from institutional police bands attached to the army, imperial body guard, Addis Ababa police, and others. Though the various bands here are well staffed and provide a nice break from the somewhat claustrophobic Amha Records house band heard on each cut of Éthiopiques 1, the rawer sound is less compelling than Eshèté's pristine pop product.


Once the explicit strangeness of first hearing Ethiopian pop wears off, its uniqueness starts to sink in. Because traditional Ethiopian songs delight in wordplay, double entendres, and extended metaphors, pop arrangements tend toward starkness, the better to spotlight the dramatic vocals--even if the lyrical content is relatively toothless compared to traditional genres. Almost alone among African pop genres, the music is devoid of polyrhythms--they're no more pronounced than in the Western rock, jazz, and soul from which the music takes its cue. The layered Latin rhythms that had so huge an impact on the rest of the continent made not the slightest inroad in Ethiopia, nor the incendiary "belly dance" beats of Sudanese and North African pop.

The central role of lyrics in Abyssinian song is partially responsible for the failure of Mulatu Astatqé's bold experiments in "Ethio-Jazz," an attempt to yoke American jazz to Ethiopian idioms. His idea of an instrumental genre was too far removed from the traditional music elements that gave a familiar center to the Amha Records hits, many of which Astatqé himself arranged. Another problem was that the European-educated Astatqé used lead instruments he may have loved but which were never part of Ethiopian culture, not even via the military brass orchestras that spawned the police band incursions into pop. To this day, Astatqé remains the only known vibraphone player in the country.

Despite the many attractive qualities of Ethio-Jazz, it's a partial success at best based on the evidence of Éthiopiques 4, Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974. Astatqé's creation is one of those fusions that polish away too much of the appealing grit of the sources, resulting in a tendency toward background music blandness. Compared to the Nubian swing music of Egypt's Salamat or Abdel Gadir Sallim's jazzy Sudanese merdoum, the western instruments and grooves feel grafted onto local tunes rather than applied as an integrated, organically evolved whole. But as one-man invention, Ethio-Jazz lacks neither charm nor moments of brilliance. The horn charts are nice indeed, the pulse can shimmer wickedly, but there is that whiff of kitsch.


It's ironic that the pop musicians with their innocuous lyrics withered during the dictatorship while the azmaris, a virtual caste of sharp-tongued folk singers, squeaked by. The black market in cassette tapes actually increased during the days of the Derg, presumably because new recordings by the constantly topical azmaris provided the closest thing to a people's newspaper. Not that the junta tolerated criticism. Strict censorship and a rigid 10-p.m. curfew devastated the azmaribéts, the folk cabarets where the azmaris performed. Once the dictatorship fell, these clubs came back with a vengeance, springing up all over Addis like mushrooms after a rain. Anywhere there was room to house a few folding chairs and usually a source of liquor, an azmaribét could be found. Eager to bask in the suddenly-acquired freedom, a new generation of city dwellers lapped up the lightning-rod wit and unrelenting energy of the azmaris, driving the singers to unprecedented heights of popularity.

Though the azmaris are folkies rather than rockers, they are city dwelling folkies with all the sophistication that implies. The dressed-to-the-nines women on the cover of Éthiopiques 2, Tètchawèt! Urban Azmaris of the 90's could slide right into any chic Miami nightspot.

While the performances are clearly traditional-based, the style specific to Addis called bolel, "car exhaust fumes," gleefully combusts pop references. The one-riff, string-driven, rough as sandpaper Tchista Band include a song by Muluqén Mélléssé in the hypercharged medley that opens the disc. Mixing pidgin English with his Amharic, Adanèh Tèka unfurls meandering weirdness worthy of The Fall's Mark E. Smith on a song in which he claims to be Bob Marley's brother, aptly titled "Bob Marley." Tèka's loopy commentary on the caprices of fate and fame is accompanied by what sounds like a dying one-string fiddle and a packing crate drum. Monotonous, indecipherable, but still wonderful at 4:45, "Bob Marley" is chock full of ersatz phrases from Wailers' songs and an amazing litany of celebrity names that even stoops to include Michael Bolton. These folks pay attention to the world around them. "Bolel" by Zeditou Yohannès salutes the lyric fad of the day by working a reference to "my brother Clinton" into a bawdy piece.

Performances offer plenty of freewheeling give and take with the audience, especially those by female singers who sling off more double entendres than an evening of FOX television. Even by the relaxed standards granted the azmaris, Tigist Assèfa is way over the top on "Toutouyé." Tossing double-meaning subtleties to the wind, she moans, groans, and exhorts her lover to a backdrop of handdrums and a wailing vernacular fiddle, "Give it to me, oh, yeah, deeper, I'm coming," and you don't need to know Amharic to get the point. On the other end of the spectrum, Messèlè Asmanaw and Tigaw 'Tigabu' Bèllètè improvise a dazzling plucked instrumental duet on an amplified version of the same fiddle used in "Toutouyé," the krar, sounding here very much like a pair of electric guitars inventing Abyssinian surf music.


The fate of Amha Records was ultimately entwined with the Mengistu regime's crackdown on the Tigrigna-speaking peoples of Tigray and Eritrea. These northern provinces comprised a former Italian colony granted autonomy after World War II but annexed by Emperor Sellassie in 1962. The Mengistu government brutally repressed any manifestation, real or imagined, of the efforts of the Tigrigna to win their independence. Despite having been cleared twice by government censors, Amha Records' final release never saw the light of day (until now), because singer Tèklè Tesfa-Ezghi was of Eritrean origin. While Amha Eshèté was in America in search of better recording equipment, not only Tesfa-Ezghi but also Eshèté's father were imprisoned for alleged pro-independence sentiments. Deciding it was too dangerous to return to Ethiopia, Amha remained in the US, and Amha Records gave up the ghost.

The sampling of the label's Tigrigna releases on Éthiopiques 5, Tigrigna Music 1970-1975 introduces a music potentially more polyrhythmic than Ethiopian pop with layered guitars and singing style that seems to float between measures. But a huge clomp beat on the two and four that's been compared to the gait of a camel cancels out any swing potential this otherwise ebullient music has to offer. The bouncing bassline of "Mèdjèmèrya Feqrey" by munchkin-voiced Tsèhaytu Bèraki coupled with the pentatonic scale used in Tigrigna songs and a hard-to-classify 'living in an arid wasteland' sonority are a bit reminiscent of Ali Hassan Khuban's Nubian funk, but stripped of the rhythmic complexity. Never mind, this stuff has magic of its own, including selections by electric guitar wizard Tèwèldè Rèdde. Rèdde could go head-to-head with Mali's Ali Farka Toure, and his funky horn-charged "Nehadar Zèytkèwen" with the James Brown-influenced All Star Band establishes a much-needed oasis from monolithic drumbeating. With the female artists, you do have to develop an immunity for screechy vocals--even from a woman with so genteel an appellation as Tebèreh "Doris Day" Tèsfa-Hunègn, who currently runs a bar outside of Asmara as the now independent country of Eritrea enjoys a tenuous peace.

If there is a happy ending to the sad saga of the entire region, it would have to be the new vitality of Addis Ababa following the downfall of the Derg. In 1993, Amha Eshèté returned to his homeland after an 18-year absence. While there's no talk yet of a comeback for Amha Records, Eshèté's supervision of the Éthiopiques series is not only keeping him busy with such tasks as hunting down the master recordings in Greece and restoring them, it's also at long last giving Ethiopian pop the hearing it deserves.


[Copyright 1999 Bob Tarte]

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