The Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia: Various Artists (World Music Network)
CD/DL/LP
Out Now

The peerless “Rough Guide” series has been going now for very nearly 20 years introducing people to music they never even dreamt existed. One of their latest releases focusses on the music of Ethiopia & it runs the whole gamut of such, from traditional to modern & from local to overseas. Hec, it even features our old friends The Ex at one point. Louder Than War’s Paul Scott-Bates has been listening to the album & as you’ll see has been suitably impressed.

My expectations of Ethiopian music were maybe very predictable and, it would seem, misguided. I love music & I love listening to new music and when I have heard African music in the past I’ve always liked it. I know very little about this genre of music in general, but when I was given the chance to review this album, I jumped at it.

What did I expect in my narrow-mindedness? Tribal songs perhaps. Lots of percussion. Loud voices and chants. Yes, I was being stereotypical, but that was simply due to my ignorance and this album really opened my ears.

Rightly or wrongly, I purposely ignored any background information to this cd until I’ve listened to it completely independently.

The album starts with Ametballe by Bole 2 Harlem, multiple vocal, tight horns, multiple voices over a funky (dance disco?) beat. Incredibly lively. Very unexpected but very entertaining. Considering the songs here are not in my native language it’s surprising how catchy they become. By the end of track 2, Guragigna by Dub Colossus, I even found myself singing part of the chorus. Starting with a deep bass piano, a rumba rhythm enters to a female vocal accompanies more brass accompaniment.

Music is all about the feel, what it does to your soul, not who the artist is or what style of music it is. The opening of Ohoho Gedama by Mahmoud Mekuria reminded me of When A Man Loves A Woman then, later, A Whiter Shade Of Pale, mainly due to the Hammond style sound. I would have called the vocals more ”˜traditional’ in an African sense, an almost jazzy little affair with a funky little guitar riff.

Track 4, Musicawi Silt by Getatchew Mekuria & The Ex & Guests is an instrumental. I’m thinking ”“ movie soundtrack as the hero enters. Rocky Part XXXIV? Another instrumental follows with Orchestra Ethiopia and Datchene Koba (Trio Of Emblitas), a short, live sounding track. Hypnotic but enthralling.

I’ve heard of Krar Collective on BBC Radio Lancashire’s On The Wire programme (if you’ve never heard it, you really, really must!). There’s a real bundle of ”˜sounds likes’ on Ende Eyerusalem ”“ Spanish sounding guitar, eastern vocals sung in an almost Anglo-Scottish twang. Quite folky with continual percussion. A fairly hypnotic track.

I’m thinking West Side Story when I hear the intro to Abet Abet by Samuel Yirga, followed by percussion and an Egyptian sound. Freestyle jazz saxophone follows. I’m not an instrument expert but I’m sure there’s a didgeridoo and Jewish Harp throughout Sek’let by Zerfu Demissie, or both. Again, I’m no expert on language but the vocals are maybe in German? Almost all spoken-word ”“ I love this track.

More of what I was expecting with Invisible System, where Ambassel perform what I would call a ”˜traditional’ African track. Again, I’m surprised by jazz on Alemayehu Eshete with Ney-Ney Weleba, several tracks on this album seem to have a similar sound, but, mixed with an African style. Influences from around the World are clearly spotted but create truly original sounds in their own right. Another surprise, with a Rockabilly / Cramps style guitar on Gue by Tirudel Zeneba.

A lot of acoustic guitar and percussion on track 12 by Mohammed Jimmy Mohammed. Performed in front of a live audience, Mela Mela receives great applause on the end. To end the album is a haunting, semi-classical piano based track. Homesickness reminds me of maybe Anglo Irish/Scottish origins. Smashing to pieces any ideas I had of what to expect on this album. A beautiful track, ending an album of very genuine surprises.

The Rough Guide to Ethiopia turned out to be quite a journey ”“ I’ve really been quite taken aback by the many many styles of music on offer. Several styles borrowed, then intermingled with others, to create sounds that are truly original.

If your appetite has been whetted by the first disc, then there’s a second one containing tracks by Invisible System. Not only is this album cracking value for money, but, it’s also one to cherish.

All words Paul Scott-Bates. Paul’s website (where this first appeared) is Heaven Is A Place On Pendle. Paul has been working hard to save Radio Lancashire’s On The Wire, easily one of the best radio shows on the BBC. Follow him on twitter as @saveonthewire for all On The Wire news or follow his personal twitter, @hiapop.

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