If it wasn’t for Now-Again and Vinyl Me, Please, Ayalew Mesfin’s voice may never have been heard outside of Ethiopia.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, where the last Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by communist Derg forces, Ayalew was a musician frustrated by the oppressive regime. In an act seen as disruptive, he gave 4000 cassettes of his music away for free to voice his discontent, becoming a spokesman for the people. He was jailed for three months.
Upon release he was assigned a parole officer for thirteen years, and banned from creating music. However, Ayalew would not be silenced, continuing to record in secret with an ever-transforming Black Lion Band.
An anthology album, consisting of 7” singles and reel-to-reel tapes from his personal collection, is to be released for the first time. In eleven tracks Ayalew combines tizita, a form of Ethiopian ballad, with rock, funk, and soul.
Ethiopia has always been strong in its traditions; as the only country on the continent never to have been colonised, Western techniques have not had much effect on the production of music. Despite naming Wilson Pickett and James Brown amongst his idols – you can faintly hear their influence on tracks ‘Ewedish Nebere (I Used To Love You)’ and ‘Yetembelal Loga (Tall and Grateful)’ – the enduring Ethio-Groove is prevalent throughout Ayalew’s music.
Title track ‘Hasabi (My Worries)’ begins with angry, punchy guitar before the bass line retreats to a mellow bomp, and Ayalew commences to glide effortlessly up and down registers. Later on, ‘Ambael’ and ‘Zebeder (Mesmerizing)’ further demonstrate his ability to pour his heart out in the cantabile, singing about social issues and commentating on politics.
Describing the release, Ayalew says ‘this is not my story, this is an Ethiopian story. If you were there, you are a part of history, you are a part of Ethiopia, and, of course, you are a part of the world.’ He now stands alongside Mulatu Astatke and Getatchew Mekuria as Ethiopian musicians who have captured our hearts.
Forty years is a long time to wait to have your music played to the world. We’re thankful to be around to see it happen.