Sometimes the way in which compilations are put together are as interesting as the music in hand and so it proves with this splendid anthology of Ethiopian music, the acquiring of the near impossible to find vinyl being a story in its own right. Rewind to war-torn West Beirut in 1981 and a young vinyl collector came across a 45 from Ethiopia among multiple different musical traditions on sale, from Egypt and Iraq to Spain and revolutionary songs from the Soviet Union. This can be explained partly in that well before the post WWII troubles in the Middle East surfaced, Beirut was a stop off for many western musicians and that included the likes of Duke Ellington who was so taken in by the city that he composed a piece to it as part out of his ‘Far East Suite’ (actually it would be more accurate to rename it the ‘Middle and Far East Suite’) called ‘Mount Harrissa’, in homage to the Lebanese mountain town.
Fast forward to the present and a crate digging expedition to the Ethiopian capital that for the first few days seemed to be yielding absolutely nothing, and then suddenly via a contact, as if by some miracle, musical nirvana was finally achieved. The result: a treasure trove of old recordings opened up and it is this momentous discovery that serves as both the inspiration and the hard material for this groundbreaking compilation. The names are mystic and the music, though familiar in beat, has a distinctive Ethiopian heart that cannot fail to melt the soul. Among the wonderful singers who impressed (and the music does require repeated listening to finally grasp its nuances), Getatchew Kassa and the unpronounceable, ‘Fikrishin Eshalehu’, or how about Alemayehu Eshete who features twice and seems to be something of a rhythms and blues devotee. The one name that will mean something to record aficionados over here is that of Mulatu Astatke who opens up proceedings with the well-known instrumental, ‘Emnete’, from 1970’s and that Strut records saw fit to re-issue and rightly so. Not for nothing was he regarded as the Duke Ellington of Ethio-jazz. This compilation, however, focuses thereafter on vocalists and on the unique Ethiopian take on soul and funk, which musicians and the wider public must have been exposed to via radio and home-grown record companies, sadly now all long departed.
Eight pages of individual track by track details which are all the more helpful because the overwhelming majority of musicians are new to these ears, with lovely graphics of labels, album covers and contemporary day photos of the inhabitants of Addis Ababa.
Hopefully, more original Ethiopian music will surface as a result of these and other pioneering efforts. Precisely what an anthology should be about; discovering unheard of musicians and bringing their talents to a wider audience.