Amarigna echellalo, tinish tinish, gin tamari neng.

The title of this post is an awkwardly rendered phrase: “I can only speak a little bit of Amharic, but I am a student.” It was the first relatively complex sentence I could say Amharic. I’m far from an expert now, but I’ve expanded my vocabulary a little. School led me to spend some time in Ethiopia, and while there I learned a great deal and I’m still learning. A bit of my education included the music of the country.

This being said, over the past week I had a few people send this new Nas and Damian Marley tune my way.

The track makes use of a sample from “Yegelle Tezeta” (translated as “My Own Memory”). It’s perhaps the most well-known piece by Mulatu Astatke, the self-described creator of Ethiojazz.
Arguably the public face of what many consider to be Ethiopian music, Mulatu described the sound of Ethiojazz to me a couple years ago as follows: “I used Ethiopian structures to create melodies, but instead of using cultural instruments, I used Western instruments like the piano and the contrabass. I somehow created was to use the Ethiopian modes, being very careful not to lose the feeling.”

I’m not an expert-again, tamari neng, thank-you very much-but I am aware that the traditional music of the Amhara and Tigray peoples in the north of the country makes use of a pentatonic mode. It’s reason why the melodies that Mulatu brought to jazz have a unique sound, the type of sound that’s captured the attention of a number of folks. The UK’s Quantic, before his travels took him to South America, was looking to collaborate with Mulatu, Jim Jarmusch famously used the man’s music for the soundtrack to Broken Flowers and Mulatu was not only invited to speak at the Red Bull Music Academy in 2007, but he spent 2007-2008 at Harvard as a visiting scholar. Mulatu and other greats of the late-Selassie era (i.e. late 19060s and early 70s) such as Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete and Getachew Mekurya have Francis Falceto and his incredible Ethiopiques (an amazing labour of love) series to thank for a lot of this shine. The popularity of the series continues to grow as does the Ethiopian Music Festival, held in Addis Ababa for the past eight years. The ninth edition is due to occur this May.

All this being said, it’s not surprising that before Nas and Damian unleashed their tune, Oh No released a whole album built around Ethiopian music samples with the excellent title Ethiopium. Check his sampling of “Yegelle Tezeta”.

The increasing international attention to Ethiopian jazz stylings has led to a renaissance of sorts in Addis Ababa, where renewed interest in jazz was noticed by the Economist, of all publications. The incredible Addis Acoustic Project (do listen to the two tunes on their myspace page-so worth while) drew a lot of attention at Womex this year and continues to draw crowds each week at the Alize Club in Addis-it’s on your way to Pizza Deli Roma, above the Red Bean cafe, if you’re in town and interested (which you should be!).

But back to the Nas/Marley/Mulatu combo. What of the mix of hip hop/reggae/Ethiopian music? Yes it’s happened outside of Ethiopia, but there a lot happening in Addis. When I was doing my research, I was looking for ways in which Rastafari was perceived by Ethiopians,  so I spent quite a while listening to Ethiopian reggae. There are Rastafari repatriates who play reggae in the capital, the most well-known of which is Sydney Salmon, and every year on His Majesty Haile Selassie’s birthday there is a big birthday celebration in Shashemene, Ethiopia, site of Selassie’s land grant to “the black people of the world” through the Ethiopian World Federation and home to repatriates hailing from Jamaica, Trinidad, the UK, Canada, Germany, America and beyond. Reggae is a big part of the party, but it’s mostly repatriates who are responsible for the tunes performed (and the soundsystem-I was once asked by an Ethiopian why Jamaicans are so loud: “Do they always have to listen to loud music when they are happy?”).

In the interest of connecting the dots between Jamaica and Ethiopia through music, over the next few days I’ll post some Ethiopian reggae for your enjoyment. Soundclash? Perhaps. Tell me what you think.


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