Listening to Addis Ababa in Kingston

This coming weekend it’s the annual EMP Pop Conference. This will be the fourth time I’ve spoken at the conference, which is an annual music nerd-fest of epic proportions. There’s so many interesting papers, discussions and performances going on that it’s hard to choose which to attend.

I co-presented a paper on screwed and chopped hip hop in 2007, then talked about soundclash in 2008, and finally, in 2011 I talked about collaborations between Jamaican dancehall artists and folks from foreign. This year it’s all about Addis Ababa. I decided to submit an abstract after reading about Benjamin Lebrave’s disappointment with contemporary Ethiopian music. Of course, those who have done a little reading of this blog or who know me know that I’m a pretty big fan of Ethiopia and Ethiopian music (shout out to Debo Band!). I have, however, been specifically interested in the reactions people have to the music they hear in Addis Ababa as well as the work of someone like Melaku Belay–emblematic of what one might call a recent traditional music renaissance (or perhaps just another approach to the traditional).

This means I’ve been listening to a whole pile of Ethiopian music here in Kingston, and I’ve renewed my big love for Teddy Afro and reminisced about the Ethiopian millennium…

Anyhow, if you’re interested in what Addis Ababa sounds like, I’ll be talking on the Repositioning Urban Pop panel on Friday, March 23, 2012, 9:00 – 11:00. Here’s the abstract:

‘Layers and layers of not-so-dope synths’: Listening to the Music of Addis Ababa

In a recent Fader column, record-label head and African music affectionado Benjamin Lebrave spoke of a recent trip to Addis Ababa. He had become enamoured with a particular tune with a particular synthy sound. After a week in the city, he was disappointed, finding the music either equally as synthy but “not-as-dope”, traditional, or representative of a long-past jazz period. He left frustrated.

But frustration is Addis Ababa. The city is one that demands a renewed listening ear. For Western listeners, the pentatonic backbone of much Ethiopian popular music sounds awkward and grating, especially when played on a tinny synth. Traditional instruments like the masinquo and krar accompany jerky, difficult dance moves. And though Ethio-jazz, made famous outside of Ethiopia by Mulatu Astetke, is more comfortable listening, it is representative of the sound of Ethiopia during the end of Haile Selassie’s reign—the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There are “layers and layers” of music in Addis. Like the city, its music is a complex web of old and new, serious and playful, discordant and harmonious. Addis challenges the notion of metropolis as it also challenges the notion of contemporary popular music.

This paper will take a sonic trip to and through Addis Ababa, looking at the tensions between the traditional and the modern. From the music shops of the merkato that blast Amharic pop and Celine Dion in equal measures, to the Azmari bets where stories, songs and insults are served up alongside folk dancing by traditional performers and musicians called “azmaris”, to the new generation of musicians that are playing around with bits and bobs of Ethio-jazz, Addis Ababa redefines “dope”.


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