Uptown Pop Ranking

ImageIt’s taken me almost a week to semi-absorb the events of the EMP/IASPM Pop Conference held at NYU last weekend. I spoke early on Friday morning alongside Rustem Ertug Altinay, who talked about Güngör Bayrak and the fascinating world of Turkish Gazinos, and Mark Lomanno, who presented on jazz from the Carnary Islands. There were a number of interesting connections to be made between my paper on listening to Addis Ababa and their papers, which dealt with listening to other spaces/places. Note: I was lucky enough to have my paper live-tweeted by Ned Raggett (thanks so much Ned!!) You can check it out here.

After the panel, I was interviewed by Michael Rancic for Canada Arts Connect. It was interesting to talk about Canada in New York, and especially at the Pop Conference, where I’ve only heard a few papers about Canadian music over the years I’ve taken part. Del Cowie, incidentally, gave a great paper on Toronto hip hop before (and after) Drake. Rancic asked about whether or not an event like the Pop Con could (or should) happen in Canada. Of course, I’d welcome such a thing–and I do think that Canada has a huge amount to bring to the conversation about popular music.

Over the course of the weekend, Canada’s famous (or infamous–depending on how you look at it) CanCon rules were mentioned a shockingly large number of times. Yes, some of those times were by Canadians, but one very memorable mention was by Chuck D, on a panel about the music component of the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum, due to open in 2015. Arguing that the desire for national success–and the fact that media conglomeration has meant that national success seems the only viable option–has destroyed local scenes. Chuck D mentioned, with an air of what could only be called incredulity, that Canada insists on %35 Canadian Content on radio. I was sitting beside my Canadian colleague, who also gave an excellent paper on sound and space, Jeremy Morris, and we looked at each other, perhaps equally incredulous at this mention. The point was that CanCon regulations tip the deck towards the local, and therefore help out burgeoning acts/scenes. I think he has a point.

I also took part in a panel alongside such luminaries as Chief Boima, Wayne Marshall, Venus X, Eddie Stats and Dj Rekha. The topic was “Tropical Music, Appropriation and Music ‘Discovery’ in the Global Metropolis”, and the discussion ranged from Shakira to Santigold to Diplo to daggering. Venus revealed that she had written a series of newsletters for Shakira, apprising the singer’s people of the latest, most interesting developments in music. Apparently (and unfortunately), this information hasn’t really seemed to influence Shakira’s work. Venus, however, made the useful point that artists are indebted to their record labels and have to produce “new” and “exciting” music. They are so desperate to find something cool that they wouldn’t want to share their sources (a.k.a. give credit) to others or to the press. I was pretty flattered to be on the panel and felt that the conversation was wide-ranging (I learned about bubbling) and, I think, reasonably helpful in terms of thinking through issues of appropriation. As for me, the room was packed, and I can say quite honesty that I have never spoken in front of so many people in my life. I was nervous as all get out, but I think I managed to make at least one reasonable point, that being that listeners and journalists need to take some responsibility for telling the tales behind the tunes.

Other highlights of the weekend included the excellent ClusterMag-curated panel. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s paper on “The Ha” and vogue house was fantastic–thoroughly informative, insightful and entertaining. It was also great to finally meet her live and in person. Wayne Marshall’s paper dealt with the ever evolving ways in which youth share dance, music and more online, and the tag team of Max Pearl and Alexis Stephens took a look at the hype cycle and the speed of culture online.

I also enjoyed discussions about the music of revolution in Cairo, rebetika in Greece, Whitney Houston, record collecting, and so much more. However, the best bits were some of the conversations in between and around the panels. Great dinner conversation, great opportunity to meet new people, and, wonderfully, great weather.

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”.

Haile Roots Reggae

Ethiopian singer Haile Roots just released his first album of Amharic-language reggae called Chiggae (indicating a mix of the Ethiopian 6/8 time rhythm called “chikchika” and reggae). Arefe, of the always informative Addis Journal, wrote a post announcing the release today.

I know this record has been a long time coming…I heard of and heard Haile Roots in 2006, when I first started research into other Ethiopians doing the reggae thing. The music by the man otherwise known as Hailemichael Genet is good–though it still maintains the synthy sound emblematic of Amharic pop. This might turn off some roots reggae puritans, but it really shouldn’t. As regards the single “Mela Enimita”, I suggest that folks listen to the whole song–after all, you get to hear Luciano and Mikey General on the track too. Luciano’s vocals are terrific, and the chorus is pretty great. The video combines footage of Addis with some bits of Shashemene. Apparently Luciano was pretty darned impressed with the resulting clip.

Sorry for the low quality–I can’t seem to find a better version (or one that has better sync), as this one seems dragged from one of the ubiquitous video cds slap dashed together to sell at music shops across Ethiopia. The actual video was made a while ago by Aida Ashenafi, the director responsible for the incredible Guzo, a film that documented what happened when two Addis Ababa city kids take a trip to the countryside to see what it’s like to live far from urban conveniences. The Simple Life this aint. You can get an idea of the film from this clip, but it’s a shame the whole thing isn’t online. And after, if you want to listen to more Haile Roots when you’re done, check here and here.

Reggae vibes ina Itiopia

Next week, I’m going to be talking about my research at a workshop far far away. My dissertation was called (with apologies to Mr. Kalanji) “Moving Out of Babylon, into whose Father’s Land?: The Ethiopian Perception of the Repatriated Rastafari”, and I’ll be speaking specifically about the space of Shashemene, Ethiopia and the way the very space of the town impacts the relationship between Rastafari and Ethiopia/ans.

I recently wrote a little something about Ethiopian reggae for Arte.tv’s Tonspur website (accompanied by a few of my photos and some fun videos). I presented a longer piece on the topic at the Rastafari conference in August at UWI and I’m working up a longer paper. Anyhow, the little German I know tells me that the piece was shortened and edited a little. For those interested,  the original English is here. I’d be happy for comments–this is a wee little piece of a bigger project.

Shashemene, Reggae and Rastafari

Shashemene, Ethiopia is a bustling, busy crossroads town 250 kilometres south of Addis Ababa. It’s most well known not for its huge, busy market, or proximity to the wonderful hot springs of Wondo Genet, or the fact that it’s a great place to stop before traveling onwards to the south, but for a group of settlers living on the outskirts of the city—the Rastafari.

One passes the brightly coloured Rasta houses and businesses—some that look like they could have been lifted from Kingston, Jamaica and plopped down in this place, thousands of miles away—and enters the town where the streets are filled with people. Rastafari stick out.

There’s a definite divide between the Rastafari and the Ethiopian population. Physically the Rastafari are outside of Shashemene—a car, bus, horse cart or motorcycle taxi ride away—and they are a community of hundreds next to a town of over a hundred thousand. Rastafari culture (or cultures, given that Rastafari in Shashemene hail from over a dozen countries) is significantly different from Ethiopian cultures. I met with Rastafari who would tell me how hard it was to adapt to Ethiopia. Many spoke of how hard it was to learn languages like Amharic and Afaan Oromo, others spoke about how the climate was a lot colder than what they had expected. But regardless of any discomfort, their love for the land could not be shaken.

While doing my PhD research, I worked as an English teacher at a local college in Shashemene. When I told the students I was doing research that had to do with the Rastafari, the class giggled. One made a joke about how maybe I just wanted to get my hands on “hashish”. Another said that his parents wouldn’t want him going near their area, known in Amharic as the “Jamaica sefer” (Jamaican village/area).

I told the class I was interested in what Ethiopians thought about the Rastafarian population and they all looked at me with surprise. I got this reaction a lot. “No one has ever asked what we think about the Rastas,” said one Ethiopian friend. In general, people I spoke to told me that the Rastas were nice people, but these Shashemene locals worried about marijuana and didn’t understand the belief in Haile Selassie as divine. To my students, and to every other Ethiopia I interviewed, the former emperor may have been well liked, but he certainly wasn’t God.

Even though there’s an obvious disconnect, something that works to bring both communities together is music. Once a year, on July 23, the Rastafari make themselves known with a motorcade through the town. Very few Ethiopians take notice of this afternoon affair, but at night, the Rastafari throw a huge concert party to celebrate the birthday of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie. The doors of the headquarters of the Twelve Tribes of Israel are thrown open to the surrounding community. Reggae music is played nice and loud by tremendously talented repatriate musicians, and delicious Caribbean food is cooked by tremendously talented repatriate cooks. Listening to heavy bass while eating curry goat or escoveitched fish is to be expected in Jamaica, but in Ethiopia it’s a unique experience. Tourists, Ethiopians and Rastafari of all ages all share in what is a genuinely good time.

One year I invited my translator to the Rastafari bash. As a Protestant Christian, he’s not exactly thrilled about Rastafari beliefs. But after shoveling down piles of rice and peas and jerk fish, he turned to me and said “You know, they aren’t that bad. Their food is good, and the music is all right too. I just wish they didn’t play it so loud!”

Though repatriates Rastafari like Sidney Salmon (who’s been singing “Ethiopia Is Calling” for years-see below) and Teddy Dan perform often in Ethiopia, it’s not just the Rastafari that make reggae in Ethiopia.

Artists like Jonny Ragga, Eyob Makonnen, the Mehari Brothers and the near-legendary Teddy Afro, among others, have all taken a crack at Jamaica’s most well known export. 


However, while Teddy has used the reggae rhythms to get across political sentiments, as in the banned critique of the current regime, “Yasteseryal”, folks like Jonny, Eyob and Henock Mehari, simply see it as another genre of music. Jonny Ragga’s “Give Me the Key” is an upbeat track that wouldn’t be out of place at a Jamaican dance, but the lyrics are about love for a hot girl, not for Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. The same can be said for Henock and Eyob. Henock told me that dreadlocks are connected more with “style”: “Most Ethiopians are not into this faith. It is a bit confusing here. Everybody loves reggae music here. Bob Marley is famous and well known. This is one of the influences. And reggae music and culture is getting bigger worldwide. It is not just Rasta. I see the music as originally theirs, but many artists have been adapted it to their beliefs…I see it like normal music.” 

When people ask me what Ethiopians think of Rastafari, I often have them listen to some Ethiopian reggae. Certainly, some people I spoke in Ethiopia really didn’t like Rastafarian beliefs and therefore had no interest in the Rastafari. What’s interesting about music, however, is that it allows people to connect. Sure, Ethiopians and Rastafari might not have the same attitudes and opinions, but through the various versions of reggae that have been created in Ethiopia as a result of the Rastafari presence, there is an element of understanding—through music, culture can be shared.

Bringing Addis Ababa to America: part 1

Travellers to Ethiopia lucky enough to visit Ethiopian bars called azmari bets do not easily forget being a part of an enthusiastic crowd who drink cold beer and honey wine while enjoying the stories, songs and stinging yet silly insults served up alongside folk dancing by traditional performers called azmaris.

This unique experience (and hundreds of years of musical tradition) was brought to Somerville, New York, Richmond, Philadelphia, Providence, Milwaukee and Chicago over the past couple of weeks thanks to artists from Addis Ababa’s renowned Fendika azmari bet alongside the Ethiopian jazz and funk of Boston-based Debo Band. And there’s still time to catch them in Cambridge, MA on October 4.

More than a concert, Debo Band and Fendika match Ethiopian
melodies with incredible eskista—dancing that isolates the shoulders and the neck in ways that appear impossible. Melaku Belay, Fendika’s owner and principal dancer, is famous throughout Ethiopia, having performed internationally in Europe and North America dozens of times.

I’ve had the opportunity to not only see Debo Band in Ethiopia on more than one occasion, but also visit Fendika and being blown away by Melaku. All this happened because of my great good fortune–through the always fantastic Heruy Arefe-Aine, I met Danny Makonnen. Danny is the leader of Debo Band, and probably one of the most dynamic people around. His ability to explain and express opinions on music (and ethnomusicology) are only surpassed by his remarkable passion for the music he makes.

Just before the tour, I spoke to Danny about Ethiopian music, Debo, Fendika and making connections. For today, I’ll begin with his comments on the azmari tradition…

My understanding of the concept of the Azmari was really informed by early trips to Ethiopia—I was twelve when I first went to Ethiopia. My family is from Gonder, from the countryside. All the main streets in Gonder are lined with Azmari bets. I didn’t go to these places when I was twelve, but whenever a guest would come in to visit, the local azmari would be invited to come to my grandmother’s house to play for us. So my earliest memories of azmaris were these great folk musicians. It was their function to celebrate and sing praises—and to welcome long lost family members. So it’s something that I grew up hearing and appreciating in my grandmother’s house in Ethiopia. Flash forward to when I am in my early twenties and visiting Ethiopia as an adult, and I get to go and appreciate the Azmari bets myself. And these are the places where the Fendika musicians work, Addis Ababa in the Kazanchis neighbourhood.

My friend Simeneh Betreyohannes has studied them as being these things that grew out of the late seventies and eighties as places where people would basically set up shop in their living room or something like that and patrons would go to the azmari. So the azmari bet is a home for people in cities to go and experience the folk music, whereas in the country the folk comes to them. I think people in the city like to have a sense of a connection to their more idealized culture. The azmari people are folks who are the town storytellers, people who would tell accounts of the news. And these people are incredibly hip and aware of current events. Now in azmari bets in Addis, people are talking about Obama and the DV [US diversity visa] lottery. There’s lots of humour they incorporate. And they use modern, contemporary discourse, while being very rooted in the culture and in tradition. I see that relating to our project, because our project is very inspired by 1970s Ethiopia, but I don’t think that at the same time we are trying to be pure about it. I’m not trying to be a strict cover band doing things exactly as they would have been done in the 1970s. I’m aware of recent developments in music and my background is in jazz and avant garde jazz so were not trying to the most strict versions of things. And I’m also someone who has worked with contemporary Ethiopian-American hip hop artists and trying to bridge that gap as well. So the way that the contemporary azmaris function in Addis is a way that is very much playing with the idea of mixing modern and traditional.

I know that Melaku, the dancer and owner of the Fendika azmari bet, if you look at his website and read his bio, something that he talks about is that he’s not looking at the tradition in a very static way. He’s an innovative dancer. Rather than being in the cultural troupes of Addis, being at the tourist restaurants where you see all the flavours of Ethiopia in one hour, I feel that what Melaku is doing with his Ethio-color band, a 13-piece band that does folkloric music, and what he does with his performances alongside half a dozen groups from Europe and abroad like the Ex and all these other projects, I think that he’s really taking the tradition and pushing it to its limits. And I think this is something that is at the heart of what the azmari tradition is all about—and I think it’s an interesting way of also looking at what Debo Band is doing. I think we take, not necessarily the tradition of the azmaris, but the tradition of 1970s Ethiopian pop and, like azmaris, we are taking some modern twists on it.

Stay tuned for part 2. Until then, download Debo Band’s amazing new Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn) EP.

Yetiopia muzika bet’am ewedalehu + Rewind #3

Will “Quantic” Holland is always looking for new sounds, in betweens, “soundclashes” that produce interesting results–most recently in Colombia. Back in 2004, however, Holland took a trip to Ethiopia that resulted in a meeting with famed Ethio-jazz man Mulatu Astatke (an interview Holland did with Mulatu was subsequently published in Wax Poetics) and a further love of Ethiopian music of all stripes. It’s a big country with a huge variety of different types of music (that’s what you get from more than 80 different ethnic groups with as many different languages). Mulatu, J Dilla and Arthur Verocai were all celebrated in the Timeless Concert series, “a concert series that was created in homage to the composer/arrangers who have influenced hip-hop in the most literal and profound ways”, which took place in February-March 2009. As part of the series, Holland performed an hour-long mix of Ethiopian music. Get it here.

It’s now being released in advance of the June release of a box set that will include recordings of each concert. The mix is a selection of records Holland picked up in Ethiopia back in 2004. It’s just scratching the surface where Ethiopian music is concerned, but man, it’s damned good.

For a little context, here’s my piece on Quantic from 2006, where he talks about making the Addis connection.

England’s 26-year-old Will “Quantic” Holland is a bit of a wunderkind. He’s prolific as all get out, and he’s consistently bloody good. In advance of a DJ set this weekend, the Mirror asked the Bristol-based eclecticist about finding tunes, links and Mulatu Astatke.

Mirror: I see you as taking the concept of crate-digging to a whole other level. What do you look for?

Quantic: The basic form of crate-digging is where it’s basically looking for drum breaks to loop up or to sample and things. I think that once you do that for a while (laughs), you just get into music a little more deeply. You get into all kinds of music, regardless as to whether it has a drum break in it, or whether it’s a funky record or not.

M: You travel around a lot. It seems like you want to go to the source of the music you like—take, for instance, Ethiopia’s Mulatu Astatke.

Q: [Miles Cleret, owner of Soundway Records] and I were just sitting around one night and he told me he’d gone to Ethiopia pretty briefly, but he’d found some nice records. We just decided to go again, with the premise of trying to track down Mulatu for an interview (laughs). Actually, Mulatu really took us under his wing.

M: Ethiopians tend to be nice like that!

Q: Yeah. You know, all these places, some are heavy places to go to, but people are really friendly. I think it’s like anything, when somebody’s taken an interest in your culture, unless you’re robbing or something, but this is something that we are promoting, and trying to keep the knowledge of this music alive.

M: It seems that everyone wants what’s new, but you’re resurrecting the past. Do you ever feel that you should focus more on contemporary tunes?

Q: I’m interested in real music, and music played in a room with an atmosphere to it. Just because I like Puerto Rican rhumba records from the ’60s doesn’t mean I have to like reggaeton. To be honest, I really like drummers and I really like live music. And I like things nasty, kind of messed up, in a way that gives it character. And I think what you’ve got to remember with these older recordings is that they were made in really unique times.

M: It’s as if you’re looking for links. With Mulatu, you do hear the minor strains so common to Ethiopian music, mixed with other influences. With early calypso, you hear the traditional chanting. It’s almost like being a musical archeologist.

Q: Definitely. I think it’s just looking to see what spices were turned into pop along the way. With Mulatu, you can hear Chinese music in there, and you can hear all the Puerto Rican rhythms that he picked up in New York. And you can hear the fact that he was in London playing with jazz guys. I love going on trips because you hear just the strangest music.

UPDATE: If you want to hear more (like I do!), follow @AddisTunes on twitter and check out an awesome mix here.