By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
By Karli Evans
By Jose D. Duran
By Pablo Chacon Alvarez
In the rich, varied, and bizarre history of African pop music, the absurd tragedy of the Ethiopian pop recording industry stands alone. Less than a decade separates cradle from grave. When 24-year-old Amha Eshete took the gutsy move of founding Amha Records in Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa in 1969, he did so in spite of a 1948 imperial edict that gave sole control of record production to a government agency. Agher Feqeq Mehber (The Love of Country Association), an arm of the Ethiopian National Theater, had reduced its slim trickle of traditional-music 45s to the occasional drip by the mid-1960s. Anything modernist was completely ignored, so Eshete had the burgeoning local pop scene all to himself.
Risking imprisonment, Eshete gambled that the time was right to spin the momentum of the then-growing tape underground into a vinyl defiance of the recording ban. By 1970 the declining power of Emperor Haile Selassie, coupled with the huge commercial success of Amha Records, sunk the 1948 edict under its own weight. Selassie chose to bless the homegrown recording industry, spurring an artistic explosion unlike anything else on the continent. The intensity was so great, it was almost as if the producers and performers recognized they had only a short while to get as much music released as possible. In 1974 a military junta known as the Derg (led by Col. Haile Mariam Mengistu) overthrew and ultimately murdered the emperor, establishing a puritanical Marxist regime that turned a deaf ear toward personal expression. It strangled the nightclub scene with curfews and put such strictures on recording artists that by 1978 the industry returned to the dust from whence it came.
After the dictatorship crumbled in 1992, record production limped back to life. While new performers have begun to return "Swinging Addis" to the cultural map, today's scene, based on traditional instead of modern forms, is a denouement to the thrilling years of artistic risk-taking rather than a true rebirth. Pure pop struggles to move forward, its stars now scattered across the globe. Both the old and new are chronicled on the first five CDs of a projected ten-disc Ethiopiques series from the Paris-based Buda Musique label (distributed in the United States by Allegro Music, www.allegro-music.com).
Although the series doesn't follow a chronological order, the first volume is the place to start. Ethiopiques 1, Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975 includes the cream of the Amha Records crop, opening with wunderkind Muluqen Mellesse, who began his career at thirteen years old and recorded the disc's opener "Hedeth Alu" at the ripe old age of nineteen.
With its vaguely sinister atmosphere and thick air of mystery suggesting both a back-alley rendezvous and a sense of romantic desolation, "Hedeth Alu" tells you at least half of what you need to know about early-1970s Addis pop, a.k.a. zemenawi muziqa. A unison stuck-key piano-and-guitar figure paves the way for the undulating vocals of Mellesse as he waxes tragic about unrequited love. His yearning voice is laden with the characteristic microtonality of Arabic-influenced pop, but uncoils more snakily and with spine-tingling verve. A saxophone surfaces through the pain with inflections that match the traditional Abyssinian singing style. Just in time for the closing bars as Mellesse launches a series of falsetto arpeggios that convey a faint rainbow of hope, Tekle Adhanom broadens the song's outreach with tasty bits of jazz guitar. Mellesse's second performance, "Wetetie Mare," recorded as the Derg government was tightening the screws, adds sophisticated R&B horn parts and a loosened vocal backbone. But you'll never mistake this for the Bar-Kays.
The only star on Ethiopiques 1 to win a smattering of international acclaim is Mahmoud Ahmed, subject of the 1986 anthology Ere Mela Mela on the Belgian Crammed Disc label, released later in the United States by Hannibal/Rykodisc. His Ethiopiques 1 cuts have an even darker ambiance than those by either Mellesse or the elastic-voiced Teshome Meteku, whose four percolations here represent his entire recorded output before his self-exile to Sweden. Ahmed's weary intensity drinks up any instrumental playfulness, especially in the brooding masterpiece "Gizie Degu Neger" where a Doors-style organ burbles beneath a sax as Ahmed slings off Amharic lyrics that almost sound as if they were recorded backward.
More Ahmed and Mellesse can be found on Ethiopiques 3, confusingly also subtitled Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975, featuring backing from institutional police bands attached to the army, the imperial bodyguard, Addis Ababa police, and others. The various bands here are well staffed and provide a nice break from the somewhat claustrophobic Amha Records house band heard on each cut of Ethiopiques 1, but the rawer sound is less compelling than Eshete's pristine pop product.
Once the explicit strangeness of first hearing Ethiopian pop wears off, its uniqueness starts to sink in. Because traditional Ethiopian songs delight in wordplay, double-entendre, and extended metaphor, pop arrangements tend toward starkness, the better to spotlight the dramatic vocals, even if the lyrical content is relatively toothless compared to traditional genres. Almost alone among African pop genres, Ethiopian pop is devoid of polyrhythms; they're no more pronounced than in the Western rock, jazz, and soul from which the music takes its cue. The layered Latin rhythms that had a huge impact on the rest of the continent made not the slightest inroad in Ethiopia; neither did the incendiary "belly dance" beats of Sudanese and North African pop.