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.
The central role of lyrics in Abyssinian song is partially responsible for the failure of Mulatu Astatqe's bold experiments in Ethio-Jazz. His idea of an instrumental genre was too far removed from the traditional music elements that gave a familiar center to the Amha Records hits, many of which Astatqe himself arranged. Another problem was that the European-educated Astatqe used lead instruments he may have loved, but that were never part of Ethiopian culture, not even via the military brass orchestras that spawned the police band incursions into pop. To this day, Astatqe remains the only known vibraphone player in Ethiopia.
Despite the many attractive qualities of Ethio-jazz, it's a partial success at best based on the evidence of Ethiopiques 4, Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974. Astatqe's creation is one of those fusions that polish away too much of the appealing grit of the sources, resulting in a tendency toward background-music blandness. Compared to the Nubian swing music of Egypt's Salamat or Abdel Gadir Sallim's jazzy Sudanese merdoum, the Western instrumentation and grooves feel grafted onto local tunes rather than applied as an integrated, organically evolved whole. But as a one-man invention, Ethio-jazz lacks neither charm nor moments of brilliance. The horn charts are nice indeed, the pulse can shimmer wickedly, but there is that whiff of kitsch.
It's ironic that the pop musicians in Ethiopia, with their innocuous lyrics, withered during the dictatorship while the azmaris, a virtual caste of sharp-tongued folk singers, squeaked by. The black market in cassette tapes actually increased during the days of the Derg, presumably because new recordings by the constantly topical azmaris provided the closest thing to a people's newspaper. Not that the junta tolerated criticism. Strict censorship and a rigid 10:00 p.m. curfew devastated the azmaribets, the folk cabarets where the azmaris performed. Once the dictatorship fell, these clubs came back with a vengeance, however, springing up all over Addis like mushrooms after a rain. Anywhere there was room to house a few folding chairs and a bottle of liquor, an azmaribet could be found. Eager to bask in their suddenly acquired freedom, a new generation of city dwellers lapped up the lightning-rod wit and unrelenting energy of the azmaris, driving the singers to unprecedented heights of popularity.
Although the azmaris are folkies rather than rockers, they are city-dwelling folkies with all the sophistication that designation implies. The dressed-to-the-nines women on the cover of Ethiopiques 2, Tetchawet! Urban Azmaris of the '90s could slide right into any chic South Beach nightspot. While the performances are clearly tradition-based, the style specific to Addis called bolel ("car exhaust fumes") gleefully combusts pop references. The one-riff, string-driven, rough-as-sandpaper Tchista Band performs a song by Muluqen Mellesse in the hypercharged medley that opens the disc. Mixing pidgin English with his native Amharic, Adaneh Teka unfurls meandering weirdness worthy of The Fall's Mark E. Smith on the aptly titled "Bob Marley," a song in which Teka claims to be Bob Marley's brother. His loopy commentary on the caprices of fate and fame is accompanied by what sounds like a dying one-string fiddle and a packing crate drum. Monotonous, indecipherable, but still wonderful, "Bob Marley" is chock full of ersatz phrases from Wailers' songs and an amazing litany of celebrity names that even stoops to include Michael Bolton. These folks pay attention to the world around them. "Bolel," by Zeditou Yohannes, salutes the lyric fad of the day by working a reference to "my brother Clinton" into a bawdy piece.
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The performances here offer plenty of freewheeling give-and-take with the audience, especially those by female singers who sling off more double-entendres than an evening of Fox television. Even by the relaxed standards granted the azmaris, Tigist Assefa is way over the top on "Toutouye." Tossing double-meaning subtleties to the wind, she moans, groans, and exhorts her lover to a backdrop of hand drums and a wailing vernacular fiddle: "Give it to me! Oh yeah, deeper, I'm coming!" and you don't need to know Amharic to get the point. On the other end of the spectrum, Messele Asmanaw and Tigaw "Tigabu" Bellete improvise a dazzling plucked instrumental duet on an amplified version of the same fiddle used in "Toutouye," the krar, sounding very much here like a pair of electric guitars inventing Abyssinian surf music.
The fate of Amha Records was ultimately entwined with the Mengistu regime's crackdown on the Tigrigna-speaking people of Tigray and Eritrea. These northern provinces comprised a former Italian colony granted autonomy after World War II, but annexed into Ethiopia by Emperor Selassie in 1962. The Mengistu government brutally repressed any manifestation, real or imagined, of the efforts of the Tigrigna to win their independence. Despite having been cleared twice by government censors, Amha Records' final release never saw the light of day (until now), because singer Tekle Tesfa-Ezghi was of Eritrean origin. While Amha Eshete was in America in search of better recording equipment, both Tesfa-Ezghi and Eshete's own father were imprisoned for alleged pro-independence sentiments. Deciding it was too dangerous to return to Ethiopia, Amha remained in the United States, and Amha Records gave up the ghost.
The sampling of the label's Tigrigna releases on Ethiopiques 5, Tigrigna Music 1970-1975 introduces a music potentially more polyrhythmic than Ethiopian pop with layered guitars and a singing style that seems to float between measures. But a huge clomping beat on the two and four (one that's been compared to the gait of a camel) cancels out any swing potential this otherwise ebullient music has to offer. Never mind, this stuff has a magic of its own, including selections by electric-guitar wizard Tewelde Redda. Redda could go head-to-head with Mali's Ali Farka Toure, and his funky horn-charged "Nehadar Zeytkewen" with the James Brown-influenced All Star Band establishes a much-needed oasis from the monolithic drumbeating. With the female artists, you do have to develop an immunity to screechy vocals -- even from a woman with so genteel an appellation as Tebereh "Doris Day" Tesfa-Hunegn, who currently runs a bar outside of Asmara, the capital of the now independent Eritrea, enjoying at last a tenuous peace.
If there is a happy ending to this sad saga of art trying to survive internecine strife, it would have to be the new vitality of Addis Ababa following the downfall of the Derg. In 1993 Amha Eshete returned to his homeland after an eighteen-year absence. Although there's no talk yet of a comeback for Amha Records, Eshete's supervision of the Ethiopiques series is not only keeping him busy with tasks such as hunting down the master recordings (many of which were hidden for safekeeping in Greece) and restoring them, it's also at long last giving Ethiopian pop the hearing it deserves.