Friday, 5 April 2019

The Voice of a Generation: Girma Bèyènè

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

The phone line to Addis Ababa is bad – it’s muffled, noisy, and sounds of the hustle and bustle of Ethiopian city life often get in the way of what you’re actually trying to hear. But through the garbled frenetic sonorities of the intercontinental phone call rises the calm voice of Girma Bèyènè. He is softly spoken, his voice rounded with age and baring the scars of his life – his English still retains a smooth American accent. In theory, he is retired back in his beloved Ethiopia, but really, he’s busier than he has been in many years.

Girma’s talents – as a singer, a pianist, a composer and an arranger – were foundational in what became known as Swinging Addis, the golden age of Ethiopian music from the 60s and 70s. He was obsessed with American music, more than any composer on the scene in those days – crooner jazz, soft rock, soul and lounge music could all be found in his record collection and in his songs, mingling with unique Ethiopian pentatonic melodies. At the heart of all of his work was his girlfriend, Ségèné. “My subject is always my girlfriend,” he says. “I was inspired and all the songs belong to her. And I’m proud of that. They’re all love songs. All the way, everything is about her.”

Together with his group, Walias Band, Girma took part in the first all-Ethiopian tour of the US, in 1981. The tour was successful, with the band performing mostly to Ethiopians who had fled the Soviet-style Derg regime, but after the tour was over, the band had a tough decision. Return home to political and artistic repression, or stay in the US and build a new life? The band split in half, and Girma stayed behind.

He continued to make music for a while, but the inconceivable happened. Ségèné, his eternal muse, died, and Girma was inconsolable. All his music was for her, and without her, it was meaningless. He could not perform. He sank into a deep depression and eventually left music entirely. By the mid-80s, Girma was making his way in the world as a gas station attendant in Washington, DC, in self-imposed obscurity.

In the 2000s, a groundswell was brewing. Golden age Ethiopian music was finding new ears – not in the Horn of Africa, but in Europe and America. It was all down to French producer Francis Falceto and his immaculately-curated record series, Éthiopiques, which showcased the sounds of Swinging Addis and the style the became known as Ethio-jazz.

For Westerners that had never encountered Ethiopian music before, it was intoxicating. This was jazz, funk and soul, but like none you’d ever heard before. It was filled with mysterious dissonances and alien textures. The music seemed almost from another dimension – a time and place that no longer existed. The revelation that these musicians were not only still around, but still playing, was massive. Suddenly artists such as Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed and Gétatchèw Mèkurya became international stars – the founding fathers of Ethio-jazz. For Falceto, though, there was a name forgotten from those conversations: “I consider the path of Girma Bèyènè and his influence as fundamental. He was there at the development of modern Ethiopian music. Girma has always been a very important character, but he doesn’t have the noisy charisma to self-promote himself very strongly.”

The Éthiopiques albums were heard around the world and the music took on a life of its own. No longer was it the reserve of dusty records made decades ago; it had become the hip new sound. Ethiopian music was heard in Hollywood film soundtracks and hip-hop samples, and groups dedicated to playing, adapting and updating the music began to crop up on both sides of the Atlantic. One of those bands was an instrumental quintet from Paris called Akalé Wubé.

News of the growing popularity of golden age Ethiopian music slowly reached Girma’s ears. The spark started to return. He took his retirement and moved back to Addis with little fanfare, but he began planning his return to the stage. “You know I stopped music for a long time, it’s true. I was almost buried. But then someone woke me up! I would say he’s one-of-a-kind, a real maestro, he picked me up for real.” He contacted Francis Falceto.

“He bothered me again and again, ‘Francis, why don’t you make a band, set up a band for me like you did with Mahmoud?’” Falceto had his doubts, “it’s difficult to imagine the revival of an artist who has been far from the stage for 25-30 years…I’d never even seen him live!” But it just so happened that he’d recently heard of a French band who were looking for a singer. Akalé Wubé jumped at the chance to work with such a legend.

Things were tentative at first, but as it went along, it was clear that Girma was beginning to find his feet again. For Akalé Wubé’s bassist Oliver Degabriele, it was thrilling: “He was literally starting to play again, his fingers were getting looser on the keys, he was getting used to the microphone again. The first time we played a show, he walked out to 200 people screaming, and he was like a deer in headlights. But suddenly he came to life. Girma is a very introverted, shy guy, barely looks you in the eye, but on stage he becomes someone else. He’s Mick Jagger! I’ve seen him unable to walk backstage, but he’s running around the stage by the end of the show. It’s incredible how he changed.”

The need for a recording was obvious. Akalé Wubé’s music keeps an Ethiopian groove at the centre, but they bring some hardcore influences, from funk to punk to Afrobeat. With Girma, they worked on a series of arrangements of his favourite and most famous compositions, all funked up to 11. Girma’s warm, sometimes croaky voice gives an interesting juxtaposition to the distorted guitars and roaring saxes, but he didn’t want anything dumbed down. “Girma has never been a conservative person,” says Falceto. “He’s a rebel, even if he doesn’t look like a rebel! He is a super modernist. He listens to a lot of music from Ethiopia, America and everywhere, still. So it was natural.” The resulting album worked so well, it was enshrined in the canon: it became the 30th title in the Éthiopiques series, released in 2017 as Mistakes on Purpose. They’ve not looked back since, playing shows around the world. “He keeps telling us ‘I am reborn, I am born again!’” says Degabriele, “it is so nice to hear. That’s the whole point in this, giving him new life.”

In 2019, Girma Bèyènè is an old man sitting outside a church in Addis Ababa, struggling with a poor international phone line. But he’s a star again. He’s hopeful, excited and he’s getting even better. He plays his first date in the UK in June, and he chuckles with glee just talking about it. “It’s true, it’s true! I’m looking forward to coming to your place, I’ve never been in the UK. It sounds bragging, but we will do it even better, I love it! And when I hang up the phone I’m gonna keep on singing, all day!”

Photo: Girma Bèyènè with Akalé Wubé, by Cyril Fussien.