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.

Essential 10: Ethiopian Albums

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Mahmoud Ahmed
Éthiopiques, Vol. 7: Erè Mèla (Buda Musique, 1999)
Erè Mèla Mèla, the 1975 classic by singer Mahmoud Ahmed, is a masterwork of psychedelic soul with shades of James Brown and a bagload of groove. It was the first album of Ethiopian music that producer Francis Falceto ever heard, kick-starting the epic journey that would lead to the creation of Éthiopiques.

Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu of Ethiopia (Strut Records, 2017)
This Strut release is a remaster of the 1972 album that solidified the vibraphonist and electric piano player’s unique sound. Recorded in New York with a band of American and Puerto Rican musicians, this was the first time that Mulatu’s music fully solidified into the distinctive blend of post-bop jazz, Afro-Latin percussion and Ethiopian melodic modes that became known as Ethiojazz.

Aster Aweke
Aster (Triple Earth, 1989)
Aster Aweke was the first big Ethiopian star of the world music era. Her self-titled international debut may suffer a bit from overly cheesy production, but the compositions are solid Afropop and the sheer power of her voice is undeniable. There’s also a handful of simple voice-and-krar (lyre) pieces that are just delightful.

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
Éthiopiques, Vol. 21: Ethiopia Song (Buda Musique, 2006)
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a musician like no other and her music is entirely unparalleled. Once an aspiring and promising concert pianist, God’s will intervened and she became a nun. Music never left her, though, and she instead created her own style. Her compositions for solo piano draw on Orthodox hymns and the melodies of the krar and begana lyres, but their lilting and uplifting textures bring to mind the watercolour tones of Debussy or Chopin.

Shewandagne Hailu
Sitotash (Nahom Records, 2013)
The sounds drifting out of the cafés, bars and taxis in Ethiopia are not those of Ethiojazz or traditional songs of the azmari bards – instead, what you’ll hear is out-and-out pop. Shewandagne Hailu is one of the biggest pop stars of recent years; his music is a mix of reggae and R&B with typical boy-band fare, but it all has an unmistakably Ethiopian feel.

Gétatchèw Mèkurya, The Ex & Guests
Moa Anbessa (Terp Records, 2006)
Gétatchèw Mèkurya developed his tenor sax playing by directly imitating the sound of the masenqo (one-stringed fiddle), and the resulting technique sounds strangely similar to the free jazz of Albert Ayler. When he plays in conjunction with pioneering Dutch post-punks The Ex, that sound becomes positively head-banging.

Mikael Seifu
Zelalem (RVNG Intl., 2016)
Mikael Seifu is a leading light in Ethiopiyawi Electronic, a bubbling underground scene in Addis Ababa (with exclaves in Washington, DC). The style takes electronic music and views it through an Ethiopian lens, creating something that is relevant to the internationally-connected urban youth. The result is downtempo house and trance with a dark and brooding atmosphere, often anchored in samples from masenqo, krar or Ethiojazz classics.

Various artists
Ethiopie: Musiques Vocales et Instrumentales (Ocora, 1994)
Ethiopia is home to over 80 ethnic groups, each with their own distinct musical culture – there’s much more to its folk music than azmaris. This double album of field recordings from the 1960s represents all sorts of traditional music from the length and breadth of the country, from interlocking flute ensembles and thumb pianos to multi-part polyphonic singing and the sounds of a raucous tejbet (honey-wine parlour).

Various artists
Éthiopiques, Vol. 1: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975 (Buda Musique, 1997)
The Éthiopiques series made the world sit up and pay attention to the retro sounds of Ethiopia in its musical golden age – this first volume is the perfect introduction to that scene. This compilation focuses on some of the most exceptional singers of the period such as Mahmoud Ahmed, Gétatchèw Kassa, Sèyfu Yohannès, and everything is imbibed with the smoky atmosphere of Addis Ababa’s coolest nightclubs.

Etenesh Wassie & Mathieu Sourisseau
Yene Alem (Buda Musique, 2018)
Etenesh Wassie is a full-fledged azmari, and her beautiful and haunting traditional songs take on extra dimensions with the contributions of acoustic bass guitarist Mathieu Sourisseau and cellist Julie Läderach. The style moves between classical chamber music, free jazz and abstract soundsculpture, leading to an intense, challenging yet exciting album.

Jamming in N’Djamena: Pulo NDJ

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Considering world music’s long-time love affair with African music, there are still areas of the continent that have had little to no coverage on the international scene. One of those places is Chad. A new project, Pulo NDJ, aims to bring the country’s music to the world through the lens of the New York club scene.

When djbuosis, founder of the cultural exchange platform HAPE Collective, visited Chad to meet some musicians and record some demos, he noticed the people’s passion for music but an almost complete lack of any recorded music industry or infrastructure. So in May 2018, he invited New York-based DJ and producer Nickodemus to come to the capital, N’Djamena, teach a few DJing workshops for kids and record a bunch of musicians.

As the musicians turned up for the recording sessions, word got around. “It just kept growing and growing, I was amazed! I didn’t expect so many people to turn up with ideas, wanting to be involved,” says Nickodemus. It wasn’t an option to let this music go unrecorded, and the improvised studio space became a hive of activity. “This was a huge opportunity for them to finally get some music out there into the world. So we went into overdrive with the coffee and we stayed awake late into the night, every night, to help record and make new songs.”

Some people brought programmed beats, some brought traditional songs. There were synthesisers and electric guitars bumping against traditional lutes and xylophones. With so many exciting musical ideas being thrown around, they started to solidify into full pieces, and soon there was an outline for an album that no-one had set out to record.

Pulo NDJ reflect the sounds of N’Djamena – a cosmopolitan city whose musicians come from all over the region. The main group are all key figures in the city’s live music scene: Idriss, a N’Djamena native; Samy and Wahlid, both from Cameroon; Stingo from Togo; and then there were others from every corners of the country.

Then it was up to Nickodemus to put his own stamp on it. “It really is a beautiful, collaborative project,” he says. “After we did all the writing and recording, all I did was take it home and get nerdy with it, adding the delays and the compressions and all the panning. They were super open to it. They were so happy not only to have their songs recorded, but also to have them flipped and sampled. Everything was open to interpretation and they were very open to getting it in the club.” The results became the album Desert to Douala, just released on Wonderwheel Recordings.

And now, the project is turning into a band. With the help of djbuosis, they’ve already planned a tour of West Africa, and they’ve got their eyes on playing even further abroad. From making a record to forming a band, the adventure of Pulo NDJ has been one of surprises, but that’s to be expected when you’re representing a country as yet unknown on the international stage. Now Chad is making its voice heard.

Photo: Pulo NDJ, by Clotilde Bertet.

As I Walked Out: Ninebarrow's Dorset

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

After four albums in six years, English folk duo Ninebarrow’s latest release is something a little bit different: it’s a book. Not a songbook or even a book about music in general, either. Ninebarrow’s Dorset is a collection of ten scenic walks around the pair’s native lands of the Isle of Purbeck and the surrounding areas.

It may seem like a bit of a departure, but for Ninebarrow – Jon Whitley and Jay LeBouchardiere – it came naturally…and was a long time coming. “The link between the Dorset landscape and our music is one that’s been there right from the start of Ninebarrow,” says Whitley, “And to be honest, we were walking together long before we started making music together!”

Ninebarrow’s Dorset isn’t just a set of stories and evocative descriptions. Each of the ten walks is fully mapped-out and each is indelibly linked to a song from the duo’s back catalogue. As you stroll over the hills and along the coastlines, not only is there a ready-made soundtrack for your walk, but you can learn the meaning of the songs and their connections to the land upon which you stand.

The duo’s own connection to the land is evident right in their name, which they borrow from the beautiful Nine Barrow Down near Swanage. They certainly wouldn’t have chosen anywhere else to write about. “I think Dorset has a magic that is gentler than some of the other beautiful places on a walker’s radar,” says LeBouchardiere, “It might lack the sheer grandeur of the Lake District’s mountains or the rugged drama of the Cornish coast, but you never have to climb too far to get glorious views over the hills and the surrounding water.”

Tonga Boys - Vindodo

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Tonga Boys
1000HZ (42 mins)

The first thing you’ll notice about this album is its packaging – no jewel case here! Instead, the CD comes in a sealed plastic pouch not unlike a tobacco packet, with some gnarly graphic design that would look perfectly at home in the cassette stalls in Mzuzu, Malawi.

Tonga Boys are indeed a group from Malawi, and Vindodo was made in collaboration with a trio of Polish producers. Their sound is quite akin to Congotronics: there’s a proper DIY atmosphere, all slightly distorted drums, percussion and looping, call-and-response vocals. The production is subtle – a synth drum here and there, the occasional drone, some echo. It’s tasteful and usually effective, but I feel like the album wouldn’t suffer incredibly without it.

The DIY-iness goes deep; these are obviously home recordings. That roughness can be aesthetically appropriate, but there’s a risk of it just sounding bad. Luckily, Vindodo manages to stay on the right side of that line…mostly. The ear gets used to it, and I warmed to the album the more I listened.

Everything about this album is rough and ready, but if you’re prepared and in the mood for a repetitive and darkly hypnotic listen, this is an interesting one to try.

Various Artists - Les Bushinengé: Nèg Mawon de Guyane

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Various Artists
Les Bushinengé: Nèg Mawon de Guyane
Buda Musique (73 mins)

The Bushinengé people from French Guiana and Suriname are descended from escaped slaves who fled to the Amazon and intermarried with the local Amerindian population. As a result, their culture mixes influences from all over Africa and the Amazon basin.

For the Bushinengé, music and dance are two halves of the same thing, and you’ll never find one without the other. It’s all meant to bring people closer together and as a result, it has a real community feel. It also means that every element of the music is geared towards getting you off your bum. It’s almost exclusively based around percussion and song, which is sung with a really distinctive vocal style that uses wide, heavy vibrato. A West African influence is particularly noticeable, especially with patterns played on beer bottles that sound so reminiscent of those in Ghanaian music.

This album is the latest addition to the wonderful Musique du Monde album series. It was recorded across French Guiana, capturing all sorts of performance styles and contexts, from live shows to living rooms and everything in between. It’s a great musical overview from a region we rarely hear, and from a people we hear even less.

The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra - Naming & Blaming

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra
Naming & Blaming
Hope Street Recordings (39 mins)

This is the second album from the Melbourne-based Public Opinion Afro Orchestra and it is unabashedly Afrobeat. The group take many cues from the 70s style, from the instrumentation to the groove to the long-form structure of the pieces. Of course it's political too, full of pointed criticisms of Western foreign policy and imperialism as well as Australia’s colonial past and neo-colonial present.

The thing with Afrobeat is that it hasn't yet stepped out of Fela Kuti's shadow; it may never be possible. For modern bands, comparisons are unavoidable, and who can compare to Fela? That’s why the stand-out points of this album are when the group break from tradition. Whether it’s the dubby trombone solo on ‘No Passport’ or the straight-up jazz sax of the title track, it’s these little bits of difference that really stand out. Most of all, it’s the contributions of the rapper MC One Sixth that make the sound fresh – the rhythms and riffs of Afrobeat are perfect vehicles for rap, and One Six’s lyricism fits well with the themes of the style.

With Naming & Blaming, the POAO capture that classic Afrobeat sound, while mixing things up just enough to not be just another Fela clone project.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa - Poetic Trance

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 147, May 2019.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa
Poetic Trance
Blue Line Productions (51 mins)

Aziz Sahmaoui, Moroccan co-founder of the legendary Orchestre National de Barbès, is back for a third album with his group University of Gnawa; together they explore the historic connections between the Gnawa of Morocco and the Mandé world to the south using music as their magnifying glass.

Aside from Sahmaoui himself providing lead vocals, ngoni and mandola, the core of the band are three Senegalese musicians, Alune Wade on bass, Hervé Samb on guitar and Cheikh Diallo on kora and keys. All three also sing, and so the Senegalese – and especially Wolof – sound is incredibly pervasive throughout. The Senegalese and North African elements are tumbled together with rock and reggae, making the end result rather poppy, actually.

Despite what the band name would suggest, though, there’s less Gnawa on the album than you’d expect. It’s a shame, because the strongest tracks on the album are the ones where it is brought to the fore, such as in ‘Soudani ya Yémma’ and ‘Sotanbi.’ It’s on these tracks that the album’s stated brief of ‘exposing universal truths’ of the connections between North and West Africa seems closest to being realised. Elsewhere, it just feels neither here nor there.