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Music All ears

Going to Ethiopia

When most Americans hear the word “Ethiopia,” the thoughts running through their heads probably are similar to the ones that run through mine: images of famine and war, mainly, and not a lot else. Maybe the portrait of Emperor Haile Selassie will come to mind, but all I know about him comes from reggae music, and I’m pretty sure I don’t buy the Rastafari idea that Selassie is God.

That all changed a few months ago with the release of Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers. Throughout that road movie, Bill Murray plays a mix CD a friend made for him. Over and over, Murray hits the road accompanied by one hypnotic song in particular, in which a muffled organ grooves along over a spare snare beat. What the hell is that music, and where can I get it?

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The Broken Flowers soundtrack (Decca Records) helped, of course—every Jarmusch film boasts an LP’s worth of great music, and this one’s no exception—but I wanted more of this music in particular. The composer in question, it turns out, was an Ethiopian named Mulatu Astatqé; the only CD I could find from him was on a French label called Buda Musique (distributed here by Allegro Music), part of a series called Éthiopiques.

Astatqé’s installment in the series was #4, subtitled Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974, and the disc was packed with instrumentals as infectious as the ones Jarmusch used. More tantalizing was the fact that the series is now 20 volumes strong, and still going. What other discoveries lurked there? Plenty.

As one might expect, a healthy chunk of the series is devoted to folk styles and instruments that date back centuries. But of this handful, only one title is a reissue: Vol. 16, The Lady with the Krar, compiling 1974 and 1976 recordings by Asnaqètch Wèrqu. (A krar is a sort of lyre, with a trapezoid frame attached to a round drum.) All the others are recent recordings of ancient-sounding music, like Alèmu Aga’s The Harp of King David (Vol. 11), where the musician whisper-sings at the very bottom of his vocal register, accompanied only by the 10-stringed bèguèna—possibly the oldest instrument in Ethiopia—which has a distinctive, metallic rattle to the notes in its upper range. Or the various-artists Kirba afaa Xonso (#12), where the expected stringed intstruments alternate with solo flute pieces and choral numbers used to celebrate village rituals.

The series also features some contemporary music: Vol. 2, Tètchawèt!, documents the lively scene of cabaret music in the ’90s; Vol. 15 shows Ethiopian music colliding with European influences; and Volume 20 has an American avant-jazz group, the Either/Orchestra, collaborating in 2004 with a group of musicians including our new friend Mulatu Astatqé.

The series’ real treasure, though, is its documentation of the amazing pop music Ethiopia produced in the ’70s. About half the series focuses on this era, and just looking at the covers might be enough to get your toes tapping: A saxophone quartet crouches mischievously in front of a horn section on Vol. 3’s Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music; singer Tlahoun Gèssèssè strikes a pose with a vintage mike on Vol. 17; a melee of percussionists shake maracas and tambourines on the appropriately titled Swinging Addis.

Interspersed throughout is the thrilling pop music—R&B- and soul-influenced, horns-heavy, or folk-based—that filled nightclubs in the final years of Sellasie’s rule. Tsèhaytu Bèraki’s weird, reedy voice leads a call-and-response over a throbbing rhythm section on Volume 5; a sinuous saxophone introduces listeners to the nocturnal mysteries of “Erè Mèla Mèla” on Volume 7; and Alèmayèhu Eshèté spends Vol. 9 making you decide whether he’s “the Ethiopian James Brown” or “the Abyssinian Elvis.”

Spend a few hours digging through this music, and you may never think of Ethiopia in the same way again. Emperor Haile Sellasie may not have been the Earthly incarnation of God, but his “enlightened despotism” certainly set the stage for some music worth collecting.

By John DeFore


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