Sunday, September 23, 2007

VARIOUS - The Very Best of Ethiopiques (Union Square)

There’s a real buzz about this collection of classic Ethiopian tracks from the early ’70s — Elvis Costello has even been persuaded to supply the puff for the front cover — and the fuss is fully justified for what must surely be a contender for compilation of the year. Instrumental solo saxophone and piano pieces, urban jazz tracks featuring meaty blasts of sax, rudimentary takes on Anglo-American pop, exuberant rhythm and blues, speedy rocking soul, and the more traditional Eritrean krar (lyre) music, as well as the raw shellèls ‘battle-cry’ music and the buzzy vibes of bèguèna harp music. All were captured on vinyl (and, increasingly, cassette) during an immensely creative period towards the end of the reign of King Haile Selassie between 1968-1978 . And over the last few years they’ve been painstakingly re-released to an equally surprised and impressed public by Francis Falceto’s Buda Musique label (21 titles released so far, and counting). As the result of poor studio conditions (invariably just two microphones recording to two-track tape recorders), there’s a unique, dense, atmospheric air to all the recordings, making them sound as if they were recorded in a small basement jazz club in the early ’20s. It’s a sound that fits the extraordinary marriage of distinct, soulful Ethiopian rhythms and blues-soaked vocals with the modern Western styles, so preserving the tracks in a form of sonic aspic. Mahmoud Ahmed will be the name most will be familiar with on this excellent compendium put together by early Triple Earth champion of Ethiopian music Iain Scott with Steve Bunyan. The veteran rhythm and blues singer tore up this yerar’s Awards For World Music ceremony (having won the Africa category) and his brooding Erè Mèla Mèla is one of three classic Ahmed tracks that form the backbone of the selection alongside other great males singers from the Swinging Addis era, such as Alèmayèhu Eshèté and Tlahoun Gèssèssè (whose Buda Musique, Volume 8 in the series, is one of the essential African releases of the past few years). And with all those soulful, evocative styles and artists swimming around these masters of East African, The Very Best of Ethiopiques is one of the truly essentials albums of 2007.

This review first appeared on

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