Anyone familiar with the Ethiopiques series will know that the east African country has for many years been blessed with singers who possess instantly identifiable vocals replete with raw, guttural feeling. One such singer is Eténèsh Wassie, who crops up in on volume 18 of Buda Musique’s series and who can these days be found working with French jazz group Les Tigres Des Platanes. It’s with the ensemble’s bassist Mathieu Sourisseau that Wassie has teamed up on Belo Belo, an album that packs a real, and voluminous, clout given the relatively sparse nature of the instrumental setting.
The full force of what’s within isn’t immediately apparent from the opener, Burtukan, on which the rumble of acoustic bass (the rub of toothbrush on strings!) converses with Wassie’s teasing refrains - the tell-tale catch in the voice, bass almost suspended in mid-air, then subtly, eloquently following Massie’s melodic line. The second track, Ende Matew Style, starts softly, with Nicolas Lafourest joining on acoustic guitar, paving the way for a gathering storm of a vocal. Wassie sweeps from tenderly tremulous to an urgently chanted call to arms, by way of an otherworldly rasp, and back again, in and out, pulling the emotions this way and that, all underpinned by Pixies-style quiet-loud-quiet performance from Sourisseau (a feature of the album is the bassist’s ability to mould his playing to match the mood set by the singer - one beat behind, and pitched just below, his partner’s vocals).
And so it goes for the rest of this intensely uncompromising and form-stretching album that explores the tension between space and noise, each song sounding like an experiment in how far the pendulum can be swung between poise and punch without becoming completely unhinged. The limit of what we mean by music that has roots in a tradition is severely tested here (Zelessenia seems to invent a whole new genre at one point - thrash metal bass anyone?) although most of the lyrics are from traditional Ethiopian poems, which one must assume would in the past have been performed with a stringed instrument such as the krar lyre, or maybe sung acapella. But the duo retain the lament and the forcefulness of the music of the horn of Africa, and by bending it into a new and unique shape - neither western jazz nor the hypnotic earthy deep soul of their provenance, but containing plenty enough of both elements – the spirit of Ethiopiques lives on. Not an easy listen, but certainly a rewarding one.www.budamusique.com