I had a summer subject in Mumbai last January so the wife and I decided to take advantage of our long university holiday and turn it into a trip through a few parts of the world we'd never seen before. Seriously... When is the next time we're both going to have 3 months off?
Unlike seemingly everywhere else in the world I have been (except maybe America) you almost never hear foreign music in Ethiopia. We heard massive amounts of American hip-hop and R&B all through Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya but when we hit Addis Ababa it just stopped. And it's not like they're not in the habit of playing music in communal places, every restaurant, cafe, taxi, drink stall, bus and - of course - music shop has massive speakers blaring out music at all hours of the day. It wasn't until the second day that I noticed this and until the third day that I finally heard some Aretha Franklin pounding out from a bar near our hotel. The rest of the time was either traditional Ethiopian music or their frenetic pop music.
The rhythms of Ethiopian music are generally pretty complex. A really common rhythm to hear is four groupings of really fast quintuplets, usually with the stress on the first and third beat of each quintuplet**. They also have some version of 12/8 that stresses different beats depending on the region. Vocals are very melismatic and the most popular songs seem to be the uptempo ones (a nice change from the arhythmic Celine Dion often playing in restaurants in SE Asia).
The one singer we heard absolutely everywhere is called Aster Aweke. Have a listen to this song and tell me if you can imagine a place in the world where this is the number one hit song.
It's so syncopated, so complex, so virtuosic and band is absolutely slamming... I guess Cee-Lo and Janelle Monáe would give her a bit of a run for her money, but not too many other people in the west.
While I picked up a lot of new music around the country, there was one musician I was looking for in particular: Mulatu Astatke. He is considered the father of Ethiojazz and has been gaining a second career touring the world playing to lovers of fine music who discovered him through the Ethiopiques series of albums or Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers soundtrack.
He even toured to Melbourne twice last year. The first time backed by local Melbourne band The Black Jesus Experience and the second time with his own band (so I hear). I caught the first gig and it was fantastic.
So, I sought out CD stores in every town we hit. People's eyes would light up when I said his name, but no one had any CDs.
We even found the Mulatu Astatke Institute of Music, but sadly we were there on a Sunday so no one was around.
Then finally, on our last day in the country in a mall on Bole road there was an electronics store with a little CD section and, sure enough, there it was: a dodgy early 90s smooth jazz album with more cheesy synth pads and corny drum machine sounds than you could poke a stick at. Still, I probably like it more than Tutu and You're Under Arrest.
Ah well, as it turned out, there were plenty of 60s Bollywood soundtracks in India to keep me busy for a while..