Ethiopia enjoys a rich tradition of enticing music, filled with asymmetric rhythms set to a haunting, five-note scale and sly double-entendre lyrics in the Amharic language. It's a shame that, for Western listeners, a full, clear picture of Ethiopian music has been elusive.
The period from the late '60s to the late '70s was a boom era for Ethiopian recordings, which all participants acknowledge as a Golden Age. This heady blend of folk ensembles, so-called Ethio-jazz bands and brash singers who incorporated soul and funk into traditional forms was documented in an admirable series of retrospective albums called Ethiopiques, which was available here in the late '90s. Since then, it's been harder to get a feel for the general tone of modern Ethiopian styles. But this year, there's been a flurry of Ethiopian releases in America, and the key to it for me is 27-year-old pianist Samuel Yirga and his debut album, Guzo.
Although he's only been playing for 10 years, Yirga is quite the sponge. His mix of folk vernacular and jazz improvisations in vintage Ethiopian tunes most recalls a similar folky fluency in South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, who likewise has no use for categories of high and popular art. Yirga ranges around even further on Guzo with his reworking of "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun," originally recorded in 1971 by the group Rotary Connection. Yirga revitalizes the graceful beauty of the tune without going lush or sentimental. All that dates the track is the corny words, and those are handled with understatement by singers Nicolette and Mel Gara.
I didn't expect Guzo to be one of the stronger arguments for the album format I've heard in quite a while, but it is. Yirga finds his way into Ethiopian standards, displays his flair for jazz over solo and ensemble pieces, and performs effortless homages to vintage soul, holding everything together with voracious talent that helps him savor each musical flavor. This is much more impressive when Yirga develops momentum and unity over the course of 11 tracks that show how much more he is than his parts.
Be sure to check out Yirga's website for extra music and videos, particularly a vibrant live recording in London. Those who want to hear him as part of a band should explore his work with the group Dub Colossus. And anyone who wants to know more about Ethiopian music in general should grab the recent anthology The Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia, which includes classics from the Golden Age as well as Samuel Yirga and other adventurous moderns. While the Golden Age of Ethiopian music is in the past, a new one may be beginning.