So yeah dude, we went to London to see this concert by some of the Ethiopian jazzers who appear on the Éthiopiques series of records. This was by way of whetting our appetites before booting off to Ethiopia. This concert was my first time visiting the Barbican, an endearing piece of 1980s modernism. The concert featured some American lot called The Either Orchestra (the Dengue Fever of Ethiopian music) backing a number of Ethiopians: Mulatu Astatqé, Alèmayèhyu Eshèté, Gétatchèw Mèkurya (the one some of you saw with The Ex in Amsterdam), and Mahmoud Ahmed. The Ethiopians only came on for a couple of tunes each, with the exception of Mulatu Astatqé. He hung around onstage for most of the concert, sometime picking at bongos but mostly just being there. Mulatu did play a bit of xylophone fellow at the start of his appearance, and played it well, but mostly he was just a presence, as befits his historic status as a bandleader and arranger rather than performer. He also came on first.
The other Ethiopians were much more charismatic performers. Alèmayèhyu Eshèté is a vocalist, often dubbed the Ethiopian James Brown, I think because he does a bit of grunty "huh!" stuff every now and then. He reminded me a bit of Ireland's showband singers, particularly Sonny Knowles, as he had that kind of effortless populism to him. He would do a bit of pointing at random people (probably Ethiopian ladies) in the audience and then saying something in Amharic before launching into the next song. I was almost expecting him to do the Sonny Knowles hand-waving thing. Alèmayèhyu also seems to look exactly the same as he did in photos from the 1970s, making me wonder if there is a photo of some decrepit old man mouldering away in his attic. This guy is a total star.
Gétatchèw Mèkurya has been dubbed the Negus of Ethiopian jazz. For a long time I had no idea what a Negus was, and wondered if it might some kind of portmanteau word combining negro and magus, suggesting that Gétatchèw was some kind of musician. But no, negus is actually just the Amharic for emperor. Gétatchèw really went for it tonight, entering from a side door in the auditorium and walking through the audience, blasting slabs of pure jazz from his saxophone. I don't know to what extent his leadership over the scene is universally acknowledged, but he is definitely cut from a different cloth than the supperclub jazz of the other players. For us he would have been the real star of this event.
Mahmoud Ahmed was the last of the Ethiopians to take the stage. He is another singer, and the one I am least familiar with on record. I cannot really say too much about him except that he is very good at singing and the crowd, particularly the smattering of Ethiopians present, seemed to really go mental for him. I think perhaps that he might be the real star of the scene, but hey, there's enough Ethio-jazz for everyone.
And at the end, all four of the Ethiopians were on stage together, while Mahmoud and Alèmayèhyu duetted, Gétatchèw parped away, and Mulatu took care of business. And hey, apparently these four have never shared a stage before – world première action!
There were a couple of downsides to all this, of course. I seem to be cursed by concerts that start badly, and on this occasion it seemed like the opener, 'Yèkèrmo Sèw' from Éthiopiques 4 (and the first Ethio-jazz track I ever heard) sounding a bit flat. But this sorted itself out. The other problem were the Either Orchestra… there was no problem with their playing, but they did kind of seem to have ideas above their station, like it was the Ethiopians who were guesting with them rather then their being the backing band for the Ethiopians. But hey, these things are not insurmountable problems.
Afterwards we were going to hang around and have some sherries with London pals Sylvia and Devastatin' Dave, but they had to leave early due to a bad shandy and thinking the music was all rubbish (or something). Dave's' write-up of the night in respected journal Frank's APA proved an interesting counterpoint to mine (as indeed did that of my beloved).
We watched a post performance performance by Dub Colossus, a dub/Ethio-jazz crossover outfit. They were enjoyable. They were followed by a DJ whose music was interesting, but he seemed to do too much of dicking around with tunes that would be dancefloor monsters if left alone. Eh, can't remember what any of them were. And then we went back to our hotel. The end.
And as it happens, the same Éthiopiques show (though apparently without Gétatchèw Mèkurya, SuXoR) is coming to the Dún Laoghaire Festival of World Culture next Friday… maybe see you there.
oh wait, the concert is sold out. Ah well, they'll be shite without Gétatchèw.
19/9/2008 edited to take account of the fact that the second part of an Ethiopian's name is not a surname but their dad's name