Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Music of Ethiopia, part four: Ian buys CDs

I think maybe the Hotel Ghion band missed a trick by not having any CDs to sell to whitey, but the Hotel shop did sell some local music discs. These leaned more to the world of contemporary Ethiopian pop, something I know next to nothing about and did not want to take pot-luck with. I nevertheless purchased two discs during my stay in this institution, both of which have their problems.

The first one was an album called Assiyo Ballema by Mulatu Astatqé. Maybe you know him, he is one of the stars of Ethio-Jazz, with Éthiopiques 4 being largely given over to his music; he also recently appeared in the Barbican and at the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures. Although an actual musician, he is perhaps more noted as a band-leader and arranger, explaining his understated presence when I saw him in July. This Assiyo Ballema record leaped out at me partly because it was by someone whose music I knew. Its other draw was that the cover showed Mulatu jazzing away but in tandem with someone else playing a masinko or kora, suggesting that this record was some kind of awesome hybrid of Ethiopian folk music and Ethio-jazz. Sadly it is not. It is in fact one of the worst records I have ever heard, being basically Mulato's slide into 1980s synthijazz shite. Irene dubbed it his Tutu, which maybe gives you an idea how dreadful it is. And the worst thing is they palmed a bootleg CD off on me, so I cannot even donate it to Oxfam.

The other disc is an album called Fiker by Aster Aweke. Aster is this woman singer who is very famous to people who are interested in contemporary Ethiopian music. She is getting on a bit now, but the guy who wrote the Bradt guide spoke very highly of her. So I decided to take a punt on this record. The woman in the shop seemed quite excited that I was buying it, which seemed promising.

Listening to Fiker you can see why people would like Aster, as her voice is exceptional and she seems to know what to do with it. The big problem with the record, though, is the musical accompaniment – bad cheesy pop of the sort that you roll out by the yard from cheap and nasty synthesisers. I suppose this kind of thing is easy to produce and not overly straining on the budget, but it sounds dreadful and chokes the life out of Aster's vocals. I think Mr Bradt Guide compares her to Kate Bush – something of a lazy comparison that usually means the person in question is a woman with a striking voice. In this case it misses that Bush's own skills as a composer, arranger, and player of music make her much more than just a singer. So Fiker is a flawed record, with the accompaniment doing a lot to cancel out the strength of Aster's voice. I may yet keep this, but it could soon be selling for a Euro in Oxfam.

And that's it for Ethiopian music and me, at least with respect to records purchased or music experienced in that country itself. Until my next visit, of course.

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