Music

Records and Revolution: We Went Crate Digging for Rare 'Ethio-jazz' in Addis Ababa

Ethio-jazz blended Ethiopian musical traditions with American jazz and soul, but the military coup in 1974 put an end to the scene, and records from back then are now as rare as they come.

by Martin Armstrong
30 April 2015, 5:00am

In the Taitu, Addis Ababa

In the old red-carpeted, wood-panelled restaurant of Addis Ababa's Itegue Taitu Hotel, Ernesto Chahoud – a Beirut-based DJ visiting the Ethiopian capital – placed a vinyl copy of Ethiopian funk-soul legend Alemeyehu Ashete's "Ya Tara" on a portable record player. The needle dropped and a soulful horn section broke in. Sitting alongside Chahoud, Mohammad Ahmed Abdu, a local record trader and enthusiast, smiled in appreciation.

In the 1960s and early-70s, Ashete – a teenage Elvis impersonator, sometimes referred to as the James Brown of Ethiopian music – rose to national acclaim as one of the stars of Addis Ababa's burgeoning music scene.

During that era, graduates of music academies patronised by then Emperor Haile Selassie experimented with formal training and scales, blending them with Ethiopian musical traditions inspired by the distinct rhythms of jazz, r'n'b and soul that permeated Addis' airwaves from the American military radio station in Asmara, in modern day Eritrea.

Standout artists from the era include Ashete, Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmud Ahmed, Mulatu Estatke, Hirut Bekele, Aster Aweke and the Walias band. Original recordings of the genre – generally known as Ethio-Jazz – were principally made by the local Amha and Kaifa labels, as well as Philips Ethiopia, in locations including India, Lebanon, Greece and West Africa, before being shipped to Ethiopia.

Cassettes by various Ethio-jazz icons

But in 1974, Haile Selassie was toppled in a military coup amid protests triggered by famine and accusations that the imperial regime was pocketing state funds. The Derg, a pro-Soviet junta said to have been responsible for between 500,000 to 2 million deaths, imposed a 16-year nighttime curfew on Addis that all but demolished its music scene.

In the Taitu, the copy of "Ya Tara" playing on Chahoud's record player was the first ever single pressed by Amha, in 1969. Only 1,000 copies were ever made. In 1978, Amha Records closed, and Kaifa stopped pressing vinyl, switching to cassettes. Many artists fled into exile, while others were enlisted into state service. Nowadays, Ashete performs among the carafes of tej (honey wine) and occasional Grey Goose bottle at Mama's Kitchen in Addis' upmarket Bole district. Under the Derg he once performed in North Korea for Kim Il-sung.

"Ewnetegna Feker" by Hirut Bekele

Over the last 15 years, principally as a result of Buda Musique's 23 volume Ethiopique series – a comprehensive re-release of 1960 and 70s-era recordings – Ethio-jazz has increasingly come to the attention of music enthusiasts and record collectors. The heavy presence of Mulatu Estatke on the soundtrack of the Jim Jarmusch-produced, Bill Murray-starring slow burner Broken Flowers – which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2005 – has also raised the genre's profile.

Original Ethio-jazz vinyl regularly sells for hundreds of pounds on eBay. Some particularly rare records have sold for in excess of £1,000. As Albi Dornauer, an Austrian DJ and founder of the Innsbruck-based Digatone Label – who was also digging in Addis – had noted earlier in the week, the fact that Ethiopian records were only pressed for a period of ten years between 1967-1977 had increased their value.

"In Ethiopia, you're looking at around 400 releases, compared to thousands in other countries," he said. "Some prices are crazy, even for records in really bad condition."

As Ashete's vocals crackled to a close, Chahoud removed the 45 from the record player, replacing it with another original, a Kaifa copy of Hirut Bekele's horn-driven 1977 hit "Ewtenega Feger".

Chahoud had purchased "Ya Tara" from Mo a couple of days previously for around £3, along with a stack of about 40 other, largely-sleeveless golden era vinyl of playable condition. "Ewtenega Feger", purchased from Kidus – a Norwegian record-enthusiast based in Addis – came in a little more expensive, at £20.

While the stack could earn Chahoud a tidy profit, he said he was uninterested in selling them on: "These are pieces of history."

Digging in Addis hadn't proved easy. Attempts to locate records – called shakla in Amharic – prior to meeting Mo were largely fruitless. Since there are no specialist stores selling them, private collectors have to be sought out.

Searching blind, following tip-offs from Nibret – a friendly, if not-particularly in-the-know street-side CD vendor – had led to a souvenir shop owned by a man with an inclination to imitate West Coast gang signs who had a small collection of Bill Haley, Stevie Wonder and Perez Prado LPs, as well as an aluminium shack off Winston Churchill avenue containing a table-saw, a Land Rover grill-guard, some hand-woven panama hats and one heavily scratched LP of Mahmud Ahmed's "Ere Mela Mela".

On another occasion a group of local policemen in Addis' Mercato district offered to help, before requesting a little bakshish for their efforts. There was also Abdi, a wheeler-dealer with a collection of antique maps and cartographic manuals from the early 20th Century operating out of a shed at the back of a construction site.

Abdi

Abdi was after profits, but during enquiries in both Fendika – a popular Azmari beit (traditional bar) located in the Kirkos district of the capital – and Dallas Records, around the corner from Abdi's, some claimed local collectors could prove reluctant to sell to foreign buyers due to a desire to keep the records within Ethiopia. Such conversations often involved recourse to Ethiopia's status as the only African country not to experience a (prolonged) period of foreign colonisation.

Mo felt slightly differently.

"Music is made to be heard and appreciated," he said, sitting in the Taitu. "It promotes Ethiopia's unique musical and cultural identity to other people around the world. I am proud of this music, the same way I am proud we were never colonised. We should promote the music to the world."

He laughed. "But yeah, I keep the best vinyl for myself."

In the background, Chahoud placed a copy of the Mahmoud Ahmed-produced Tillahun Gessesse track " Yehegere Shitta" on the portable record player.

Mo noted that artists from the 60s and 70s remained popular in Ethiopia. In 2009, an estimated 1 million people descended on Addis' Mescal square to pay their respects following Tillahun Gessase's death.

However, Teddy Afro is Ethiopia's biggest pop sensation. The reggae-influenced star's face can be seen plastered across T-shirts, walls and car dashboards across the Ethiopian capital. A playlist on a public bus in Addis can feature an Afro track, followed by the soulful laments of Aster Aweke's "Esti Teyikulign", sandwiched between Beyonce's "If I Were a Boy" and Sam Cooke's "Bring It Home to Me".

In 2005, a number of songs on Afro's Yasteseryal album were banned by the state broadcaster. One track in particular – in which Afro accused the Ethiopian government of failing to deliver on promises of reform – became the unofficial soundtrack of protesters during a period when anti-government rallies were quashed violently. Less than a year later, Afro faced jail time following a hit-and-run incident that his supporters claim was a government conspiracy to discredit him.

Criticising the state remains incredibly risky business in Ethiopia, a country with a poor human rights record. So artists who experienced the 60s and 70s, more often than not, stick clear of politics.

As the beat of "Yehegere Shitta" drew to close, a small dapper man in a suit, white socks and tinted glasses walked through the wood-panelled revolving door of the Taitu. It was Getatchew Kassa, a vocalist famed in particular for his work with Mahmoud Ahmed and the Walias Band.

Founded by Menelik II's wife shortly after the Battle of Adwa in 1896, the Taitu was previously home to one of Addis' leading jazz bars. But it burnt down under mysterious circumstances earlier this year.

Beckoned over by Chahoud, Kassa ordered a machiato, explaining he was in the hotel to pick up a bottle of Araki, a local anise-flavoured liquor. He then noticed the Gessesse track playing on the portable record-player.

"Tilahun is a legend," reflected Kassa, who only recently returned to Ethiopia, having emigrated to America under the Derg. Earlier in the week, Kassa had performed in front of a crowd of over 1,000 during Easter commemorations in Mescal square. He reflected momentarily on the scene in Addis in the 60s and 70s.

"At least musically it was a time of great expression and creativity. What happened was a shame," he said, before diplomatically avoiding a question about the regime whose rise brought the era to a close.

"I am an Ethiopian and I love Ethiopia," said Kassa, deadpan, before chuckling. "And I don't talk about politics."

Getting up to leave, Chahoud embraced him in a bear-hug. In the previous week, Alemeyehu Ashete and Mulata Astatke had been given similar treatment. With Kassa freshly departed, Chahoud picked up Hirut's"Ewtenega Feger" and placed it on the record player for the second time that night.

A couple of nights later, having successfully navigated the journey from Ethiopia to Lebanon via Cairo, the same slightly dusty – but still very much workable – 45 would be dropping to a receptive audience at a nightclub in East Beirut.

@martnbeirut

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