Dexter Story has always jumped between worlds. Before the Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist released his breakthrough sophomore LP Wondem in 2015, he bounced around the industry, working for labels, venues, and was even the product manager for acts like Snoop Dogg and LL Cool J. In Story’s songs, his versatility is his strongest asset; he splits the difference between the funk and jazz of his Los Angeles home and the deep well of East African musical history. This is best exemplified on the 2017 single “Wejene Aola,” a cover of Oromo singer Tilahun Gessesse's 1970 ethio-jazz track, where Story and guest Kamasi Washington gave the original an LA-funk infusion.
If Story’s latest album Bahir, out Friday via Soundway Records, feels like it boasts an academic’s attention to detail, it’s because he literally studies Africa and Ethnomusicology at UCLA’s graduate school. The 13 songs on the LP, which is titled after the Arabic, Hebrew and Ethiopian Amharic word for “sea,” were inspired by Story’s time in East Africa. Throughout, the LP takes cues from the genres and traditions from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, fusing it with American soul and funk like the Hailu Mergia-influenced “Electric Gurage.” It’s a wonderful and borderless blend that Story fleshes out with a wealth of guests.
Artists from Story’s hometown as well as the countries that inspire his music elevate Bahir. Los Angeles’ Sudan Archives joins Story on the grooving and sultry “Gold,” while Ethiopian singer Haile Supreme carries the jazz number “Ras.” Thanks to Story and co-producer Carlos Niño, these tracks sound meticulously arranged and invitingly reverent. Take highlight “Shuruba Song,” which has vocals courtesy of Ethiopia’s Hamelmal Abate. The mesmerizing track doesn’t waste any space, anchored by cascading guitars and the immaculately placed drum patches and hand claps. It’s the kind of song that’s easy to get lost in.
Bahir is streaming below in its entirety. In a statement to Noisey, Story wrote, “In light of the recent plane crash in Ethiopia and our nation's focus building walls as opposed to bridges, I hope that Bahir touches hearts and brings a small measure of peace and healing to our challenging world. I am humbled by the positive response it has gotten and am grateful to everyone who has taken a moment to listen.” Pre-order it here.