Sketches of Ethiopia
When I first started listening to world music, I heard a few Ethiopian jazz and sacred music recordings. Right away, I felt enticed by the exotic modes, scales, and polyphonic rhythms. The music of Ethiopia possesses a distinct sound even when it’s melded to jazz, funk, and Latin music. And it’s not the easiest music to describe either! Pianist/Vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke gives listeners a music puzzle to solve and I even looked up traditional Ethiopian instruments featured on the recording (the Ethiopian flute, washint, traditional lyre, krar and the 1-string fiddle, masinco). While the wildly delicious Sketches of Ethiopia falls into exoticism, any listener of world music will recognize echoes of Nigerian funk, American soul, Cuban beats and Ethiopian jazz because it’s all here and then some.
The opener, Azmari warms up the ears with polyphonic beats, exotic modes, and a serpentine melody that snakes its way into a dancer’s hips. On the following track, Gamo, featuring Tesfaye on vocals, Ethiopian jazz meets Nigerian funk. The vibraphone, krar (lyre) and flute solos on Hager Fiker wed to an infectious polyphonic beat groove that causes feet to itch with dance fever. Expect to hear some Cuban beats and flute too on this track. Gumuz stands out as a favorite and the best way to describe this song is Ethiopian Marvin Gaye revisited. The rousing closer, Surma raises the heart rate while featuring the rousing vocals of Fatoumata Diawara.
Based in London, Astatke leads his Step Ahead Band into new terrain. He might not be famous in the West yet, but Sketches of Ethiopia will certainly turn heads in his direction. Some listeners might already know of his music that appeared in the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Anyone hungry for a new sound can satisfy their hunger with this cultural gem.