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You can’t stop Ethiopian Jazz


Art by Mia Walker

The streets are alive. Dance clubs rattle the cement sidewalks and send vibrations up the spines of every Ethiopian boy and girl that stands on them. The 70s are here and along with them, funk. A cultural explosion is about to start with a man called Francis Falceto, a musicologist from France. I’m getting ahead of myself though, first I need to talk about…


Image credit: Samuel Dietz / Getty Images
Mulatu Astatke

“The Father of Ethiopian Jazz”, born in Jimma in 1943, was sent to Wales to study engineering and instead found a deep passion for music. During his time at college, he collaborated with jazz musicians and studied vibraphone and percussion in the United States. In the late 60s, he showcased his passion for Latin jazz that he found in the US with the tracks: Afro-Latin Soul, Volumes 1 & 2.


Then the fateful 70s arrived, and Astatke brought his new creation, which he called “Ethio-Jazz” back to his homeland. A timer began to tick. A timer? The emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie’s last days were fast approaching and Astatke was racing against a clock he didn’t know existed. A new power was about to take over, and there would be no Ethiopian Jazz if people didn’t grab onto it soon. Ethiopia had very traditionalist values, and this “new-age” sound was met with skepticism. But, with enough insistence, Astatke was able to get through to people and really show them the homage he had made. In the last few days of Selassie’s empirical reign, people started to finally get what he was talking about.


The Derg Regime

September 12, 1974

It was on this date that the Derg Regime, a Marxist-Leninist, later Communist, later Socialist party forcefully took over the government, overthrowing the monarchy and began transforming the country from the ground up. Ethiopian Jazz was under siege, along with its creators. Popular songs in the country were banned. Musicians were thrown in prison. What was left were the empty and fearful songs of patriotism. However, Astatke did not back down. A father to this child, he refused to flee. He found himself on the board of the International Jazz Federation and was granted some civil liberties. With this power, he opposed government threats and normalized the sound of Ethio-Jazz. The lack of many lyrics in addition to the preservation of Ethiopian sound was appealing to a Western-import-hating government like the Derg Regime.


Image via Ayalew Mesfin from the album Hasabe (My Worries)
Ayalew Mesfin

Astake’s music was an inspiration to artists all over Ethiopia. One of these artists was a man called Ayalew Mesfin. Ayalew Mesfin was a musician who didn’t take no for an answer. His music was out there, it was creative, and it was outspoken. With his band, The Black Lion, he openly spoke against the government. “A person being discriminated in its own country is being beaten by the end of a gun” (Hasabe (My Worries)). These words found him in jail. He was locked up and forced to sign an agreement to never make music again. He signed it, and he stopped. The Derg Regime put him under house arrest for 13 years. 13 long years. Finally, in 1991, the regime fell.


After this, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement rose to power, however, the name was misleading. At a show in Nazareth, Ethiopia, he was finally able to perform again. He was dynamic on stage and his presence captured the audience. Put on a real show. Just as the mic left his hands, 3500 watts of energy surged through it! Now he knew he was in danger. He stirred the pot too much, and certain people didn’t like that. He had no other choice, he left Ethiopia.


He relocated to Denver, where he still resides now. His life still hasn't quite calmed down, however, it isn’t as dangerous as it was. Recently he was featured on the Madlib Medicine Show hosted by the great Madlib, a famous Hip-Hop/R&B musician, and producer. Madlib has a reputation for finding super unique samples, it’s part of what makes his style. One sample was from Mesfin. I’ll talk more about that in a second, however, it was this sample that brought some major attention to Ethiopian jazz again. He came on the show to talk about his life’s story and his journey with Ethio-Jazz. It was there he got to perform Hasabe on stage. His voice vibrated the room. His sound is so unique and you can see that the crowd was in total awe.


Revivals

Let me take you back a couple of decades and explore some of the manners in which Ethiopian Jazz found itself making a significant comeback. After a long silence in the 80s with the bans on non-patriotic music and the burning of Western media, the 90s was an explosion. The Derg regime was gone and this was when a Frenchman called Francis Falcetto of Buda Musique created 40 compilation tracks of different Ethiopian artists. This was huge. The entire world now had access to these tracks that had previously been confined to just Ethiopia.


These CDs were very influential. If you know the names of Madlib, Jay-Z, Nas, or others like them, you might be familiar with the sound of Ethiopian Jazz. Ethiopiques brought so many songs from a widely unexplored genre to light. As We Enter by Nas, The Game (Common, prod. Kanye West), ABCs (K’naan and Chubb Rock), and Mighty Force (Madlib), are all some of the MANY songs that have sampled from and added to Ethiopian Jazz.


New artists and old artists are still producing Ethiopian Jazz or Ethio-Jazz-inspired sounds that are really works of art. It’s such a unique sound and it continues to reinvent itself. In fact, Mulatu Astatke did find a use for that engineering degree, as he started electrifying many traditional Ethiopian instruments, such as the khar, at the prestigious MIT. He is also working on the opera the Yared Opera. Bands are still playing these songs, particularly in Addis Ababa. The cultural scene is still very much alive in Ethiopia. It is also alive for outsiders as well.


Image credit: Buda Musique
TikTok

In this modern decade, the music market is so over-saturated, and it becomes hard to find new genres and artists. Many flock to TikTok, land of the youth and home of the Renegade, to find others with similar interests, values, and music tastes. What I’m getting at is that here is that there is a massive community of people that are always sharing new music recommendations from all over the world, with Ethio-Jazz’s track record, it was inevitable another comeback was en route.


I’ll mention a man named Dylan or “dylanwesch” on TikTok for spreading a lot of app-wide awareness of the genre. In December of 2022, he posted a video that has to date amassed a total of about 5 million views. In the video, he gives a brief overview of the career of Hailu Mergia and uses an audio byte from the song “Anchin Kfu Ayinkash” from his famous album Wede Harer Guzo. Under the audio, there are now about 4 thousand videos of people simply enjoying the music. Users post themselves putting on makeup, cooking, doing crafts, showing off outfits, or even talking about how much they love the song.



People from Ethiopia have posted that they are so pleased to see a genre of music, so important to their country, gaining so much respect and admiration from the rest of the world. For as much vile, terrible, hateful stuff that social media can give us, it’s trends like this that make me have some hope in humanity.


It is important to remember the history of this sound, as that history is still alive and affecting people today. While the hot streets buzz once again, and dance clubs light up the streets without people fearing for their freedom, things are healing, but we need to remember where things come from and how to respect them.


Thank you for taking this trip with me. I implore anyone reading to go to their music streaming platform of choice and listen to some of this music. Music that is rich in history and vibrant in tone, diverse in sound, and carrying thousands of stories. I encourage you to listen to Wede Harer Guzo, that Dylan guy chose a great introductory album. While I have my gripes with Francis Fallcetto and where all the money he made from the Ethiopiques albums went, with many artists claiming they got nothing from it; I feel as if they are great compilations and definitely worth a listen.


So. get to know it, get to love it, because the smart money’s on it coming back every time.

Image credit: Hailu Mergia and Dahlak Band





“I will die tomorrow, but my music will live on forever”

- Ayalew Mesfin

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