The late Sun Ra said his jazz came from outer space, with albums like Visits Planet Earth, We Travel the Space Ways, and the classic ESP disk The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, with him on the cover, a cosmological sphere depicting him next to Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo. I interviewed Sun Ra back in the 1980s and he told me about shopping for socks on the planet Neptune (it’s all in my book Rhythm Planet: The Great World Music Makers, published by Rizzoli in 1998).
But a lot of the time, Sun Ra’s music just sounds like a slam-down Kansas City big band blowing session. If you really want jazz from outer space, you need to listen to Ethiopian music. It is strange, almost disturbing to unwary listeners not used to its unusual cadences and harmonic leaps. Hearing Ethiopian music for the first time might make such virgin ears uneasy.
But it is fascinating as well. The series Éthiopiques, produced for Buda Musique, an indy label based in Paris, has just produced its 28th CD, devoted to the late 70s Oromo music of Ali Mohammed Birra. Oromo is the largest Ethiopian community outside of Addis. The Oromo Ethiopian have their own language, different than the Amharas of the capital, who speak Amharic.
The series curator and producer is a Frenchman named Francis Falceto, who sleuthed and saved much of the music of Ethiopia’s turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when the country was in the midst of a civil war after the monarchy of Haile Selassie was taken down. Without Falceto, this music might have wound up on the ash heap of history.
Ethiopia, located in what is known as the Horn of Africa, is the birthplace of modern man, one of the oldest places of human existence. The Ethiopian Coptic Christian Church is one of the oldest churches in Christendom, going back to the 5th century A.D.
Éthiopiques features a lot of pre-synthesizer music, which is always good. An earlier album, volume 4, featured the great Mulatu Astatke and was used by director Jim Jarmusch in his film Broken Flowers. While much of the music in the already encyclopedia 28-CD series, isn’t really jazz as we know it, it’s nevertheless sounds more like jazz than pop. With a little bit of Memphis Stax-Volt soul shout thrown in. There is an urgency in the music, and no matter how far out or exotic it gets, it is always soulful, tasty, and full of heart.
While most of the volumes cover the years of the 1970s, a recent 2-CD set, volume 27, covers the very first recordings of Ethiopian music, recorded over 100 years ago in what was then known as Abyssinia.
Volumes 4 and 26 feature two of the biggest stars of the 1970s, singer Mahmoud Ahmed (rec. 1972-1974) and the instrumentalist Mulatu Astatkqé (rec. 1969-1974).
The most recent cd features singer Ali Mohammed Birra, playing what is known as Oromo music, is more approachable than some of the stranger sounding volumes. Here is a video of one of the songs on Volume 28, taken from a 1975 single on the famous Kaifa label.
You can access a discography of the voluminous Éthiopiques catalogue by clicking here.
Finally, the great Marco Werman interviewed series producer Francis Falceto recently, including a classic track from one of the biggest stars, the aforementioned Mulatu Atstake: a must-hear history of the series and of modern Ethiopian history.
Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and London have large Ethiopian communities, and here in LA you can buy classic music on the many Fairfax Avenue restaurants and shops. The series that Francis Falceto most certainly saved from extinction. And spawned modern offshoots as well, bands like Dub Colossus, Debo Band, Bole 2 Harlem, and Invisible System. It also paved the way for bigger stars to become popular in Europe and America, such as Aster Aweke and Ejigayehu Shibabaw, better (and more easily) known as Gigi.
Rhythm Planet Playlist: 5/17/13
- Ali Mohammed Birra | Infedhani | Éthiopiques Vol 28 | Buda Musique
- Alemayehui Eshete | Temeles | Éthiopiques Vol 28 | Buda Musique
- Seyoum Gebreyes & Alim-Girma Band | Hametegnaw | Éthiopiques Vol 28 | Buda Musique
- Frew Haylou | Almaz Men Eda | Éthiopiques Vol 28 | Buda Musique
- Tezeta | Song Title In Amharic Only | Éthiopiques Vol 28 | Buda Musique
- Asmarina | Song Title In Amharic Only | Éthiopiques Vol 28 | Buda Musique
- Ali Mohammed Birra | Eshurruru | Éthiopiques Vol 28 | Buda Musique