The roots of Ethiopian jazz can be traced back to one man, Nerses Nalbandian, and his work in nurturing the fledgling jazz scene in the capital.
Originally from Armenia, Nalbandian’s family settled in Ethiopia, escaping the genocide in Turkey around 1915. After studying Ethiopian classics, Nalbandian was tasked by Emperor Haile Selassie to compose and perform for the National Theatre.
Given a mix of traditional western and Ethiopian instruments, Nalbandian fused these two opposing styles; embellishing western scales into Ethiopian standards, to create the foundation of this wholly new sound and paving the way for the glory years that followed.
Photo credit: musicofarmenia.com
Considered by many to be the father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke was born in western Ethiopia in the city of Jimma in the 1940s.
After spending his formative years touring the region as part of a traditional Ethiopian band, Astatke chose to study aeronautic engineering in North Wales in the late 1950s, a period which would prove vital for this yet infantile genre.
As Astatke grew into life in the UK, he became fascinated with the world of Jazz, and transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1958, the only jazz school in the world at the time.
Here he honed his chops, and after graduating, moved to New York and continued to play under the stewardship of Jazz Gods Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
His time in New York would prove pivotal in the formation of the genre. As he would later say:
Most of our Ethiopian music is based on five notes [pentatonic]. What I did was fuse the five tones with 12 tones. For many years I've been experimenting, and the more I do that the more complex it gets.
In the late 1960s, Astatke decided to return to his homeland, hell-bent on kickstarting a musical revolution.
Seen as somewhat of a radical in the socially traditional country, initially Astatke’s music was not the catalyst he hoped it would be. Many Ethiopians rejected him, fearing cultural contamination of any form.
However as the decade drew to a close, Astatke established his Ethiopian Quartet, and with successive trips between the States and Ethiopia he developed his spooky brand of traditionally-tinged eerie, creeping jazz.
It slowly caught on, and by 1972, the quartet had produced two albums: Afro-Latin Soul 1 & 2 in 1966 and Mulatu of Ethiopia in 1972.
Sonically unlike anything else, Ethio-Jazz draws from all corners of Jazz and far beyond, leading to a dazzling cacophony of swampy rhythm sections, laced around slowly meandering melodies.
Influenced by the counter culture revolution happening across the Atlantic, fuzz guitars and slick licks embellish traditional instruments and began featuring on his later tracks, marking a distant milestone in the evolution of the genre.
As Ethiopia developed through the 60’s and into the 70’s, its main musical output reflected the bright-eyed period, with releases from this time noticeably more gentle and breezy than their storm-swept hard-hitting predecessors.
As Astatke’s popularity grew, others began adopting his new sound, and by the mid 70’s a plethora of artists had adopted the genre, and further pushed its already expansive boundaries.
These included the saxophonist Gétatchew Mèkurya, who started his career at the Addis Ababa city band, later releasing his acclaimed album Negus of Ethiopian Sax, and Mahmoud Ahmed, one of Astakes contemporaries who was pivotal in helping found the genre.
Ethio-Jazz's wilderness years
However, decades of development came crashing down as an iron curtain fell across Ethiopia.
The Derg, the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam that rose to power in 1974, squashed Ethiopia’s budding musical scene and liberal underbelly and was distinctly opposed to the genre’s incorporation of western influence.
Many musicians fled the country or went into hiding, as many relics of this once great time were enveloped by the red wave sweeping across the land, and Ethio-Jazz fell into a state of hibernation, lurking just below the surface.
Revival and Renaissance
With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s, the Derg regime lost its main support, and by 1991 Ethiopia became a democracy.
As many Ethiopians searched for their identity after the period of cultural xenophobia and whitewashing, the youth who spent their lives under constant oppression turned far into the past for inspiration, rediscovering these now hidden gems.
Meanwhile, Francis Falceto, a French music producer and promoter, fascinated by Ethiopian music at large, travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of the hits of this now-forgotten genre.
His famous compilation Ethiopiques featured some Ethiopia’s legends of the 1960s and 1970s and introduced a new generation to the sounds that once defined and untied this country.
Inspired by his work, contemporary musicians and Ethio-jazz legends are striving to modernise this once great genre for modern-day Ethiopia.
One such band is the Addis Acoustic Renaissance Group, which reworks standards from the 1960s and regularly performs at clubs in Addis.
As Africa emerges from the colonial stranglehold which kept the continent subdued for so long, hidden gems from across the land are slowly being uncovered and seeping into the mainstream zeitgeist. Following in the steps of the first wave of African artists making their way across the Atlantic, a new influx of musicians are now creating their own micro-musical revolutions. From Pioneers such as Cameroon's Francios Bebey, Nigeria's answer to John Coltrane, Fela Kuti, and the ever-illusive William Onyeabor to up and coming sensation Burna Boy, desert rock gods Tinariwen and the ever-experimental Fatoumata Diawara, Ethiopia, and Africa as a whole is showing the world it is a cultural titan.
Luca Fierro Music Journalist