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The genre of Ethio-jazz has a rich and fascinating history. A blend of styles, including traditional Ethiopian music, jazz, afro-funk, soul, and Latin rhythms, its roots can be traced back to the 1950s with pioneering artists like Nerses Nalbandian and Mulatu Astatke, who is widely credited as the father of the sound. Combining the unusual pentatonic scale-based melodies of traditional Ethiopian music with the 12-note harmonies and instruments from the West, the vibrant sound is still integral to Ethiopian music and adored both in the country and beyond.
Hejira are a band with a passion for the genre – with Ethiopia being the homeland of vocalist and songwriter Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne. The London-based band’s own output defies genres, forming something spacious and soul-massaging. Second album ‘Thread of Gold’, which recently dropped, focuses around Debebe-Dessalegne’s pilgrimage to Addis Ababa with the band following the death of her father.
“Since our trip to Ethiopia we have inherited a love for Ethio-jazz,” Hejira say. “Part of the fun is discovering music that is so difficult to find anywhere especially on vinyl or cassette tape. These are my top picks: mostly old classics with the odd modern twist on the genre.” Below, Debebe-Dessalegne lists her ten favourite Ethio-jazz records.
1. Alèmayèhu Eshèté – ‘Telantena Zaré’
“I first heard this playing in a small cafe in Paris five years ago. I was so gassed that they were playing Ethiopian records as I had never experienced this outside of my Ethiopian family or community. The title translates as ‘Yesterday Today’. It’s playful, hip, and always makes me feel good.”
2. Bezunesh Bekele – ‘Aha Gedawo’
“Part of what I love about Ethiopian music is the communal energy that is galvanised from the call and response melodies and the piercing claps. I love this song as it’s a classic and Bizunesh Bekele’s version is so haunting and mysterious. She also has the highest pitched voice in the land, she’s sort of like the Mariah Carey of Ethio-jazz.”
3. Dexter Story – ‘A New Day’
“This is the most interesting and satisfying modern manifestation of Ethio-jazz/modern contemporary music I’ve ever heard. Dexter has taken the classic Ethio-jazz melodies and interpreted them into English with a modern soul/jazz twist, really quirky. Takes a few listens, but very refreshing to listen to.”
4. Gétatchèw Mèkurya – ‘Yègènèt muziqa’
“The Negus of Sax in Ethio-jazz.”
5. Hailu Mergia & Dahlak Band – ‘Anchin Kfu Ayinkash’
“An accordion player and pianist, Hailu was the first to introduce electronic and modern synth sounds to Ethio-jazz. This track makes me feel like I’m walking on the moon and tripping on some of my aunties frankincense incense at the same time.”
6. Mohamoud Ahmed – ‘Sentun Asalefekut’
“He’s like the Frank Sinatra of Ethiopia. I had the privilege of seeing him perform with his famous Roha Band at the Selamta Festival in Addis Ababa in 2016. It was wild and he’s still going strong. Ahmed sings Tizeta (love songs) like no-one else.”
7. Mulatu Astatke – ‘Yèkèrmo Sèw’
“This has become a classic and really is the anthem of Ethio-jazz. I will always love it and constantly enjoy coming back to it. Mulatu is the grandfather of Ethio-jazz and a true pioneer of the movement. This song became famous after it was synced to a movie in the ’90s called ‘Broken Flowers’. Since then, Ethio-jazz has slowly reemerged as a popular genre all over the world. It’s amazing that he is touring and still writing music to this day. I hope Hejira get to support and collaborate with Ato Mulatu Astatke one day.”
8. Muluken Melese – ‘I Made A Bet’
“My friends Helina and Scott who run an amazing supper club called Eat Ethio and always offer a great selection of Ethio-jazz as the accompaniment to their unique events. They recently moved from HK to London and gifted a Muluken Melese cassette tape to me. Ever since I’ve been hooked, he’s a real crooner.”
9. Tesfa Maryam Kidane – ‘Heywete’
“I think perhaps my fave instrumental track of the moment. It really feels like the soundtrack of a pivotal time in Addis. It’s moody and velvety but just simmers on in a way that isn’t jarring but instead really calming and easy to listen to at any point in the day or night.”
10. Tilahun Gesesse – ‘Lantchi Biye’
“A true national treasure and my mum’s favourite Ethio-jazz artist. She told me that when he died the country declared a national day of mourning and almost one million people turned up to his funeral service. I love the percussion and groove on this record but mostly his tone is so diverse it goes from delicate and timid to sharp and intense – he really sang this with so much feeling.”
Hejira play Oslo this Thursday March 7th – find tickets here.
Hejira’s second LP, ‘Thread of Gold’, is out on February 22nd 2019 on Lima Limo Records.