Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Mikael Seifu likes to work with binaries. Blending the Ethiopian and Eritrean musical traditions of Tizita and Azmaris with electronica, his work is an exploration through a liminal and unique space that very few have mined. Formerly known as Mic Tek, Seifu is currently based in his native city Addis Ababa, but years before, the 27-year-old left Ethiopia for North America – an adventure that encapsulates the sense of worldliness he creates to great effect in his music.
Despite following in his father's footsteps, Seifu dropped out of college a long time ago. Prior to his releases on American-based label 1432 R last year, he studied at Ramapo College, NJ under the supervision of ambient composer Ben Neill. However, before this ill-fated trip across the Atlantic, his exposure to learning to play music was ingrained with Seifu at a much earlier age. As a kid, Seifu took piano lessons, but he says that the instrument was "too stiff" for his taste. He went on looking for a new mode of expression and found himself at home with Digital Audio Workstations: "It was way more fun composing music on a computer," he recalls.
Setting up a chat with Seifu proves somewhat difficult at first: his Facebook page disappeared at one point, but I manage to arrange something eventually through emails with his management team. When told that "Skype or a [phone] call is going to be difficult given circumstances right now," I fear the worse. Thankfully, his manager allays my fears and explains that Mikael is merely "trying to use less data on his devices." A couple of days after the Ethiopian New Year, Seifu types out some answers I sent to him before the holiday season. In his replies, he details his relationship with music, specifying the role of Western music in his artistic development. "Western music has helped me along the journey of finding my voice; it's not the music per se that has vastly influenced me, but the technical side of it. It's one of the benchmarks amongst a cluster of many." Given the rich and exotic sonic tapestry his music covers, Seifu doesn't seem to be interested in translating for a Western audience, but rather he's creating a style that's universal and inclusive. Whereas diasporic music often gives place to a feeling of displacement or alienation, Seifu seems more concerned with finding melodic traditions lost in a dream: what Seifu is doing is using the emotional intelligence of his culture and combining it with his appreciation for discerning club music.
Earlier this year, a profile ascribed him and Endeguena Mulu (Ethiopian Records) as two pioneers of a burgeoning genre called Ethiopiyawi. "It's an umbrella of a sub-genre in electronic music that I hope will help guide up-and-coming Ethiopian producers to develop their native sounds," Seifu says about the movement. "It's a limitless dream-brew of a genre that is still in its earliest stages." One listen to Drkness Iz from last year's 'Yarada Lij' EP, and you'll understand why comparisons to Burial have been made. Had he opted to study in London all those years back, you could imagine Seifu would have been a frequent visitor or performer at Plastic People before its untimely closure. When he talks about his creative process, Seifu outlays that he commands the tonal palette he needs through a variety of compositional and recording methods. For example, he says that Burial and others caught his attention because of the "individuality in their compositions; one could tell quite some thought was given to that." More specifically, his environment has created an intuition when writing. "There's no clear-cut way for me when I compose. I normally use what is necessary to the piece to achieve what can be achieved."
At the moment, Seifu says he is currently working with RVNG International on new material, with a reported EP titled 'Zelalem' coming before a full-length, possibly in 2016. I ask him whether he would like to return to America, or if he sees himself leaving home again. "The future is unclear, although for now I'm planning on staying in Ethiopia," he simply says. Prior to the release of his single The Lost Drum Beat/Brass, Seifu played a sold-out show in London in April – one that provided a different experience compared to his work as a DJ in a "Western bar" at home. While the majority of his audience is based on foreign shores, Seifu knows that he has a lot more to do at home, and his ambition is to change that. "The music scene locally is a bit acoustic oriented with reggae & jazz bands at the forefront. Apart from that, there isn't a native club culture, though there is potential to revamp what's already here." Whether Seifu's goals meet his ambition or not, you still hope that he'll continue to make music that can invite anyone into his world.