Ethiopia’s Soaring Voice
of Musical Regeneration

Heruy Arefe-Aine writes from Addis Ababa on the voice that Ethiopians have called “Gift of God”, a voice that is inspiring Ethiopian musicians to new musical possibilities, and audiences to a new musical affinity.

Before proceeding further, I should perhaps disclose that Gigi is a good friend of mine so I may be somewhat biased. Having said that, after discussing the album during recording / production with her, I expected a

Click below for sound samples and a CD review

different album than I received. After a brief initial disappointment, I was swiftly won over.

The cause of my initial disappointment was because I was expecting a far more jazzy/’experimental’ sound as opposed to the (to me) very ‘Ethiopian’-sounding album I heard. However, after a slight readjustment, I found the album to be rich and rewarding on multiple levels.

Some historical background may be necessary. Something people should know is that music in Ethiopia was crushed during the Derg regime. Curfews were imposed, driving most bands out of work as the clubs they played at were destroyed. Many musicians were imprisoned and many others either became unemployed or took up other professions. Live music died in Ethiopia for 20 years as the only available employment was in hotel bars and lounges, leading to a domination of Ethiopian music by synths & drum machines.

What Gigi has done on her new album is bring back horn-sections, live bands, and a sense of experimentation that began during the era documented on the Ethiopiques CD-series, what I refer to as (if you’ll allow the phrase) “classic modern Ethiopian music.” By that I’m referring to Ethiopian music from the mid-60’s thru mid -70’s that kept an Ethiopian sensibility while incorporating stuff from a lot of different sources.

When Gigi’s album was released here a few months ago, I fought with people who felt it was too ‘un-Ethiopian’ (pretty much everyone.) The usual comment was ‘alfanalech,’ which literally means ‘she’s passed us.’ While people didn’t hate the album, they just didn’t feel connected to it. Now, as I sit here, I hear Gigi spilling out of the bar across the street from me while the new Aster Aweke album (released a few weeks ago) is being compared by cabbies, bartenders, and waitresses to Gigi’s and found severely lacking.

The most heartening thing to me is that every musician in Addis I’ve spoken to loves her album. Gigi has reawakened musicians here to the potentials inherent in our form of music and mutant recombinations thereof.

Gigi currently carries a major burden. Many see her as the person who can change the current direction of Ethiopian music by taking it back to live instrumentation and experimentation. She is doing that at present, but it is a heavy burden to bear for one person. Most Ethiopian singers have no involvement in the album other than singing; and Gigi sings, writes, arranges and is pretty involved in production; because of that, fair or not, people expect more of her.

Some biographical information
Gigi grew up singing and loving music. However, singing is not a respected profession in Ethiopia, and so she ran away at age 18 to Kenya where she sang for a few years before returning to Addis. After a couple of years back home she toured Europe, where she did some songs on a French compilation of Ethiopian love songs, and then moved to the US, releasing her second album in ’99 (immediately being dubbed “Gift from God” in Addis Ababa.) She then did a couple of tracks on the Endurance soundtrack (one haunting a cappella piece there,) and after time was signed to Palm Pictures and hooked up with legendary producer/musician Bill Laswell. Which brings us up till now.

So, the new album; I think it sounds gorgeous. I do love the album musically and don’t want to make it sound interesting for purely abstract reasons. There is a reason that Ethiopians gave her the name ‘Gift from God’; she has a beautiful voice. The album itself has great horns, funky arrangements, and of course some big names on the album. It includes jazz legends Herbie Hancock, Pharaoh Sanders, and Wayne Shorter; avant-jazz composer/musician/arranger Henry Threadgill; Karsh Kale a New York-based electronic musician who is linked to the Talvin Singh crew, and many others. Gigi is still not overpowered by this incredible list of musicians, which in itself, I think, makes a convincing argument about her inherent talent and strengths.

It is an album of love songs. Songs that speak of her love for Ethiopia, and songs that explore various sentiments and stages in relationships. Passion infuses the album. The music is impeccably played and it is clear that a lot of time and effort went spent on production. My (relatively minor) quibbles are that on some songs the tendency in the rhythm tracks is to move towards too bland a global-fusion sound. I also wish that a wider range of instruments had been utilized, there is still too much of an emphasis on electronics for my taste. Iain Harris of afribeat had commented to me that he’d

“…like to hear her voice soaring amongst more complex instrumentation, I find that Laswell’s production is tight but feel that there could be so much more texture. Her voice as an instrument is let down by the dreamy backdrop, she needs more punch behind her voice, more interplay between music and voice.”

I agree with that assessment, and I love his choice of ‘texture’ to describe the sound. The album is very smooth, and I would have liked a slightly more rough or coarse effect to contrast and complement Gigi’s voice. I wanted to hear more, for lack of a better word, organic instruments. I loved the use of the accordion, (once a relatively common instrument in Ethiopian bands) and Karsh Kale’s tabla additions to the album, and I wanted more of that experimentation. I wanted to hear Mongo Santamaria, or Babatunde Olatunji style percussion, or explorations of the Malian/Ethiopian musical connections. I wanted… but then, I listen to the album and find myself being swept away by the melodies, by the funky horns, by Gigi’s voice, I find it hard to take the disc out of my CD player, and keep being reminded that, without a doubt, this is the best, and most important, Ethiopian album in decades. Africa Beats is brought to you each month courtesy of the Afri-Beat Web Site.

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