october 2011
border crossings



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Addis Acoustic Project Revives Classic Ethiopian Grooves on Tewesta (Remembrance)

tewestaEthiopia isn't usually the first locale that comes to mind when one thinks of music made with acoustic guitars, accordion, mandolin and clarinet. Yet those instruments are at the core of Tewesta (Remembrance) (Harmonia Mundi/World Village), the new release by Addis Acoustic Project, a sextet that transports instrumental Ethiopian pop hits from the 1950s and '60s into the modern world. Informed not only by classic African music but by jazz, Latin and other styles, AAP creates an intoxicating, charming blend of sounds that Mondomix.com called "a gentle groove with carefully rounded edges."

Addis Acoustic Project is the brainchild of Girum Mezmur, who directs and arranges the music as well as contributing acoustic and semi-acoustic guitars, accordion and vocals. Each of the other musicians--Ayele Mamo (mandolin, vocals), Dawit Ferew (clarinet, vocals), Henock Temesgen (double bass, vocals), Nathaniel Tesemma (drums, percussion) and Mesale Legesse (kebero, darbuka, bongos, hand percussion), plus Ahmed Elmak (oud on one track) and Endris Hassen (massinko on one track)--is a virtuoso who brings a full spectrum of musical colorings to this gentle but lively music, rich in history and now speaking to a new generation.

Addis Acoustic Project performs ‘Yene Hassab’ from its debut album, Tewesta (Remembrance), live at the TFF Rudolstadt World Music Festival, Germany, July 2010

Addis Acoustic Project, on Tewesta (Remembrance)--the title is in the Ethiopian Amharic language--seamlessly fuses the traditional with the contemporary. For those who grew up with access to Ethiopian music during the mid-20th century, this is music that will be instantly familiar. But even for those who did not--and that would include the vast majority of Westerners-these are songs that feel comfortable and homey, melodies and rhythms that grab hold upon the first listen.

AAP was formed by Girum Mezmur with the intent of finding common ground between the authentic Ethiopian pop sounds of a bygone era-specifically the era just preceding what many consider the "Golden Age" of Ethiopian pop-and jazz, and then bringing it up to date in something wholly fresh-sounding. Mezmur carefully chose the instrumentation for the band, building it around his own accordion playing and other instruments that were commonly used in the Ethiopian pop he wanted to revive, including double bass, drums, clarinet, mandolin and the kebero, a cone-shaped, double-headed hand drum native to Ethiopia. After choosing the instrumentation, Mezmur set about finding the ideal musicians for his dream band, auditioning prospective members until he felt that the connection between them was just right.

Only then did Mezmur begin to assemble a repertoire, scouring record stores and old radio station playlists and speaking to individuals who remembered the era. The group debuted in March 2008, honing its sound at countless gigs and ultimately heading into the studio in Addis Ababa in 2009 and '10  to cut the songs that now comprise Tewesta Remembrance. Girum Mezmur produced the sessions.

The vast majority of the tunes collected on this recording revolve around the emotion most common throughout the history of music: love. The translations give that away quickly: "Fikir Ayarejim," which means Love is Eternal, was a popular song, made famous by Ethiopian vocalist Menelik Wossenachew, that originated in Sudan. AAP's interpretation features the great Sudanese oud master Ahmed Elmak guesting. Other highlights include "Enigenagnalen" (“We Shall Meet Again”), a love song originally by Girma Negash that speaks of hope, and "Yigermal" (“Such a Beauty...What Are You Called?”), a traditional folk song featuring mandolin and clarinet.

Addis Acoustic Project, ‘Selam Yihoun Lehoulachine,’ the opening track from Tewesta (Remembrance)

Perhaps the song that best sums up the mood and feel of Tewesta (Remembrance), however, is "Yetintu Tiz Alegn," whose title translates to “Remembrance” or, more specifically, “Remembering the Olden Days.” Originally made popular by Ethiopian singer Tilahun Gessesse, it was also recorded by the legendary late South African singer Miriam Makeba on her smash hit Pata Pata album in 1967. With its alternately elegiac and celebratory rhythms, global vibe and clustered harmony vocals, it's a tour de force that perfectly encapsulates the then-and-now motif Mezmur had in mind when he initially conceived the group. The jubilant track mirrors the excitement generated at an AAP gig, where audience interaction is not only common but expected.

For Mezmur, the emergence of Addis Acoustic Project has been the realization of a lifetime goal. After finding an accordion in his Addis Ababa home that belonged to his uncle, Mezmur became, well, mesmerized, obsessively learning the instrument and then moving on to guitar, piano and arranging music. Citing a diverse list of influences ranging from Ethiopian guitarist Selam Seyoum to the late American jazz master Wes Montgomery, Mezmur honed his chops while learning music theory and the art and business of leading a band. Attending the Yared Music School in Addis Ababa and working with different bands gave him experience and insights, all of which he draws upon now as the creative force behind AAP.

In his liner notes to Tewesta "Remembrance,” Mezmur writes, "The essence of this project is about presenting the music of that era [the '50s and '60s] in an authentic manner, yet with a new twist. Equally important is also preserving the sound and instrumentation of those days. I hope this recording captures these elements and does justice in these respects."

Undeniably, it does, but what ultimately makes Tewesta (Remembrance) such a winner is that one need not even know that these are old songs remade for today's world in order to fall in love with them. Addis Acoustic Project, on Tewesta (Remembrance), has gone beyond its own stated goal and has created music that is truly timeless.

From flipswitchpr.com


‘…a seamless re-imagining of a nation's musical history …’

By Manuel Abreu

Timelessness comes in a variety of guises. For Addis Acoustic Project (AAP) bandleader Girum Mezmur, it comes by following a path many other intelligent and ambitious musicians have followed recently: synthesis of old and new. Mezmur also arranged these visionary rediscoveries. He says in the liner notes to the Tewesta album: "The essence of this project is about presenting the music of that era [the '50s and '60s] in an authentic manner, yet with a new twist." "Tewesta" means "remembrance" in Amharic, and what Mezmur has done on AAP's debut, after two years of sharpening their sound through live performance, is remarkable.

This music is a seamless re-imagining of a nation's musical history, teasing out different vectors of sound possibility through the updated sound, allowing other musical idioms to seep through. While Mezmur was also devoted to "preserving the sound and instrumentation of those days," his vibrant arrangements allow for different aspects of the world of music to meld with traditional Ethiopian music, this exploration allowed by the downplayed importance of vocals and the focus on instrumental music. Consider "Fikir Ayarejim," which translates to "Love is Eternal." Popularized by Sudanese singer Menelik Wossenachew, the original song is led by a sultry synthetic orchestra and casual, shuffling drums, standard fare for Ethiopian oldies pop.

While in Chicago in February of this year, Addis Acoustic Project’s founder and guitarist Girum Mezmur appeared solo at the Ethiopian Diamond II Restaurant.

The AAP remake, however, opens with Latin-tinged drums, moving into a muscular accordion and oud led groove (master Ahmed Almek on oud). The rhythm of the song maintains the upbeat quality of the original, but Mezmur allows the melody to expand significantly, though without any egoistic solos--it's a bold move, essentially a statement of the semiotic weight of melody. Anyone intimately familiar with these songs will immediately recognize the melodies, regardless of the missing vocals. The best part about this album is that even if you don't know the originals, you don't need to. It's hard not to enjoy this, conceptual ambition aside. It's those melodies--they grab you by the collar, like an excited child in the castle of her dreams, leading you eagerly down the twisting hallways.

The Latin jazz influence is even more pronounced on "Yetintu Tiz Alegn," which I believe translates to "Remembrance of Olden Days." Old master Tilahun Gessesse also has a version of this track. While the first half of the track only evokes Latin rhythms, led by Ayele Mamo's mandolin, a breakdown leads the listener straight into a minor-key, chromatic-drenched Latin guitar solo by Mezmur. Indeed, the music of AAP is about finding common ground between Ethiopian music and other genres of music, particularly jazz, Latin music, and folk. The lack of emphasis on vocals--though they are present--combined with the innovative arrangements moves AAP's debut from purely Ethiopian music to a more universal idiom. I don't want to call it world music, but I suppose that's the only label available.

While maintaining an unmistakable cultural identity, Mezmur and other musicians like him are interested in creating a dialog with other genres, other nations, other time periods, and this is a trend I strongly support. AAP's resplendent music is about communication, and aside from crossing historical and cultural bridges, they also cross the bridge to the listener's ear. The amount of variety here is outstanding, as well as the musicianship. One eye-opening moment is, in fact, the closer--and by the way, even though the album is over an hour in length, it keeps you enthralled the whole way through--"Yigermal," which warps 3/4 to its own whims through subtle subdivision, featuring claps on the chorus and led by mandolin and clarinet. Mezmur is a master of timbre and combines instruments perfectly for his evocative needs. Indeed, sometimes he attempts to traditionalize more than modernize: compare the eerie "Anchim Ende Lela" with a much jazzier version by Girma Degefu.

At Club Alize, Addis Acoustic Project interprets a song originally recorded by Bizunesh Bekele, widely regarded as the greatest female vocalist in Ethiopian history.

Mezmur's take on Girma Negash's hopeful love song "Enigenagnalen" (We Shall Meet Again), opens with a lusty, rueful guitar solo which is offset by Dawit Ferew's mourning clarinet, painting a picture of both the beauty and futility of hope in the face of life's circumstances. Whether the lovers meet again is not the point, only that the hope exists, that it can flower. The mambo-like rhythm drives the song forward. Nathaniel Tesemma and Mesale Legesse, who handle the percussion, are to be commended for their tight, powerful grooves, which never lack subtlety. As well, Dawit Ferew is ablaze throughout, displaying his mastery of the clarinet in the Ethiopian style. Mezmur painstakingly assembled his band -he himself handles guitar and accordion -and it pays off.

While you don't need to know anything about the source music behind this wonderful album, I found that research into the originals gave me a greater appreciation for the brilliance of Mezmur's arrangements and his band's playing, as well as a deeper understanding of the context of the musical conversation AAP is trying to have. As well, I can pretty much guarantee that any musical discoveries this album leads to will be golden--Ethiopian music, old and new, is a veritable rabbit hole and gold mine which I recommend you delve into. For starters, there's the Ethiopiques series. But I'll leave that to you. For now, let me just repeat that this is an excellent album, and whether you're interested in the context of Mezmur's ideas for finding common musical ground, you won't be disappointed.

From groovemine



‘…onto something very special…’

By Tom Orr

Given the volume of great vintage music from Ethiopia that's been discovered (or, more accurately, rediscovered) and made available in the last decade and a half, and considering how deeply those new/old Ethiopian sounds are loved by listeners well beyond the standard world music crowd, it was only a matter of time before a band like Addis Acoustic Project came along. Founded by guitarist/accordionist/arranger Girum Mezmer, the group re-creates in mostly instrumental style Ethiopian hits of the 1950s and ‘60s, a time when instruments like the mandolin and accordion were prominent and the funkier, horn-heavy sounds celebrated in much of Buda's Ethiopiques series hadn't yet arrived.

If the latter is the Ethiopian music you know and love, rest assured that what you'll hear on Tewesta isn't so very far removed from it. The serpentine melodies, zesty riffs and uniquely Ethiopian swing are here, although in a more stripped-down form. Alongside Mezmer are players who combine youthful strength and veteran savvy on mandolin, bass, clarinet, drums and percussion, often branching off into jazzy asides, Latin grooves or klezmer-like liveliness before slipping back into melodies that couldn't be from anywhere else but Ethiopia. AAP's intimate approach also shows the extent to which early Ethiopian popular music gleaned from sounds of nearby Sudan and even far afield influences like European waltzes and the works of Armenian arranger Nerses Nalbandian. At once traditional, experimental (it'd be great if Mulatu Astatke hooked up with these guys), and accessibly catchy, Addis Acoustic Project is onto something very special. Tewesta is a delight of a disc, and let's hope there's more of its kind in the works.

Roots World

Addis Acoustic Project’s Tewesta (Remembrance) is available at www.amazon.com

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