Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Toshinori Kondo & Bill Laswell Ft. His Holiness The Dalai Lama ‎‎– Life Space Death (2001)

Style: Future Jazz, Downtempo, Ambient
Format: CD
Label: Meta Records

1.   Life
2.   Space
3.   Death
4.   Music

Trumpet, Electronics – Toshinori Kondo
Voice – His Holiness The Dalai Lama
Producer, Bass, Guitar, Keyboards – Bill Laswell
Mastered By – Michael Fossenkemper
Engineer – Robert Musso

This collaboration between trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and bassist/producer Bill Laswell is an interesting fusion of the spiritual and the musical that ends up being more interesting musically than spiritually. The first three of its four long and untitled tracks consist of rich ambient atmospheres created by Laswell and Kondo, into which are woven recorded excerpts of speeches by the Dalai Lama on the subjects of life, space, and death. The "Life" and "Death" tracks both feature Laswell's typically melodic and funky basslines bumping along under Kondo's sometimes-heavily treated trumpet lines; the "Space" track is arrhythmic but no less lovely. The problem with these three tracks is not the music, but the spoken-word content, which tends toward inarguable banalities like "Time is always moving" and "As human beings, this planet is our only home." Surely the recorded archives of the Dalai Lama could have yielded more enlightening tidbits than these. The album's final and longest track consists of 14 minutes of instrumental ambience so gauzily insubstantial as to be almost inaudible. Not bad stuff, but hardly essential.
Rick Anderson / AllMusic

VA ‎– The Very Best Of Éthiopiques: Hypnotic Grooves From The Legendary Series (2007)

Style: Modal, African
Format: CD
Label: Manteca

1-01.   Tesfa Maryam Kidané - Heywèté
1-02.   Mulatu Astatqé - Yèkèrmo Sèw
1-03.   Mulatu Astatqé - Yèkatit
1-04.   Girma Bèyènè - Enkèn Yèlélèbesh
1-05.   Bahta Gèbrè-Heywèt - Ewnèt Yèt Lagegnesh
1-06.   Mulatu Astatqé - Gubèlyé
1-07.   Mahmoud Ahmed - Erè Mèla Mèla
1-08.   Mahmoud Ahmed - Mètché Nèw
1-09.   Alèmayèhu Eshèté - Tchero Adari Nègn
1-10.   Alèmayèhu Eshèté - Telantena Zaré
1-11.   Wallias Band - Muziqawi Silt
1-12.   Ayaléw Mèsfin & Black Lion Band - Gèdawo
1-13.   Tlahoun Gèssèssè - Tchuhetén Betsèmu
1-14.   Menelik Wèsnatchèw - Tezeta
2-01.   Tsegué-Maryam Guebrou - Mother's Love
2-02.   Tlahoun Gèssèssè - Sema
2-03.   Tèwèldè Rèdda - Milènu
2-04.   Bèyènè Habtè - Embi Lla
2-05.   Mulatu Astatqé - Tezeta
2-06.   Girma Bèyènè - Sét Alamenem
2-07.   Muluqèn Mèllèssè & Dahlak Band - Bèné Mote
2-08.   Getatchew Mekurya - Antchi Hoyé
2-09.   Tlahoun Gèssèssè - Kulun Mankwalèsh
2-10.   Gétatchèw Mèkurya - Shellèla
2-11.   Sèyfu Yohannès - Mèla Mèla
2-12.   Mahmoud Ahmed - Atawurulegn Léla
2-13.   Mahmoud Ahmed - Fetsum Denq Ledj Nèsh
2-14.   Alèmu Aga - Abatatchen Hoy (Pater Noster)

I don't entirely agree with the title of this compilation. Most likely, the majority of fans familiar with the Éthiopiques series on France's Buda Musique-- over 20 volumes and counting-- wouldn't agree with it either. It's an entirely subjective thing. If I were to make my own 28-track, 2xCD compilation of the very best of Éthiopiques, it would have three or four songs in common with this one. This is a good thing, serving to illustrate the wealth of outstanding music that series editor Francis Falceto has uncovered over the past 10 years. And at any rate, it's hard to argue with the subtitle, as these discs are indeed filled with hypnotic grooves that offer a nice beginner's guide to a series that's earned every scrap of its legendary status. If you like what you hear on this compilation, the next step is obvious: Dive in and start snapping up Éthiopiques volumes. 
Americans and some Europeans could be forgiven for harboring skepticism about a series focused on reissuing Ethiopian popular music-- two decades later, images of the East African nation's 1980s famine is the first, if not the only, reference point many of us have of the country. It's hard to overstate how tiny a piece of the Ethiopian puzzle those images are. This is a country with a continuous history stretching back two millennia, a nation that converted to Christianity in the 4th century, and the only African nation never to be colonized by Europeans, though it did endure a brief occupation by Fascist Italy in the late 1930s and early 40s. It's also home to the oldest human remains ever found. Because of its highland geography and buffer zones of desert, Ethiopian culture developed more or less separately from surrounding cultures, with distinctive music to match. 
Though only a few volumes of the Éthiopiques series have focused on traditional music, you can hear its strands running through the dozens of electric rock, soul, and jazz tracks on the records that cover the 1969-1978 "Golden Age" of Ethiopian pop music. It's most obvious in the pentatonic scales and melismatic vocal delivery, but it's also there in the six-against-four rhythms, lyrics filled with double entendres, and the saxophone styles of dozens of players who drew improvisational inspiration from the traditional shelléla war chant, used as a rallying cry prior to battle by Ethiopian troops right into the early 20th century. 
All these elements mixed so seamlessly with American rock and soul in the hands of the country's best musicians created a new style of music. Most of the musicians who played on the scene that came to be known as "Swinging Addis" got their starts playing in official bands of Haile Selassie, the last Emperor of Ethiopia-- the Body Guard Band, Police Band, Army Band and official theater bands churned out musicians who were deftly skilled on Western instruments and highly disciplined. Most recordings and performances by singers were backed by official, government-controlled bands until the late 60s, when the first independent groups cautiously made their way onto the scene. These musicians had mostly resigned from official bands, particularly the Body Guard Band, many of whose members had been implicated in a 1960 coup attempt. 
As the Golden Age took shape, there was almost no formal outside input-- Mulatu Astatqé, the innovator of the Ethio-jazz style and one of the country's most prominent arrangers, as well as a great vibraphonist, was the only musician in Addis Ababa who had received musical education in Europe and the U.S., though others would travel abroad later. Mulatu's greatest counterpart in developing a distinct Ethio-sound, Girma Beyene, was a self-taught keyboardist and vocalist who learned most of what he knew from listening to American Armed Services broadcasts from Asmara in the north of the country (it's now the capital of independent Eritrea). 
Nearly all of Ethiopia's vinyl and (more commonly) shellac record output was accomplished by two shoestring record labels. The first, Amha, founded by Amha Eshete, was technically illegal when it opened in 1969 in defiance of the government's official monopoly on recordings. Amha was done for after the 1974 coup that deposed Selassie and installed a ruling military council known as the Derg, led by the narcissistic dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Maryam's government imposed curfews that effectively destroyed Ethiopian nightlife and censored all media with a heavy hand-- its economic mismanagement was also partially responsible for those images of famine in the 1980s that we're all so familiar with in the West. One record label, Kaifa, managed to stay alive, issuing vinyl records until 1978, recording with just two microphones. 
The music those two labels captured dominates Éthiopiques, and this compilation provides a good cross-section of the series, including a few cuts from artists who fall slightly outside the Golden Age/Swinging Addis purview for good measure. You get the four biggest singers of the era: Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete, Tlahoun Gessesse and Ayalew Mesfin, several tracks featuring Girma Beyene, including half of the four vocal tracks he recorded, and a nice, if disproportionately large, helping of instrumental tracks from Mulatu, shelléla sax king Getatchew Mekurya and others. 
Strangely, no woman singers have been included, although the female voice is so central to Ethiopian musical culture. Other odd decisions include choosing to open disc one with three instrumentals, even though their quality is unimpeachable, as well as only picking Mahmoud Ahmed tracks from Ere Mela Mela (available on Volume 7 of the series). While it's a great album-- and was the first Ethiopian LP to be widely heard in other countries (10 years after its initial release)-- Ahmed has two other volumes in the series, and they're both just as good, if not even better. Ahmed was a master vocalist, though, and all of the tracks that were included are fantastic regardless. Perhaps the only vocalist more powerful than Ahmed was Tlahoun Gessesse, who absolutely wails on all of his inclusions, with melismatic virtuosity and a preacher's fervor. 
The only tracks that fall well outside the Golden Age-- a solo piano piece by Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou and an otherwordly modern recording of a traditional song accompanied by the ancient Harp of King David by Alemu Aga-- serve as a nice accent, illustrating where a few of the (to Western ears) exotic elements of the Western-influenced popular music tracks came from. 
What's most striking about the music-- and the thing that makes this series worth checking out to nearly any mildly adventurous listener-- is that these tracks consistently transcend the curiosity factor. Yes, Girma Beyene's "Enken Yelelebesh" has a dark, tropical feel and a offbeat melody, Getatchew Mekurya's sax sounds like the work of an alternate-universe Archie Shepp, and Alemayehu Eshete's "Telantena Zare" tops its jazzy soul backing with a wildly melismatic and crazed vocal, but fundamentally they're all just great tracks, and they stack up to their closest American and European analogs quite well. Mulatu Astatqe, more than just good Ethio-jazz, is just good jazz. 
Add in the fact that the Ethiopian recording industry, due to lack of resources, had a built-in quality control-- if you weren't good enough, and your song wasn't excellent, you didn't get recorded. Is this the place to start? Well, it's a good place to start, though you could do nearly as well going straight to Volumes 8 or 13-- it's a matter of how tentatively you want to explore the series-- and you should explore it. This is some of the world's most captivating music.
Joe Tangari / Pitchfork

Sandals ‎- Cracked EP (1994)

Style: Dub, Electro, Downtempo
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Open Toe Records, London Records

1.   Changed
2.   Osocurioso
3.   Shake The Brain
4.   Joy
5.   Ardens Bud Phase 3
6.   Cracked
7.   Wake The Brain 
8.   Open 

Credits: Drums, Percussion, Beats, Samples – Will Blanchard Keyboards, Effects – Diana Gutkind Percussion, Effects – Lascelles Words By, Bass, Other – Ian Simmonds Words By, Effects, Samples – Derek Delves Words By, Flute, Clarinet, Saxophone – John Harris Written By – Delve, Simmonds, Harris, Blanchard Producer – Sandals