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Mesgana Ethiopia: New Music from Gigi

I’d always liked the food and the little music that I’d heard, but I realized I was in a great place to explore Ethiopian culture more deeply when I noticed that the Shell gas station on my block sold injera. My first step into examining Ethiopian music was buying two CDs: Ethiopiques Volume 3 (from the massive and great series available on Buda Records) and Gigi’s eponymous international debut album. Both were great choices. The Ethiopiques volume immediately clued me in to the diversity of Ethiopian music. The songs were all from the mid-1970s. Some of it was vocals with spare instrumentation that sounded almost exactly like Arabic music. There were also horn and organ grooves that could have been been influenced by James Brown or Fela Kuti. On that debut album, Gigi (real name Ejigayehu Shibabaw) seemed to take her cue from that diversity.

The music on Gigi was clearly from Africa, but didn’t seemed locked into any single tradition. The album was produced by Bill Laswell and he brought in some serious jazz heavyweights: Wayne Shorter, Pharaoh Sanders, and Henry Threadgill. But there’s no question whose album this was and those horn men played behind Gigi’s voice beautifully. It’s probably the most accessible music I’ve ever heard either Sanders or Threadgill play. That’s because Gigi’s voice instantly takes hold of the listener and the Ethiopian rhythms move without ever threatening to overwhelm. With more albums, Gigi and Laswell introduced more elements of the avant-garde on top of her core of Ethiopian melodies mixed with things borrowed from the rest of the Africa continent. The music they’ve produced has stayed exciting.

The new release (October 19, 2010), Mesgana Ethiopia, was recorded live and features a good mix of African tradition with experimental touches that this time, thankfully, enhance the music without domineering it. The diversity of Ethiopian music makes it a logical step to include sounds from the whole world.  It’s fair to call this world beat or global fusion. The album is actually credited to Gigi with Material. Material was once a band, but now seems just to be a name for any of Laswell’s projects. Here, the band is from all over the world and all are musicians comfortable in multiple genres. Laswell is on bass, Abegasu Shiota–an Ethiopian of Japanese descent who’s played with a who’s who of Ethiopian musicians is on keyboard, American Hamid Drake is behind the drum kit, Senegalese percussionist Aiyb Dieng’s West African styles are featured prominently, Congolese guitarist Dominic Kanza has plenty of room to solo throughout the album, as do two of the bright lights of the downtown jazz scene Steven Bernstein and Peter Apfelbaum on trumpet and saxophone.

The music starts off in Laswellian territory, Bati is an ambient number with Bernstein and Apfelbaum adding atmospheric playing to the slow brew created by the band. It’s easy to get lost in this music with Gigi’s otherworldly vocals on top. The danceable grooves begin with Gufela, percussion comes to the forefront and the band comes together with punchy horns and Gigi emphasizing the rhythm. Most of the album stays in this zone. Shema is a melodic song that brings to mind the Tanzanian music of Oliver Mtukudzi that everyone seems to love the first time they here it. Only occasionally does the music fall into the trap of using the songs as an excuse for solos. The fast-paced Mata Mata is one of those times, but with soloists as talented as Kanza, Bernstein, and Apfelbaum, many listeners won’t find any cause for complaint.

The only purely traditional song is Tizita and Zerafewa. It’s also the only song here not written by Gigi. It’s a duet accompanied by a traditional fiddle (a masenqo?) and percussion that recalls the music that made Mahmoud Ahmed a huge star in Ethiopia (and is featured on the Ethiopiques series). Ethopia seems to be Gigi’s attempt to musically show her love for the country where she grew up but no longer lives. Its beautiful melody is a nice tribute. On the closing track, Zomaya, all the musicians are give a chance to stretch out on a rocker. Throughout Mesgana Ethiopia is complex music with rhythms and a feel that sound instantly familiar. It should appeal to any fans of world music, jazz, jam band stuff, or female vocals.