Sub Pop Records, July 10, 2012
The Debo Band’s debut CD on Sub Pop/Next Ambiance came out today. Here is the text of the liner essay I contributed to the album.
There’s something dangerous about tales of a Golden Age: especially a brief one. The so-called Golden Age of Ethiopian popular music (or Ethio-jazz, or Ethio-groove) lasted less than a decade. It took hold in the late 1960s in the cosmopolitan circles of Addis Ababa, fed by exposure to American soul and jazz, and boosted by the return of the Berklee College of Music-trained bandleader and arranger Mulatu Astatke. A blossoming scene produced, refined and sprouted new branches of a hitherto unheard synthesis of jazz (and Latin music) with Ethiopian pentatonic scales, distilled by brass-heavy bands adding guitar, vibraphone, and organ. But the 1974 coup that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie plunged Ethiopia into a long and difficult period of military rule and civil war. The swank nightlife of Addis shut down; the musicians scattered and the moment passed.
So the story goes. And it’s not wrong, in its broad outline. Certainly something special transpired in those years in Addis. The era produced an ample trove of recordings that now, decades later, have started to emerge from their hiding places, thanks to projects like the Ethiopiques series, curated by French producer Francis Falceto, and, not least, to the foresight of the Addis players and impresarios of the time who held onto the tapes as they dispersed around the world. The richness—the sheer grooviness—of this work and the seemingly bottomless reserve of material has made Ethio-jazz, not unlike Fela Kuti-era Afrobeat, the target of a growing field of cover and revival projects in hip precincts from New York to Tokyo to Amsterdam.