Electrifying Ethiopia

Endres Hassan joined the Imperial Tiger Orchestra to Play Ethiopian Music.
Endres Hassan joined the Imperial Tiger Orchestra to Play Ethiopian Music.

Lloyd Gedye | Johannesburg, South Africa: Although Ethiopian music is in vogue because of Paris-based label Buda Musique’s reissue series, Ethiopiques, and the recent high-profile releases by Ethiopian jazz legend Malatu Astatke, a Geneva-based band, is taking Ethiopian music well into this century.

The Ethiopiques series’ main focus may have been the sounds of swinging Addis Ababa in the 1960s and 1970s, but, though the Imperial Tiger Orchestra aim to keep the Ethiopian melodies from this golden era intact, at the same time they are improvising and experimenting within the basic structure.

Dark, hypnotic rhythms from the world of electro have been added, with elements of noise and distortion, to create a revamped sound that is damn funky.

The Imperial Tiger Orchestra began life when Cave 12, the legendary experimental live music event in Geneva, invited trumpeter Raphaël Anker to put together a band for a performance.

Ethiopian jazz

As an admirer of Ethiopian jazz, Anker assembled a group to explore a particular music scale, common in Ethiopian music, and what they ended up with was more in the style of free jazz and noise but with an Ethiopian flavour.

After many critically acclaimed shows in Europe and a performance at the 2009 Musiques Ethiopiennes festival in Addis Ababa, the band are finally making their way to Southern Africa for a number of shows, which will include collaborating with Ethiopian musician Endres Hassen, who plays the masenqo, a traditional single-stringed violin.

The Mail & Guardian put some questions to Anker a week before he jetted into South Africa and this is what he had to say.

What can audiences expect from your tour to South Africa?
A new approach to traditional Ethiopian instrumental music.

Tell us about how the band formed. Obviously a Swiss band playing Ethiopian jazz is a bit of an oddity. How did it happen?
All the members of the band always loved Ethiopian music. We all came from different backgrounds and it just happened that we got together in Geneva.

Doing a new, contemporary take on Ethiopian jazz, I would imagine, opens the band up to criticism from purists. How do you respond to this?
In fact, I think we do not really play Ethiopian jazz. I think we are playing a kind of modern Ethiopian music. We are completely open to all criticisms.

The band played at the Musiques Ethiopiennes festival in Addis Ababa. How was that experience?
It was a great experience — we learned a lot about Ethiopian music. It was an important step for the band. The crowd in Addis Ababa was really enthusiastic.

Ethiopian musician Endres Hassen, who plays the masenqo, will join the band on this tour. How did this come about?
The Pan African Space Station Festival wanted us to continue the collaboration that we started with Ethiopian musicians in Addis Ababa.

We chose the masenqo for the sound and its texture and what it can bring to the music. Endres Hassan plays regularly in an azmari bet (music bar) called Fendika where we played and met great people. We are very excited about playing with Endres.

The masenqo is really important in traditional Ethiopian music and it presents a challenge for us to incorporate this into our sound. Endres is considered today as one of the best players in Ethiopia.

Is this the first time you are touring in Africa besides Ethiopia? Tell us about some of your other tours.
Yes, it’s the first time we are travelling in the south of Africa. We are really excited about that. We usually tour in Europe, especially France and Switzerland. We have also played in the United Kingdom, Holland and Belgium.

Tell us a bit about the band’s recorded works and if there are any plans for new recordings?
The group has released two albums — a self-titled debut, consisting of songs by the masters Mahmoud Ahmed and Getatchew Mekurya, among others, and Addis Abeba [2010, Mental Groove Records], a 12-inch vinyl record that includes two songs recorded live at Club Alizé in Addis. A new album is coming this spring.

What are you most looking forward to about your South African tour?
Meeting people. Meeting music.

Source: Mail & Guardian Online