It is incredible how a similar tale resonates throughout the world in cultures that have very little contact with one another. The story goes like this: young child wants to play music for their career; parents forbid it, claiming it's impractical; child somehow perseveres and ends up a master. One recent example of note is Vieux Farka Touré, whose father, Ali, was himself a musician! Of course, this steadfast mythology is in no way every child's story. For some, however, it is.
At age 10, Ethiopian native Samuel Yirga had been devouring his homeland's famous jazz and American R&B and fancied spending his life touring the planet playing music, even though he didn't play anything. At 16 he attended tryouts at Addis Ababa's Yared School of Music, still having never played an instrument, and placed 3rd out of of 2,500 hopefuls. If the word 'prodigy' ever applied to a musician, this is your man.
Cutting his teeth as the touring pianist with Dub Colossus, the band's founder, Dubulah, turned around to produce Yirga's stunning international debut, Guzo (Real World). Translating as 'journey' in Amharic, this is an album that upon first hearing you know will become a sacred part of your collection. I've listened to it dozens of times in the last few weeks, never once tiring of the thoughtful flow of Ethio-jazz renditions and gorgeous solo works. In fact, the two times Yirga flexes by himself--'Ye Bati Koyita' and 'Drop Me There,' both eight-and-a-half-minute gems--I pause whatever I'm doing to sit back and reflect, such is the splendor of his calming tinkers.
I first came across the track, 'I Am the Black Gold of the Sun,' via Nuyorican Soul, and would have to trace it back to Rotary Connection's psychedelic version from the early '70s. Yirga's straight ahead rendition plays beautifully, with a brilliant performance by Massive Attack vocalist Nicolette surrounded by the Creole Choir of Cuba. Besides a weird divergence into the overly sax-drenched 'My Head,' Guzo's closing tracks--the mournful, minor key 'The Blues of Wollo,' which features some of the best Ethiopian vocals I've ever heard, and Nicolette returning for the loungey, Caribbean-flavored 'African Diaspora'--prove to be a perfect conclusion to an album of global renown. Keep track of Yirga. A man who starts this strong is poised to change the face of his homeland's sound.
Beyond Ethio-jazz, my other three favorite African genres are Malian blues, Gnawa and Afrobeat. I'm not sure why I never envisioned those last two merging, given their rhythmic sensibilities, yet until receiving the absolutely incredible Fangnawa Experience (Strut) in the mail, it never crossed my mind. One night a few years ago a late night searching around iTunes led me to copping two albums by the French Afrobeat collective Fanga and I've been in love since. So were the producers of the Détours du Monde festival in Montpelier, who decided to pair the band with Guinean Gnawa singer/gimbri player Maâlem Abdellah Guinéa, who blew me away in Casablanca two summers ago. Guinéa comes from a noble Moroccan musical lineage, evidenced by the 10,000 people who showed up to watch him tear through the North African night that warm July evening.
It is a brilliant fusion. You can hear the base of each song--the opening 'Noble Tree' is an Afrobeat cut, with a tasteful addition of krakebs and gimbri rounding out the percussive edge, whereas 'Gnawi' has its roots in that namesake, with the airy addition of bright guitars. More often than not it's hard to discern where one style begins and another ends, given that both rely on call-and-response vocals and layers and layers of percussion. At this point in our human and musical evolution it's challenging to find an album that truly opens your ears for the first time. Fangnawa Experience does just this masterfully.
Experimenting with Afrobeat is nothing new, however. Nigerian vocalist Tunji Oyelana began playing around with it in the late '60s, mixing in Afro-rock, calypso, juju and reggae for good measure. The recently released A Nigerian Retrospective: 1966-79 (Soundway) collects two dozen cuts from his time throwing down his funky blend of beats and melodies--and, as I'm informed, he continues burning the midnight flame in his London residency at his cultural center, Emukay. While his breakthrough track might have been 'To Whom It May Concern,' I find more pleasure in the thick groove of 'Ojo' and slinking shuffle of 'Agba Lo De,' which to my ears is where this man's greatness lies.