World Music Matters - Electric Vocuhila: the French quartet with taste, and talent, for African rhythms
Electric Vocuhila combine the spirit of free-jazz legend Ornette Coleman with driving urban guitar rhythms like tsapiky from Madagascar or Congolese sebene. They masterfully sew them together on their pulse-raising third album, Palaces.
"I had a long time love for African music and the repetitive motifs used in bebop and free jazz," the band's saxophonist and composer Maxime Bobo told RFI just ahead of the Palaces release party in Paris.
The album is an electrifying patchwork of rhythms like tsapiky, sebene, sungura and benga.
They got into tsapiky after meeting France-based Damily, the king of this fast, electric-guitar led genre which he developed in Tuléar in the 1970s.
"We started to use its grooves and forms," Bobo said. "But doing it our own way, trying to get closer to this kind of 'dancey' feeling and fluidity, but using the saxophone and with the way we interact and compose together."
The saxophonist as a voice
The band went to Madagascar, saw how the professionals did it, and came back inspired.
But their command of other rhythms like Congolese sebene or sungura from Zimbabwe has been garnered "mainly through the internet and YouTube," Bobo admitted.
Together with the other band members: Boris Rosenfeld (guitar), François Rosenfeld (bass and guitar) Etienne Ziemniak (drums), they weave these rhythms together rather seemlessly.
They are all guitar-led, and yet Bobo plays saxophone.
"I’m much more attracted to these kind of guitar players or singers, the voices in tsapiky, of African styles," he said.
"I connect with this more than with contemporary saxophone players. I guess I’m trying to use the saxophone and to put somewhere between the voice, singing a song, and guitar riffs."
Back to the roots of jazz
Bobo has found inspiration in sax player Ornette Coleman, the father of free jazz. Not so much because of his renowned harmolodics, but his "voice" and the way he let his band members express themselves.
"I loved his music when I heard it in my 20s. His playing is really open with very melodic lines, always rhythmic and warm. It has the feeling of a human voice."
Like many members of the free jazz movement, Coleman looked to the African continents for the roots of jazz.
"He played with the Masters of Joujouka from Morocco. There's one song on the Dancing On Your Head album," Bobo said.
But it was Ed Blackwell, one of the first drummers in Coleman's quartet, who was more connected to Africa and spent more time there. As did Archie Shepp.
Electric Vocuhila make no claim to having their own connection with Africa.
"We grew up in an arty context, we don't have the experience of what it means to play for traditional events, funerals and so on."
Nonetheless they are keen to play with musicians from the African continent.
"it's obvious we're directly inspired by Madagascar or Congolese music so I think we want to try and play with muscians," Bobo said. "It's really interesting for us to connect and see how it works, how we can adapt the way we play with their music and what can happen with the mix."
The band was due to go to Madagascar this Autumn but the Covid-19 has pushed the trip back to next year.
They hope to find a voice there, a human one.
"I'm trying to get closer to the voice in the way I play the song parts, but it would be great to have a proper voice singing in Malagasy. That would be amazing."
Palaces is out on Capsul Records: a Tours-based music collective which supports some 25 musicians.
Electric Vocuhila official website here Follow the band on Facebook
World Music Matters - Cult 1984 album 'Sons of Ethiopia' enchants new audiences in 2020
Admas, a quartet of young Ethiopian musicians living in exile in Washington DC, had a ball recording an album of synth-heavy, funked up versions of Ethiopian classics. 'Sons of Ethiopia ' was soon forgotten but became cult among fans of ethiojazz. Now reissued by Frederiksberg Records, it reflects happier times from a generation that "just escaped" the worst of the Derg.
Some records are far more than the sum of their parts, and Sons of Ethiopia is one such.
The seven tracks were recorded in 1984 by the band Admas: Henock Temesgen, Abegasu Shiota, Tewodros “Teddy” Aklilu and Yousef Tesfaye.
Like so many Ethiopian expats in the U.S. at the time, the four young men had fled the Derg: the military junta that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. As the White Terror gave way to the Red Terror, over a million people died in the violence.
Aklilu, the band’s keyboard player, left Addis in 1977, aged 15, just before the worst of the Red Terror began.
“It was so sad, kids killed each other,” he told RFI on the line from Addis. “I went to the U.S. and basically closed my ears for the next two or three years.”
Aklilu closed his ears to the horror, but opened them to exciting new music.
When bass player Henock Temesgen, an old school friend, arrived in Washington DC in 1980 they began playing together.
“It was a very dark time but we found our cocoon, our own friends, playing in each other’s houses. We tried to create our own group, our own happy times,” said Temesgen.
The need to experiment
The two friends played in a band called Gasha and took up residency at the Red Sea, a lively Ethiopian restaurant in Washington.
They would open for big Ethiopian names like Aster Aweke, playing instrumentals to audiences of expats, many of whom had lost friends and family in the civil war.
While they enjoyed traditional Ethiopian music, they immersed themselves in the sounds of their new home with its go go funk, jazz, highlife, samba and roots reggae.
Brazilian jazz fusion band Azymuth, The Crusaders and Spyro Gyra were big influences, they said.
“In DC you got to hear a lot more of what the world has to offer, than in Ethiopia, and it’s very natural that when you hear something you want to experiment with it,” Aklilu explained.
What’s more, there were new tools like Moog keyboards, synthesisers and electric guitars to play with.
Joined by drummer Yousef Tesfaye and multi-instrumentalist Abegasu Shiota, the musicians expressed their more experimental side under the new name of Admas.
“Abagasu liked to work with computers, he had a four track very basic recorder and started playing with it, said it would be nice to record something,” Temesgen said.
They scraped the funds together to record seven tracks and had 1,000 copies pressed.
They sold a few, paid off their debts, but didn’t make any money.
“We didn’t have any business sense,” Aklilu laughed. “We still don’t!”
Re-shaping songs from happier times
They recorded instrumental, high-tech versions of songs largely from “the golden era, the good old days, Ethiopian music from happier times” Temesgen explained.
“The experimentation was not in the melody but in the harmonisation and rhythm,” said Aklilu.
They did “a reggae-ish version” of Wed Enate, put samba rhythms into Samba Shegitu and paid tribute to Ghanaian highlife on Bahta’s Highlife although, as Aklilu admitted, it owes more to Congolese soukous.
On Tez Alegn Yetintu, the band drew out its melancholic blues feeling.
“It’s a popular song and we played it in half time, so for a lot of people the melody would be very slow. But we played it like a really melancholic blues song.”
The age group that just escaped
Spurred on by the optimism of their youth, Admas bent some of these melancholic old melodies into new shapes.
“I think the music you can hear on the album is our experience of America basically, it was more hopeful than sad,” said Aklilu.
“And also our personalities come through the music,” Temesgen continued. “During that time our personalities were optimistic and hopeful.”
“We were not damaged by the revolution, we escaped, we were lucky. And I think the album might reflect that age group that just escaped.”
Still fresh today
The men moved on, went their separate ways and forgot about the album.
Then decades later, Aklilu was contacted by Andreas Vingaard, founder of NY-based Frederiksberg Records. A big fan of Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques compilations, Vingaard had stumbled on Sons of Ethiopia and wanted to reissue the record.
“When I heard Admas for the first time, it sounded very different from any other Ethiopian music I had heard,” he told RFI.
“It's clearly Ethiopian, but it's different and familiar at the same time. It's incredible to me that so many years later it still has a real freshness to it.”
The men were surprised the album had generated new interest.
“We didn’t know but a lot of people have been collecting it and liked it; it was being sold for a lot of money on eBay. Somebody said the album had a cult following,” Aklilu recalled.
“It is great music,” Temesgen admitted, but “I didn’t think people outside the Ethiopian community would know about the way I felt.”
“It will be a surprise for this generation I think,” said Aklilu.
The beat goes on in Addis
Three of the band members have made successful careers in music.
Aklilu now works on music research projects and sometimes tours with Ethiopian pop star Teddy Afro, Temesgen has become a prominent music educator and Shiota is one of the country’s top recording engineers. They’ve played together and don’t rule out releasing another Admas album one day.
The music scene in Ethiopia is “very vibrant” the Admas duo said, with lots of young bands playing in a range of genres: ethio-jazz, pop music and traditional.
But this promising scene is hamstrung by heavy import taxes of up to 300 percent on musical instruments, which are deemed luxury items.
“It’s killing the music here, it’s really damaging us,” regretted Aklilu. “Musicians can’t afford instruments; it’s one thing the government needs to change so music can grow in this country.”
Sons of Ethiopia, on vinyl and cd, complete with detailed liner notes, is available here.
World Music Matters - Ennio Morricone: a tribute to the late maestro
Italian composer Ennio Morricone was famed for his film scores but his work straddled jazz, pop, psychedelia as well as the avant-garde, influencing bands as diverse as Air and Metallica.
Ennio Morricone left behind some 500 scores for both film and television.
The theme tune to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is undoubtedly one of the most renowned.
“Just 10 seconds into one of Morricone’s soundtracks, you know it’s him, you know which film it’s from, you can see the pictures,” said French composer Jean-Michel Jarre in the wake of the Italian composer’s death on 6 July.
To recreate this feeling of the American far west, Morricone added on drums, some flute, and of course the "cry" of a coyote.
The trademark whistling came courtesy of Spanish guitarist and whistler Curro Savoye, who now lives in the south of France.
The two men never met, but Savoye was "the" whistler on the vast majority of Morricone’s work.
The film soundtrack also includes “Ecstasy of Gold” – a stirring three-minute orchestral bonanza with drums to set you galloping into the sunset and wordless vocals by Edda Dell’orso with whom Morricone regularly collaborated.
The music is so stirring it became a fetish piece for U.S. band Metallica. Since 1983 they’ve played it to open all their concerts.
They recorded their own version of “The Ecstasy of Gold” for their tribute album to Morricone in 2007, and performed the song themselves for the first time at a 2009 concert in Copenhagen.
Metallica frontman James Hetfield said something special happened when they begun using the piece as their intro music in 1983. “It set us up for the night and the fans got excited.”
In a tribute to Morricone on Instagram, he said the music had become “part of our blood flow, deep breathing, fist bumping, prayers and band huddle pre-show ritual ever since”.
'Elevated every film he scored'
Morricone wrote scores for six of Sergio Leone’s westerns. Their last collaboration was in 1984 for Once upon a time in America.
It was customary at the time to write the soundtrack before shooting the film, but still, Morricone’s music was so evocative that the director played it on set to conjure up the right atmosphere.
Sergio Leone’s westerns helped make Morricone a household name but the composer’s artistic reach knew no bounds.
Here in France, his biggest hit is the violin-heavy “Chi Mai” which famously featured in the 1981 film “The Professional” starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. Morricone was nominated for a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar.
“His work elevated every film he scored,” wrote composer John Zorn in the NY Times, adding that Morricone could “make an unforgettable melody with a fistful of notes."
He did that not just in films but during his foray into pop in the 60s.
Arguably his most celebrated song, at least in his home country, was Se Telefonando sung by Mina. Were in not in Italian it could have rivalled with Burt Bacharach.
The refrain was inspired by the three notes of a French police siren and builds into a stand-up finale thanks to eight key changes!
Among the many French musicians who say they owe a lot to Morricone is electronic music duo Air.
Nicolas Godin said Morricone was among the composers who had most influenced him for "the way he used timbres and sounds that were close to avant-garde music".
Morricone’s influence can be heard on Prologo per la puttana di closingtown from the album City Reading (Tre Story Western), recorded with Italian writer Alessandro Baricco in 2003.
“I realized my Roman fantasy around music from westerns,” Godin told Les Inrockuptibles. “Ennio Morricone will remain the absolute master of Continental music.”
It’s often said that Morricone was sore and saddened at not being fully recognised as a classical composer. But he was.
His score for the 1986 film The Mission, in which he incorporated religious chant and tribal rhythms, remains one of his most haunting pieces, not least for the melancholy of its main them Gabriel’s Oboe.
A fistful of notes that lifted, and continue to lift, anyone who cares to listen.
Ennio Morricone's official website.
World Music Matters - Hachalu Hundessa: the Oromo singer who helped transform politics in Ethiopia
"Everyday I walk in this city, I know I walk alongside death," singer Hachalu Hundessa said just days before he was shot dead in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on 28 June. We hear how the 34-year old protest singer became the voice of the Oromo ethnic group. "He was the soundtrack of the 2018 revolution that brought change to Ethiopia" Awol Allo told RFI.
The murder of Hachalu Hundessa last Monday sent thousands of Oromo out onto the streets in protest. More than one hundred have died in the unrest.
There have been protests and mourning not just in the capital Addis and elsewhere in Ethiopia, but also in Minnesota, US, where a large Oromo diaspora settled after fleeing political repression and discrimination back home.
Like many Oromo artists, Hachalu could have fled, but chose to stay. Prophetically, just a week before his death, he told journalists he was well aware of the risks he was taking.
"He said: ‘What I am afraid of is a meaningless death, a death that has no purpose. I’m not afraid because I have a clarity of purpose in terms of what I want to achieve’," UK-based academic and Oromo rights activist Awol Allo told RFI.
Hachalu’s main focus as a singer was highlighting and defending the Oromo cause and it earned him many enemies.
"One of the things that makes it so complex, so painful, is the fact that Oromo is a majority group (in Ethiopia) but subordinated economically, marginalised culturally and repressed politically," Allo continued.
Hachalu used "his incredible imaginative power, verbal invention and poetic expression to very ably articulate some of those issues".
"It’s almost impossible to think of anyone else who has used the power of art, the power of music (like he did) to push a transformative political agenda forward."
Romantic and deeply political songs
Hachalu began writing songs aged 17 when he was imprisoned for five years for his political activities.
He released his first album Sanyii Mootii (Race of the King) in 2009, a year after leaving prison. The title track is about falling in love with an Oromo woman who is proud of her identity and prepared to die for it.
His second album Waa’ee Keenya (Our Plight) came out in 2013 while he was touring the US and became a top African seller on Amazon.
Soundtrack of a revolution
Hachalu played a key role in the Oromo protests from 2015 to 2018 which led to the fall of the Ethiopian government.
"He was one of the most important voices in the Oromo protests and ultimately forced the resignation of the then prime minister [Hailemariam Desalegn] and the appointment of the current prime minister Abiy Ahmed," Allo said. "From that point of view he was basically the soundtrack of that revolution that brought change."
The soundtrack began with his first big hit Maalan Jira? (What existence is mine?) in 2015.
"It’s essentially a song about dispossession and the government’s policy of land grab around the city of Addis Ababa," said Allo, "displacing hundreds of thousands of farmers.
"What the video to the song shows is the gradual displacement and eviction, one by one, of young people who live there with their families then ultimately becoming day labourers on their own land."
By 2017 the political situation was evolving and his following hit, Jira (We are here), reflected that growing sense of hope.
While the song was written just before Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, became prime minister in 2018 "the message was that ‘we have come so far, things have changed so much on the ground and this is a moment of hope’".
Art and music - a repository for Oromo history
Protest song has always been a part of Oromo culture.
"As a community that has been historically marginalised and subordinated and denied the opportunity to receive modern education, Oromo art has always served as a repository of Oromo experiences and history", Allo explained.
"So if you really want to learn about the history of the Oromo you go into these songs, songs of resistance," Allo continued. "It’s in the reservoir of these songs that you find the true and authentic experience of the Oromo people. It’s not in the official archives, in the history and geography books of the Ethopian state."
Oromo artists make ready use of a style known as geerarsa, a kind of flow, not unlike rap, which is used to whip up an audience.
"Geerarsa is a kind of free style narration of certain experiences, mainly used to mobilise people, to galvanise support for a particular cause. It’s a deeply-entrenched part of our culture," Allo explained.
The now legendary ‘Millenium’ benefit concert Hachalu gave in Addis December 2017 for the rehabilitation of some 700,000 internally displaced Oromo shows his ability to set audiences alight.
He paces the stage chanting: ‘You can no longer pin us down, we are too big, too hopeful, too resilient, too fired up’.
Crying for Oromo unity
Hachalu also had an extraordinary capacity to unite the huge and politically heterogenous Oromo community.
"We’re a very large community of 50 plus million people so you obviously have a lot of views about how people should organise and mobilise, there are differences," Allo said.
"But the thing for which Hachalu is credited the most is that he’s preaching unity, crying of Oromo unity. It’s almost impossible right now to think of somebody who could fill his shoes."
World Music Matters - 'Black Lives Matter', and songs are showing it's a fact
Inspiring speeches are great, but a song can travel and connect people like nothing else. After the tragic death of George Floyd, musicians are helping to bring issues of police violence and social justice to the fore. Beyoncé, queen of R 'n' B, and the young gospel singer Keedron Bryant have just released songs with a strong 'Black Lives Matter' message.