Misfortune and love are infinite

MI0000477845So, The Boy is back from Paris, and came bearing gifts, including another volume of the World’s Greatest Compilation series that he’d picked up in a local store. Merci beaucoup!

If he’d spent any time perusing these pages he’d have known how much I love these earthy, funky Ethiopiques compilations, choc full as they are with soaring brass, ethereal basslines and swooping, unlikely vocals, all of it infused with a peculiarity and general otherness that this jaded punter is unable to resist. In fact, if I’d had my wits about me I would’ve sent him out with specific instructions to load up on as much Amharic eccentricity as he could persuade customs officers was for his own personal use.

He hadn’t, I didn’t and in fact he’d had never heard of Ethiopiques, but there you go. He said he bought it because he “thought it looked weird”.

Well, at least something, somewhere along the line has gone in…

Mahmoud Ahmed

Ethiopiques 19, dedicated like volume 6, to a man who seems to be universally regarded as one of the giants of Ethiopian music, is another sizzler, equally as good as anything else I’ve heard inAELP80c the series. It’s culled from recordings he made in 1974, at a time when Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign was ending and the onset of the Derg Time was looming. There are jumping, twitchy street songs, nervous ballads and dark meandering blues numbers, all of it bound together by Ahmed’s distinctive gymnastic tones. It’s fabulous, but what makes for a different experience this time is that the liner notes for this compilation include English translations of each lyric.

It’s fascinating stuff too, coming as it surely does from a tradition of spoken poetry but at a time when Ethiopian music had moved towards modernisation and away from the old ways. Although the lyrics still sound very traditional, almost scriptural, it’s impossible not to read them without thinking of the overhang on which Ethiopia found itself perched:

Have you lost your way? Have you forgotten me?

You hold me captive with your love

Ignore what the others might think

Show yourself, daughter of my country

Find your way through the wood.

Beautiful, plaintive stuff, for sure, and in November 1974, the Derg announced the end of the Solomonic Dynasty and imprisoned Selassie. Nightclubs were closed down, the military dance bands upon which the Swinging Addis sounds were built were disbanded and musicians, artists and other public figures fled the country. Ahmed remained in Ethiopia but by 1978 was unable to release records owing to the country’s censorship laws. By the 1980s he was answering calls to perform in Europe and North America, and perhaps surprisingly he continues to do so to this day.

And here he is, performing one of the songs off the Ethiopiques disk, the superlative Etu Gela, in 2014, and it has to be said still looking ridiculously sprightly:

 

One doesn’t go mad for no reason

My sister, my body

He who suffers because of love will lose his mind

Misfortune and love are infinite

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