Ethiopian jazz group Addis Acoustic comes to Nairobi

  Addis Acoustic Project members. Courtesy
Addis Acoustic Project members. Courtesy 

Ethiopia has a long tradition of jazz going back to the 1920s when Armenian orphans from the massacres in Turkey formed the country’s first official orchestra.

American jazz great, Duke Ellington, played in Addis in the 1970s and received the country’s Medal of Honor from Emperor Haile Selassie. Composer Mulatu Astatke was assigned as Ellington’s guide during the visit and the two musicians played together at a concert in Addis Ababa.

Today, Mulatu is internationally credited with creating Ethio-jazz with an exciting blend of Western jazz, funk, traditional Ethiopian folk and religious melodies from the ancient Coptic Church.

Ethio-jazz has in recent years begun to flourish thanks to the emergence of several bands from the country. Jazz lovers in Nairobi will this weekend get to enjoy the sounds of an Ethiopian band that has kept the flames of that country’s jazz music heritage burning.

Maiden performance

Addis Acoustic Project is made up of some of the finest acoustic musicians from Addis, such as veteran Ethiopian mandolin player Ayele Mamo and guitarist, and accordionist, Girum Mezmur.

Others are younger musicians like double bassist Henock Temesgen, Nathaniel Tesemma on percussions, singer and clarinetist, Dawit Ferew and Mesale Legesse on the three piece traditional Ethiopian drum.

AAP, as the group is also known, was started in 2008 by Girum Mezmur. Its maiden performance was at the 7th Ethiopian Music festival, in May of the same year.

The band plays modern rearrangements of Ethiopian folk and classic compositions, the pre-electronic sounds popular during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and which were banned when the Stalinist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam came to power in the 1970s.

Revival of the music begun after Mengistu was overthrown in 1991. Live performances were once again allowed Addis.

In 2010, the annual jazz event Acacia Festival was launched and a French record company released compilations of recordings from the 1950s and 60s titled “Ethiopiques” which gained a huge following worldwide.

AAP plays every Friday at the main jazz venue in Addis Ababa, called Jazzamba, which is co-owned by bandleader, Mezmur. The lounge is a former ballroom attached to the Taitu Hotel, the oldest hotel in Addis and hosts live jazz every night.

Internationally, the band has played at major world music events like WOMEX 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Selam Festival in Stockholm, Sweden and the TFF Rudolstadt Festival in Germany.

They have revived Ethiopian songs from the 1950s and 60s and enriched the songs with jazz, Latin and other African rhythms. The result is a soft, contemporary acoustic version of the classics played on mandolin, accordion, clarinet, double bass and drums, a style that has drawn comparisons with legendary Cuban ensemble, Buena Vista Social Club

Music school

Mezmur also teaches a three-year jazz curriculum for young children at a music school in Addis. He has played with a host of Ethiopian musicians like Aster Aweke, Teddy Afro, Ali Birra and Mahmoud Ahmed as well as with international artistes like Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, Ray Lema of the DRC and Cameroonian drummer Brice Wassi.

The band’s debut album “Tewesta” (Remembrance) was released in 2011, with 15 songs, each arranged on traditional percussion and double bass. Among the highlights is “Selam Yihoun Lehoulachin,” (Peace be upon all of us) a plea for national harmony originally recorded in the 1960s, “Ambassel” named after one of the four main scales used in Ethiopian music.

“Yene Hassab” (You are my thoughts) is an Armenian love song and there is even a version of “Fikir Ayarejim” (Love is eternal) composed by Sudanese oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument, player Ahmed Elmak.

Though the album is predominantly instrumental, there are a few vocal tracks which showcases the interplay among the band’s clarinet and mandolin.

If you are going out to watch the AAP this Sunday, then prepare for two and a half hours of straight playing time on stage with an average of 5 to 7 minutes on each song.

The concert takes place at the Tree House, Museum Hill from 6 pm this Sunday, April 14th. Advance tickets are selling for Sh1,500, at selected Java Coffee Houses in the city.