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The Ballad of Addis Ababa

In the early 1970s, Ethiopia's music scene rivaled any on earth in terms of swing, inventiveness and sheer beauty. A decade later, it was nearly wiped out — a victim of the strife and famine that drove many of the nation's great artists into exile. As Ethiopia regains its footing, an unlikely ambassador has emerged to help bring the music back to a new generation and reunite the country with a bit of its golden past.



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Girum Mezmur, left, and Bahta G. Hiwot


IT’S DUSK IN ADDIS ABABA, and the drivers pulling up to the 10-foot-tall corrugated metal gate outside Jazzamba beckon to the guard. He’s ancient, wearing a dusty and threadbare uniform of indeterminate color a few sizes too big for him, looking like the sole survivor of some long-forgotten regiment. Moving slowly, he swings the gate wide and herds the Land Rovers, Toyotas and Hyundais into three-deep rows.

Car doors open, and Ethiopia’s glitterati emerge onto the dusty lot: ladies in eveningwear, grandmas with updos, Rastas in dreadlocks, Chinese engineers, business-casual Germans, college boys in penny loafers and wayfaring Americans in torn jeans. Outside the gate, Addis Ababa, the fourth largest city in Africa, is struggling to find its feet after a decades-long civil war, a devastating famine and a 40-year conflict with the border region of Eritrea that ended with partition and an uncomfortable truce in 2000. But inside, music lovers young and old line up to shell out 50 birr (about $3) to be transported to a plush, velvet-and-chandelier approximation of the New York and Paris lounge scenes.

Onstage at Jazzamba are some of Addis’ greatest contemporary musicians. Ayele Mamo, a scene veteran now near 80, picks the mandolin. Henock Temesgen, who lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for 25 years before returning to his native city, is manning the bass. On guitar is the incomparable Girum Mezmur. They are all members of the Addis Acoustic Project, a band devoted to the once-endangered genre known as Ethiojazz. The current scene is young — the band formed just two years ago and the club opened late last year — but it’s already made these men famous.

The seeming misfit of the group stands at stage right. He’s a hulking American sax player by the name of Russ Gershon. He’s the only white guy up there, but if he looks slightly uncomfortable it’s not because he’s the odd man out — it’s because he’s hopelessly jet-lagged. As the other members of the band find their groove, the graying, bespectacled Gershon wets his reed a few times and sways with the music.

Ethiojazz is deceptively simple, based on uniquely un-Western scales. It goes deep. You can’t just waltz in and jam. Thus, all eyes are on Gershon as he takes a breath and raises the sax to his lips. Then, out it comes: a bewitching jazz riff that blends into the song like cream into coffee. Gershon might look like an outsider, but the reality is far different. He just might be the best friend this music has.

RUSS GERSHON FELL for Ethiopian music almost two decades ago — and fell for it hard — when friend and fellow musician Mark Sandman of the band Morphine gave him the CD Ethiopian Groove: The Golden ’70s. A reissue of Ethiopian popular tunes, it had been released by Francis Falceto, a globetrotting Frenchman and world-music devotee who also happened to be a fierce advocate of Ethiopian sounds.

At the time, Gershon, a Harvard grad with a degree in philosophy, was picking up recording gigs while leading his own 10-piece band in Boston. “I thought, ‘Greatest album title ever,'” he recalls, sipping the thick local arabica on the veranda of Addis’ Taitu Hotel the morning after the Jazzamba show. He produces a copy of the disc and slides it across the table. “When I finally sat down to listen, the music grabbed me and went into heavy rotation on my CD player. I had an intense fan reaction.”

On the CD were rock and jazz numbers recorded in Ethiopia back in the ’60s and ’70s, yielding a satisfyingly weird hybrid of deeply traditional Abyssinian tunes grafted onto Western pop arrangements. Gershon was a typical musical omnivore — having first been an avid punk fan, then playing New Wave in the ’80s, and then jazz — but Ethiopian music was a fixation to end them all. The music so haunted him that in 1997 he wrote a few charts for his band, Either/Orchestra, based on the scales and beats he’d heard on the disc. Wanting to take it further, he sought out collaborators; fortunately for him, Ethiopia’s best musicians had emigrated to New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. Gershon invited them to join his band whenever they could, and picked up more music and culture as he went.

Meanwhile, Falceto, who had risked his life to sneak vintage recordings out of war-torn Addis in the ’80s, was itching to bring music back into Ethiopia, to show the new generation what it was missing. Sensing an opportunity, he suggested that Gershon (whom he had signed to record on his Ethiopiques label) bring Either/Orchestra to the 2004 Ethiopian Music Festival. Although the country was by then emerging from its dark days, its music scene remained thin at best. Anyone who had the wherewithal to leave had done so, including many top musicians. By playing the festival, Gershon’s group would not only help bring back the Ethiojazz sound, but also perform as the first American big band in Ethiopia since Duke Ellington came to the Hilton Addis Ababa hotel in 1973.

Thrilled at the prospect, Gershon raised funds to get his band to Addis (an effort sponsored in large part by the U.S. embassy) and stepped into the role of jazz ambassador to a country he’d long adored from afar. As for actually playing in Ethiopia, it was more than intense, he recalls: It was full-on immersion using a language in which he felt he’d only just gained fluency.

Falceto, too, felt the heat. “Right before the concert, I was extremely anxious, having no idea what the reaction of the 95-percent-Ethiopian audience would be,” he says. “But after five bars of music, the whole audience rose as one and began to shout, clap, stomp. Some were even crying. Whenever I mention this moment, I have goose bumps. It was a milestone in modern Ethiopian music history.” (Afterward, one fan would tell Gershon that he’d clearly been speaking Amharic, the local tongue, through his sax; the musician says it’s the greatest compliment he’s ever gotten.)

Gershon’s next breakthrough came as he was walking off the stage after that inaugural concert and was approached by a tiny, gray-haired woman with bright brown eyes. “I am Salpi Nalbandian, the daughter of Nerses Nalbandian,” she said in perfect English. She explained that her father had been the composer for the National Theatre under former Emperor Haile Selassie, making him the godfather of the music Gershon had grown to love. Gershon knew something of Nerses Nalbandian’s massive influence, but he’d always figured the music was lost. No one had played it in 30 years.

Salpi saw his eyes light up. “We have all his charts,” she said. “Every single one. You and your band must perform his music.”

But first, she said, Gershon had to come over for dinner.

THE NALBANDIAN HOUSE sits in what was once a neighborhood along a dusty road that climbs out of Addis Ababa into the western hills. Nerses built it more than 60 years ago, and his children and grandchildren still live there. Inside the house are Oriental rugs and imported Italian crystal; outside is a tall fence patrolled by two dogs and a private guard (a common sight here). The house stands alone on a vast empty lot. The other homes were razed by the government, which plans to take back the land for development. Nerses’ offspring have stubbornly refused to let this happen to their own house. They want to preserve history for future generations by turning the home into a museum. When I visited late last year, though, they were weary from fighting. “You’d better take pictures of the house before it gets demolished,” Nerses’ daughter Mary said. Considering Nerses Nalbandian’s importance in Ethiopian history, this beggars belief.

Nerses Nalbandian, whose family had fled Turkey during the Armenian genocide and settled in Syria, followed his father to Addis in 1933, and taught music to foreigners for years before being asked by the culturally minded Emperor Selassie in the 1950s to write scores for the National Theatre. That was a major honor, as those performances were then broadcast weekly over national radio. Nalbandian was charged with translating traditional Ethiopian music to big band arrangements, which was something no one had ever done before. Nalbandian, however, was uncommonly skilled. He quickly figured out how to harmonize the local sound — which has neither harmonies nor scales that lend themselves to Western instrumentation — without destroying it.

Like a hip, East African Lawrence Welk, Nalbandian captured the ear of the nation with his music. Future stars like Mahmoud Ahmed and Mulatu Astatke (who went on to become the father of Ethiojazz) spent their youths listening to broadcasts of Nalbandian’s hits. Over time, more bands formed, nightclubs opened and Ethiopian-laced rock and jazz was born — always, always, in Amharic, and always employing the eerie Ethiopian pentatonic scales and Nerses’ unique harmonies.

Yet as quickly as it began, the story almost ended. A Soviet-backed military coup seized control of Ethiopia in 1974 (a year after Ellington played Addis) and set about dismantling the musical culture that Emperor Selassie had nurtured. Clubs were shut down. Musicians were harassed. Civil war flared up, sparking a diaspora. Falceto, meanwhile, got to work smuggling out the recordings that, in time, would find their way nearly 7,000 miles to Russ Gershon.

WHEN GERSHON STUDIED Nerses Nalbandian’s charts, notes and photos at the family home, he felt a profound connection. “They reminded me of my own charts,” he says of the handwritten scores. “I felt like I’d discovered a kindred spirit, a brother who had been working on my project a half-century before I was.”

He took on the project, and spent the next seven years trying to find the time and money to return to Addis and stage the first all-Nalbandian concert in a generation. He got a grant from the U.S. embassy and supplemented it with a campaign with the fundraising group Kickstarter. He scrambled to locate former Nalbandian sidemen to join the band. Many are gone and the few who are still around are too old to play, but he did find Girma Negash, the original singer of Nalbandian’s “Yene Hasab,” a hit song for which Gershon had the original charts. Though Negash, now in his 70s, had been driving a bus for the past 40 years, when he showed up for practice there was no doubt as to his chops. “Hearing Girma sing made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” Gershon says.

The concert happened in May 2011 at the original National Theatre. Before the show, seniors were wondering whether it’d be as good as they remembered, and members of the younger set were eager to reclaim their heritage and groove to the golden years. Both groups would come away elated. Most people recognized a few songs and sang along. Special guests appeared, many of them younger players like crooner Michael Belayneh, 30, who recently returned to Addis after working in technology in the U.S. for a couple of years. The crowd ate it up. The music was back. “It was an odd and wonderful feeling to be a kind of musical and historical midwife,” Gershon recalls. “We returned these sounds to the theater where they had been born.”

Gershon had the concert professionally recorded and is now mixing what he hopes will become an all-Nalbandian album on Falceto’s Ethiopiques label. Meanwhile, the recording industry in Addis has never been hotter. Members of the Addis Acoustic Project are in huge demand as artists, teachers and producers. Bassist Temesgen, who co-founded a jazz music school when he arrived in Addis in 2006, barely has time to sleep — but that sure beats all those years in New York, scraping to make rent on a cramped apartment.

Following the Jazzamba gig, Gershon visited the Nalbandians, who were downcast about the future of their home. He said goodbye and returned to Boston. Shortly after, he got an email. “Greetings to you all,” it read. “The Municipality of Addis Ababa, after long deliberations, has decided not to demolish the Nalbandian house in Arat Kilo, as they have found that the house is well constructed and the work done by our father, Nerses Nalbandian, has entitled it to become a national heritage site. We hope to have the house converted into a musical center in the name of Nerses Nalbandian.”

RACHEL SLADE‘s tween daughter is mortified by her mother’s musical taste.

Russ Gershon offers a beginner’s guide to Ethiojazz

“The quintessential expression of Ethiopian soul through the Western band format, featuring Ethiopia’s most beloved singer at a creative high-water mark.”

“Francis Falceto’s brilliant compilation of 45s from the ’60s and ’70s. Every song is a killer.”

“Muluqen was a teen star — a multi-instrumentalist and singer — when the Derg dictatorship closed down the recording industry in 1976. One of the last LPs released before the blackout was a brilliant Muluqen album, which Francis is preparing for reissue this fall or next spring.”

“Mulatu’s pioneering early ’60s and ’70s instrumental B-sides put Ethiojazz on today’s music map.”

“This Washington, D.C.-based masinko virtuoso’s album title means ‘the old songs are best.’ It’s done in a traditional azmari style with a postmodern touch on the title track.”

One Response to “The Ballad of Addis Ababa”

  1. Marthe Says:
    June 6th, 2012 at 3:46 am

    wow! Amazing! :))

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