sun 14/07/2024

Getatchew Mekuria and the Ex, Rich Mix | reviews, news & interviews

Getatchew Mekuria and the Ex, Rich Mix

Getatchew Mekuria and the Ex, Rich Mix

Ethiopian jazz legend gets a new lease of life with Dutch post-punkers

A superhero of Ethiopian sax: Getatchew Mekuria

“It’s cultural imperialism,” a middle-aged gentleman felt compelled to say to me, presumably because I was the bloke with the notebook. “Then all pop music is cultural imperialism,” is what I should have fired back at him, had I not been so immersed in the transcendental racket of tussling brass and distorted guitars that had almost made him inaudible.

But instead I took the scenic route of pointing out that this legend of 1970s Ethiopian jazz would hardly have spent the last seven years playing with these white Dutch musicians if he had felt he was being exploited.

As I finished the case for the defence, Mekuria was producing a rush of notes so quintessentially Ethiopian he reduced us both to a silence which only echoed the silence of the 10-piece band so respectfully letting the master have his moment, as they did several times during last night’s gripping set. My point had been made better than I had made it. Mekuria was unquestionably the star of this show.

It’s now more than a decade since Getatchew Mekuria and other luminaries of the 1970s Ethiopian jazz and funk scene were first brought to the attention of us all, thanks to the indispensable Éthiopiques CD compilations. As this strange yet oddly familiar music worked its way into the hearts and bones of everyone from Brian Eno to Elvis Costello, I felt it was only a matter of time before its influence was felt in contemporary music. Then along came, among others, Dub Colossus, The Heliocentrics (with guest Éthiopiques star Mulato Astatke) and The Imperial Tiger Orchestra.

The sound of 1970s Ethiopia doesn't give an inch, and yet these Dutch guys don't tip-toe around their esteemed guest either

But still there was no band that came near to sounding like the fantasy contemporary band I had in my mind on first hearing Mulatu Astatqe, Mahmoud Ahmed and, of course, the sax star of the scene, Mekuria himself. Such a band would need to combine the post-punk, angular funk of, say, Gang of Four and Talking Heads with the sinuous unpredictable grooves and otherworldly melodies of Ethiopian funk.

Then – several years after its release – I heard the 2006 album Moa Anbessa, on which the Ex miraculously managed to persuade Mekuria to travel all the way from Ethiopia to be star and guiding light. This was it. This was my fantasy made into a noisy, thrilling reality. On this rambunctious celebration of two very different cultures finding some common ground, the sound of 1970s Ethiopia doesn't give an inch, and yet these Dutch guys don't tip-toe around their esteemed guest either.

Fortunately, last night this seminal album was writ large and loud before a diverse, enthusiastic crowd, and Mekuria was as strong and confident as ever in his playing, making me ashamed of ageist suppositions that, at 76, he might have run out of puff or passion. So, no, it was cultural symbiosis rather than cultural imperialism at work, as these punchy Dutch musicians respectfully expanded upon Mekuria’s own compositions which were, in turn, extrapolations upon traditional melodies and songs in the first place. And on, and on.

At one point a female voice entered the fray singling lead vocals, and a few hundred necks craned to see what exotic guest artist had suddenly taken to the stage. But in fact it was drummer Katherina doing an extraordinary job of keeping up some fairly complex polyrhythms while simultaneously singing like an angel. Finally, a further word about the great man himself. In the middle of it all, in expensive shades and a shirt with a glamorous reptilian sheen, Mekuria more than held his own, coaxing from his instrument mournful police-siren cries, stuttered purrs, and scrambled outpourings so lucid in their meaning that their meaning became irrelevant: apart from the fact that these fractured, haunting melodies spoke of nothing less than the immortality and modernity of the very Ethiopian soul itself. This was one of the gigs of the year.

Listen to "Ethiopia Hagere" by Getatchew Mekuria and the Ex

Mekuria’s fractured, haunting melodies spoke of nothing less than the immortality and modernity of the very Ethiopian soul itself


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Hi Howard, a nice review and glad you enjoyed the gig. The band knew Mr Getachew's material; they were enthusiastic and energetic. The drummer sang beautifully but 'polyrhythms'? And there's the rub . The beautiful subtlety of the Ethiopian grooves as demonstrated previously that evening by Krar Collective trio was was replaced by eager schoolgirl thumping and arhythmic guitar scrubbing. We got the melody lines but that's less than half of the story. And the horns?...beginners if we remind ourselves of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra , Pharoah Sanders at al A meeting of minds and of genres is one thing but springboarding yourself on the back of someone else's achievement is another. The recent Fela Kuti musical is a prime example of this. I had long discussions with the late Jimmy Witherspoon who educated me in this respect. African music is not a museum but if we had respect for the culture we would try to listen and seek to understand it not profiteer from it. A lot of pop music seeks to agrandise itself by setting itself next to musical icons; how about George Michael's vapid bleating alongside Aretha Franklin? As to why Mr Merkuria plays with the Dutch punk team, I can't say. Perhaps you will be able to ask him one day but I know that plenty of musicians gladly take on gigs offered as a job of work to make ends meet.

Hey howard i understand you may be suspicious about bands trying to "agrandise" themselves by setting themselves next to musicial icons as this does happen often but to accuse us of this seems a bit off the mark especially as you seem to know nothing about the musicians involved and the history of this project at start with Getachew Mekuria invited us on this project ..we invited him to our 25 th anniversary Party after having heard an old cassette o fhis music we found in addis long before the ethiopique series released it and he agreed and came to amsterdam and played along with the Instant Composers Pool ..after this he saw the Ex play live and he wanted us to be his band ....we are extremely busy musicians and very satisfied with a long history of playing in many different situations with many different guests...were hardly desperate for work or exposure ...we did this out of sheer enthusiasm and love for getachews music the only reason to make any kind of music we believe.. when we do a project like this we see no point trying to imitate or capture the so called "beautiful subtlety " of the ethiopian grooves..many of these so called ethiopian grooves were inspired by 70 s soul from america and like all good music everyone borrows steals copies and lends but keeps their own identity intact which is what both the ex and getachew and the amazing horn players (all experienced and amazing musicians from the amsterdam and Chicago improvisation and jazz scene for many years) succeeded in doing . Shame you werent convinced but please dont accuse us of being mercenary..

sorry Howard this message was meant as reply to the suspicious middle aged gentleman who wrote a response to Howards review

Thanks Andy for coming to the defence of my instincts with some salient facts, and then elaborating upon my words “Then all pop music is cultural imperialism,” with some salient history. I felt the power and truth of the music you played on Saturday night, right down to my scuffed Doc Martins. That’s the only truth I’m interested in.

Only joining this late. But I was at the gig on Sat eve and it was a great meeting of musical minds. It was clear that Mekuria liked playing with The Ex and they knew his music. They have been regularly visiting Ethiopia for a decade and not only Katherina, their drummer, sings Amharic but so does one of their daughters who performed confidently in Amharic, aged 8 or 9?, in Addis earlier this year. Ethiopian music may not be polyrhythmic, but it has its distinct peculiarities and The Ex have got inside it without imitating it. Terrie Hassels bursts out with teenage enthusiam on the guitar and slides up and down his strings with a knife. That and Getachew (Guitar-Chew) in full flow did make it one of the gigs of the year. Simon Broughton

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