sun 14/07/2024

Imperial Tiger Orchestra, Boston Dome | reviews, news & interviews

Imperial Tiger Orchestra, Boston Dome

Imperial Tiger Orchestra, Boston Dome

High-quality Ethiopian funk from Switzerland? These guys are the real thing, even if they’re not the actual real thing

Imperial Tiger Orchestra: it’s a bit early to be talking about a Swiss band invasion, but not far-fetched

There’s more than one way to reinterpret or simply embrace the extraordinary wealth of Ethiopian music that Francis Falceto has given us with the still growing Ethiopiques CD series of 1970s Ethio-jazz (as the style has been inadequately labelled). For example, Dub Colossus were seduced by the dissimulating aspect of the music that they felt it shared with dub reggae. And the Heliocentrics embraced its “otherness” over which they imposed their own art-school sensibility.

Somewhere between these two approaches comes Switzerland’s Imperial Tiger Orchestra.

Switzerland? You query, trying but failing not to entertain stereotypical thoughts which lead you to conclude that the Swiss couldn’t possibly have anything to bring to the Ethio-jazz table. Shame on you, is my response. Having firstly become fully acquainted with their recent fun and funky album Mercato, and secondly heard them kicking up a storm at a criminally under-attended gig at the north-London Boston Dome on Saturday night, I can assure you this tight and inventive band are worthy of your attention.

While ITO’s album treads a similar post-rock path the Heliocentrics took, live they go more for the dance-floor jugular. That is, the emphasis is on those muscular, swinging, vertiginously forward-moving grooves which invite that charming Ethiopian double-time handclapping participation from the audience. And talking of that audience, the real test of whether trumpet player Raphael Anker’s six-piece band could hack it was the sizeable percentage of Ethiopians present and keen for the authentic musical flavours of home.

Despite the free jazz extemporising, every note played was in service to the piece, the groove, and the final destination

I took almost as much pleasure from watching some of their wonderfully elaborate body and feet manoeuvres, once they’d become fuelled up on the Ethiopian grub for sale at the back of the hall, as I did from watching the band. They were “getting down on it” even before their fellow countrywoman (and solo artist in her own right) Bethlehem Dagnachew joined the band for their second set. Rather unusually, Mercato is an instrumental album right up until the final track when Dagnachew’s vocals enter the fray on the hauntingly restrained “Tirulegn”. However, on Saturday night we saw a more exuberant side of her personality as she added sparkle and a pop sensibility to proceedings.

Instrumentally speaking, Anker’s cool, melodic trumpet work shared centre stage with the sonic action painting of John Menoud’s sax which, during one slowly building instrumental, got away with making bird noises without sounding ridiculous, and during another number did a passable impersonation of an ocean liner coming into port. But with both these lead musicians there was never any self-indulgence. Despite the free jazz extemporising, every note played was in service to the piece, the groove, and the final destination, from their sprightly cover of Mahmoud Ahmed’s “Lale Lale” to the more sombre, lyrical “Zoma”.

It’s a bit early to be talking about a Swiss band invasion, but given that three acts from this landlocked part of the patchwork quilt of Europe have produced some of the most invigorating music I’ve heard in the past 18 months, maybe this idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might initially sound. Ostensibly ITO have little in common with either Cajun/zydeco punk rockers Mama Rosin or funk/electronica producer Ane H, but actually there is one connecting factor. Like Mama Rosin and Ane H (currently about to bring sassy Brazilian singer Mariana Da Cruz to our attention) ITO have done a consummate job of taking another culture’s music and making it very much their own while simultaneously being faithful to its core elements.

So I urge you to put purist prejudices aside if you’re ever handed a flyer with the Imperial Tiger Orchestra’s name on it, because these guys are the real thing, even if they’re not the actual real real thing, if you get my drift.

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