A Cultural Manifesto: Samuel Yirga's Ethio-jazz


Earlier this year I wrote a shopping guide for Ethiopian music in Indianapolis. Over the years Indy has hosted a handful of grocery stores and restaurants retailing the East African nation's music. It was in these small shops that my love for the countries' culture developed - particularly the vintage sounds of Ethio-jazz.

In the 1960s the nation's capital Addis Ababa achieved fame for it's rich music scene, which featured an intoxicating blend of traditional Ethiopian sounds with American funk and soul. This style become known as Ethio-jazz. I wrongly assumed that the Ethio-jazz genre had been relegated to the past - until I discovered the work of an exciting young Ethiopian pianist named Samuel Yirga.

Yirga has just released his debut LP Guzo on Real World Records and it's one of the best albums I've heard this year. In the tradition of Ethio-jazz, Guzo features a variety of native Ethiopian instruments and scales formatted into a jazz context. Guzo spotlights Yirga's brilliant technique as an improviser as well as his prodigious compositional skills - a reflection of his time studying at Addis Ababa's Yared music conservatory. I recently spoke with Yirga via phone from his home in Addis Ababa.

NUVO: Is it true that you were accepted into a prestigious music conservatory without any prior experience playing music?

Samuel Yirga: Yes, when I was sixteen i had the chance to audition for Addis Ababa's Yared School of Music. I didn't have any experience in music before that. I was not a musician and I had never even touched an instrument before auditioning. There were 2,500 other people at the audition and I came in third. I always knew I wanted to be a musician.

NUVO: Your family resisted your decision to pursue music though?

Yirga: My father was not happy. He didn't want me to go to the audition and we argued about it. He said you need to find another course of study. Music is not a respected profession in Ethiopia. Everyone wanted me to be an engineer or doctor.

NUVO: Tell me about the recording of Guzo?

Yirga: The album was produced by Nick Page. I played on Nick's Dub Colossus project, which was a fusion of Ethiopian music and dub reggae. We recorded some of the songs for Guzo here in Addis Ababa with traditional Ethiopian musicians and the rest of the songs were recorded in the UK featuring guest artists like Nicolette from Massive Attack and the Creole Choir of Cuba.

NUVO: Can you talk a bit about the traditional side of Ethiopian music that you explore on Guzo?

Yirga: We have many different varieties of music. There are approximately eighty to ninety languages spoken in our country and as you can imagine there are a lot of tribes and each of these tribes has their own music traditions. There are four main modes in Ethiopian music, they are tezeta, bati, ambassel and anchihoy. But there are many branches within each of these major modes. Ethiopian music is really unique. Our way of playing is unique and our modes or scales are unique. We've kept our traditional music alive more than many other countries. Even when we play modern instruments, we play in our traditional style. It's in our blood. It's not about theory, it's not about principle, it's about the feeling that Ethiopians have for music.

NUVO: Ultimately what do you want to accomplish in music?

Yirga: There are great musicians in our country and I want to bring our music to the attention of the world. We have an amazing and diverse culture. I want to show how Ethiopia really is and show how the country is progressing. There are problems right now, but through hard work and patience we can change things and it is changing right now.

I love the piano. I love music. This is my life. I don't have any other profession and I don't want any other profession. I want to be successful playing Ethiopian music. I want to promote Ethiopia. Right now the world knows about Ethiopia as a place of famine and drought. There are many things we have to show the world and I'm trying to do this through my music. I'm not a politician and I can only do this through music.

Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's edition explores contemporary Ethiopian jazz.

1. Samuel Yirga - Abet Abet (Real World Records, 2012)

2. Dub Colossus - Guragigna (Real World Records, 2011)

3. Jungle by Night - Ethiopino (Kindred Spirits, 2012)

4. Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra - Ethio (Ubiquity Records, 2011)

5. Mulatu Astatke - Yègellé Tezeta (Mochilla, 2011)

6. Samuel Yirga - Firma Ena Wereket (Real World Records, 2012)

7. Mulatu Astatke - I Faram Gami I Faram (Strut, 2010)

8. Shaolin Afronauts - Rise With The Blind (Freestyle Records, 2012)

9. Mulatu Astatke - Green Africa (Strut, 2010)

10. Samuel Yirga - The Blues of Wollo (Real World Records, 2012)


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.