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Strangely, one can thank disgraced ex-governor Eliot Spitzer for helping bring a once-in-a-lifetime bill full of great Ethiopian music to Lincoln Center this month. As attorney general, the noted hooker enthusiast had busted major labels for payola violations; newly up-for-grabs funding generated by the resulting lawsuit allowed New Jersey's WFMU to score a major grant, and a healthy chunk of that cash has gone toward bringing excellent concerts to New York City. This free Lincoln Center show features a who's who of modern Ethiopian musical history: Gétatchèw Mèkurya, the king of Ethiopian saxophone, joins Danish anarcho-rockers the Ex, while Mahmoud Ahmed and Alemayehu Eshete collaborate with the Either/Orchestra to create horn-heavy funk scenarios, and Extra Golden round out the bill with their merger of Kenyan benga and American rock.
Mèkurya, Ahmed, and Eshete have all been heavily featured in the sensational Ethiopiques record series put out by the French record label Buda Musique; since 1997, the imprint has re-released singles and albums from Ethiopian artists that were originally put to tape in the '60s and '70s. The series is curated into volumes that alternate between straight records, artist compilations, and complex genre experiments. With 23 diverse releases to date, it's no surprise that the results are catching on globally.
"Ethiopiques has been an amazing series that's covered the classic and modern bases really well," says Brian Turner, music director at WFMU. "It's just primal, pure, unique, and wonderful music, so it's no surprise that the artists performing are gaining recognition outside the usual world-music circuit." This show is a celebration and acknowledgment of the powerful music that Ethiopia has produced over the last half-century: Take Ahmed, who grunts, rants, and croons over some serious funk vamps—or Eshete, who presents a mixture of dissonant horns, organs, and guitar stabs, topped off by a wailing vocal melodicism that eschews Western conventions in fascinating ways.
"The Ethios involved are all legends," Turner continues. "The recordings of Ahmed, Eshete, and Mèkurya are among the greatest music I've ever heard. Mèkurya, for example, has the tonal approach of someone like Pharoah Sanders or Coltrane. The juxtapositions of musical ideas that will go on at this show will be mind-boggling. You have African and Middle Eastern traditions going head-to-head with James Brown '70s motifs. Throw the angular punk concerns of the Ex on top, and it's safe to say there will be some beautiful mayhem."
The event itself is a collaboration between WFMU and Lincoln Center's Bill Bragin, who's curated the genre-shattering "Out of Doors" series all summer. "The free-form style of WFMU fits perfectly with the way I try to program shows," he says. "A show like the upcoming Ethio bill isn't about what fits into what genre box. This is about crossing over, sharing surprises, and—most importantly—creating vibrant music that anyone from an 80-year-old to a 10-year-old can tap into."
Extra Golden, Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete, the Either/Orchestra, the Ex, and Gétatchèw Mèkurya appear at the Damrosch Park Bandshell as part of Lincoln Center's "Out of Doors" August 20