Nobody’s going to kill me for this,” Amha Eshèté thought when he started his Ethiopian record label. “At most I might land in jail for a while.” He founded Amha Records in 1969, despite an imperial edict that gave the national theater the exclusive right to manufacture records, and it released 115 discs, mostly singles, over the next six years. The label ended when Eshèté visited the U.S. in 1975 and Mengistu’s newly installed military dictatorship, the Derg, made it clear that he shouldn’t come back—jailing his father and the label’s star singer, Tèklè Tesfa-Ezghi.
Now, the French label Buda Musique is releasing the better part of the Amha catalogue on a series of CDs called Éthiopiques. Amha’s specialty was “modern Ethiopian music,” which set folk traditions—pentatonic scales, not-at-all-Euro vocal style and lyrical double entendres, complicated, irregular rhythms—against vamping American-style jazz and funk instruments. For all the cultural influence it exerted, the label operated on a very small scale: Amha’s biggest hit, Gétatchèw Kassa’s double-sided “Tezeta” (on Éthiopiques, Vol. 1), sold about 5000 copies. Turntables weren’t exactly easy to come by in a country where, reportedly, any expenditure over $10 had to be personally approved by Emperor Haile Selassie.
That, in fact, may be part of the reason why these shabbily recorded tunes sound so good and so odd now. Insulated from the rest of the world by the country’s suffocating poverty and beloved independence, the “modern Ethiopian music” scene developed in a near vacuum, and had to make up in cleverness what it lacked in resources. At times, Éthiopiques suggests a cult built around a very few American records: James Brown’s “The Popcorn” (which, if it wasn’t strictly pentatonic, was nonetheless the closest thing to a blueprint for Ethiopian funk), the odd Stax single, maybe “Iko Iko” or some Ruth Brown. And even that influence had to be kept under wraps: The Soul Ekos, heard on Vol. 1, got flack for their name’s nod to America.
If you haven’t heard Mahmoud Ahmed or Aster Aweke, the only two Ethiopian vocalists to have gotten much circulation over here, Amharic singing can be unnerving, with its hummingbird melisma fluttering around every syllable and its extended, loopy phrases draping over the bar lines. (Those who find it distracting are directed to the instrumental Vol. 4, featuring keyboardist Mulatu Astatqé, the inventor of “Ethio-Jazz”: Lou Donaldson–ish soul-jazz played with Ethiopian scales and more of those meter-defying phrases. Tragic liner note: “Mulatu introduced the vibraphone to Ethiopia, and after 30 years remains its sole practitioner.”) The first and third discs of the series are a sampling of Addis Ababa’s early-’70s singers. To listeners accustomed to American soul, they’re alien but almost familiar, like discovering a lost Family Stone album with its vocal tracks backwards; the third volume, in particular, has some great, hard, tart pentatonic funk, with relentlessly chattering rhythm guitar and a skull-cracking backbeat. In the singers’ voices, though, you can hear a weird strain of compromise between art and fear. For decades, practically the only way to get into music in Ethiopia was through the government-sponsored bands, and every song had to get a censorship visa before it was released. The crisp, swinging combo heard intermittently is actually a police band with a gifted arranger, Ayalew Abbèbè, who decentered its stiffness just enough.
Amha’s recordings of Tigrigna music, code for the Eritrean independence movement as far as the Derg was concerned, comprise the newly released Vol. 5. Tigrigna’s call-and-response vocals and hand-clap backbone don’t generally venture near the groove of Addis Ababa, though the disc has a wildly mutated “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” paraphrase by Tèwèldè Rèdda, the man behind the essential Eritrean band MaTA. But most of the disc has a vibe of its own, lurching along in off-kilter 5/8 time, with a guitar or krar spitting out notes like seeds.
The second volume leaves the Amha discography behind and jumps ahead to 1996, and to the stars of the Addis Ababa nightclubs (“azmaribéts”) that didn’t exist for 18 years, thanks to the Derg’s curfew. Much more spare and reliant on traditional instrumentation than the ’70s recordings, it’s also not nearly as much fun for Anglo listeners. Its biggest concessions to modernity are that a few of the musicians here play an electric krar, and Adanèh Tèka clowns around by mangling a few lines of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” in English. But the mood is celebratory, even relieved. In Ryszard Kapu´sci´nski’s 1978 book on Haile Selassie’s fall, The Emperor, one of his informants describes how Ethiopia “became a bilingual nation,” meaning all public discourse had to be encoded: “The first [tongue] was sweet and the second bitter, the first polished and the second coarse, one allowed to come to the surface and the other kept out of sight.” So when Tigist Assèfa chirps “Toutoyé,” whose words translate as “hurt me, give it to me, oh yeah, all over, deeper,” and so on, it has a second meaning of its own: that the freedom to say things outright is a sweet privilege.