Our Record of the Month is Ayalew Mesfin's Hasabe (My Worries), the first ever LP compilation from the Ethiopian funk legend, who until now, had only had his music released as 7-inches. Read below to find out how the album came together, and what went into making it for our members.
Andrew Winistorfer: I suppose we should start at the beginning, since you’re the person who brought this entire project to VMP. If you don’t go out to Ayalew’s house last year, we maybe don’t do this as Record of the Month.
Cameron Schaefer, Vinyl Me, Please Head of Music (above with Ayalew Mesfin): About 13 months ago, Eothen Alapatt, aka Egon from Now Again records and our partner on the Wells Fargo Record of the Month, told me he was coming to Denver to meet with this legendary Ethiopian artist who lives in Denver. He didn’t tell me much, but I’ve learned that if Egon wants to take me on some record adventure, I need to just do it (laughs).
When he got out here, he gave me the full story. Egon put one of Ayalew’s songs in a Mountain Dew commercial a couple years ago, and he had to track him down in order to pay him for using the song. From there, Egon stayed in contact with Ayalew, and at some point, Ayalew invited Egon out to talk about his music. All Egon knew for sure was that Ayalew’s old records would sell for a lot of money and were really sought after, that he was forced by communists to stop recording music, and that he was this sort of “lost” legend of Ethiopian music.
So, we go out to his place in Denver, and he came out in a full suit, and it made me realize how serious this meeting was. I was just in my street clothes, but Ayalew in a suit made me realize how correct I needed to come for this meeting.
It takes a while for Ayalew to open up, because he told us he had been burned before by people reissuing his music, and he was skeptical of letting us know anything about his music and what he had. At that point, he talked about his life. He said that at the start of the Ethiopian Civil War, he thought democracy was going to come to Ethiopia, but instead, Communism did. And after it did, he got jailed for making music critical of the Communists, and the only way he’d be let out was if he signed an agreement that he’d never make music again. So he does, and his music career is hampered because he doesn’t want to leave his home country, but he can’t release music.
At that point, he pulls out a big book of 20 or so 7-inches of his songs. And they’re flawless; they look pristine. Which is crazy because beat up versions of the same music sells for anywhere between $500 and $1200 on Discogs. To see all of those records, these 7-inches he literally hid and took out of Ethiopia, was an “oh shit” moment as a collector, because you realize the history he has in that book.
And then, he says, “I never stopped making music. Even though I had people checking up on me, I made this music underground.” And he pulls out this box that has tons of reel-to-reel tapes of stuff he recorded that could never get released because of the agreement he signed. And then the magnitude of what we were looking at became clear: Here’s this unreleased music from this legend in Ethiopian music, that’s just in a box in Denver.
The meeting took on an entirely different tone then (laughs).
Yeah, that’s unreal. At that point, who cares if we even do a record, that’s a life experience for you.
Yeah, it was amazing. So then Egon told him that regardless of if we do a project with him, let us pay for getting the reel-to-reel tapes “baked”--you have to do a process so they don’t fall apart in a machine--and digitized to that if nothing else, Ayalew’s music is preserved for him. And because he’d been burned before, he almost didn’t want to let anyone do that process for him; he wanted to fly out and hand the tapes over himself to the remastering people.
So Egon had him fly out to L.A. and Dan Johnson, Head of Archiving at United Recording Studios, remastered the tapes and digitized them, and made sure they were to Ayalew’s specifications.
And then you got to help Egon pick out the songs for Hasabe right?
Yeah, once everything was remastered and preserved, we had a couple dozen songs. From there, Egon whittled the list down to a bunch, and then we’d pass the list back and forth and got it down to the amount on our album. We wanted to have a good mix of his different styles, which I think we did.
And for the small details folks, our album is on maroon 180-gram vinyl. And it comes with a monster booklet too, yeah?
It comes with a 16-page booklet, which features a bunch of archival photos Ayalew had, and the Liner Notes are this really amazing trip from the beginnings of Ethiopian music through Ayalew’s music. I feel like it’s a Liner Notes book that if you spend the time to read it, you can go from knowing nothing about Ethiopian history and Ethiopian music, and come away really knowledgeable, and it makes listening to the album more enjoyable.
Agreed. I felt like I took an online crash course in Ethiopian music reading them. Something else people should know is that this is literally the first time Ayalew has had any of his music released in LP form. In his era, all the songs were released as singles.
Yeah, I was with him when he first opened our package, and he teared up. Because of meeting with Egon and us doing this album, he said he’s on the cusp of a second music career. He never thought anyone outside Ethiopia or himself would get to hear most of his music when he made it, and now it’s going to reach around the world. He is going from an artist with some rare 7-inches to this LP release. It makes us feel incredible honored to get to be part of this.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, co-produced VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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