For many who are now discovering this album and Ayalew Mesfin, the music created in 1970s Ethiopia will sound both familiar and alien: while the trappings of ’70s Ethiopian music carry some aspects that those in the West will easily identify with—trap drum kits, jazz big-band styled horn sections, guitars played through wah wah and fuzz pedals—the Ethiopian style of singing, and the modes in which the musicians move, may confound. Perhaps some who have delved into the instrumental Ethio-Jazz of Mulatu Astatke—a well-known Ethiopian musical export, relatively unknown in his homeland—will have a context in which to engage this, presumably the last great, unheard catalog of ’70s Ethiopian music. The music he created with his Black Lion Band is amongst the funkiest to arise from Addis Ababa; his recording career, captured in nearly two dozen 7” singles and numerous reel-to-reel tapes, shows the strata of the most fertile decade in Ethiopia’s 20th century recording industry, when records were pressed constantly by both independent upstarts and corporate behemoths, even if they were only distributed within the confines of this unconquerable East African nation. To date, only four of Mesfin’s songs have been reissued, as part of Francis Falcetto’s Ethiopiques series: This is the first anthology of his music, and the first time he has involved himself in the process.
Ethiopians celebrate an ancient history and civilization, a culture in line with those from the earliest epochs of human history. Ethiopia’s architecture stands alongside that of ancient China and Egypt. Strategically located in the eastern part of the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia maintained close connections with African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and European countries for millennia, through which it fostered the introduction of some of the major religions in the world—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—to many parts of Africa. Shaped by these historic, geographic and religious processes over centuries, diverse Ethiopian musical traditions emerged.
Claiming to be descendants of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba, Ethiopian emperors presented themselves as legitimate rulers of the land from the 10th century until 1974, when revolutionary forces known as the Derg overthrew Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie I. Still, “Ethiopia” as a concept carries ideological resonance for many Africans and many in the African diaspora, as a representation of the African continent as a whole, and for its sovereignty. Ethiopia is the only country on the continent never to be colonized, and it vanquished invading Italians not once, but twice. Not surprisingly, modernizing the Ethiopian state vis-à-vis Eastern ideals has been a major challenge.
Musical modernity in Ethiopia is one of the most fascinating sites of discourse, for in a staunchly independent country, the Western notion that the modern must take cues from Europe and America is up for debate. Modern Ethiopian music is generally understood outside of the country as Ethiopian music played with Western instruments, and influenced by Western musical trends. This presumes modern Ethiopian music to be an integration of an ancient musical tradition with Western genres. This assumption leads to a gross generalization: The introduction of Western musical instruments in the country, especially in the 20th Century, formed the genesis of the modern Ethiopian musical era.
While it is true that Ethiopia’s overall quest for modernization has looked toward the West, modernist enterprises in Ethiopian music were not limited to Westernization. Ethiopian musical modernism can be characterized as highly protective of its own traditions, even as the country’s musicians assimilated foreign genres and the instruments used to play them. Adapted Western music in Ethiopia has been shaped by Ethiopian socio-cultural norms. The concurrent process of indigenizing Western musical materials in Ethiopia—the fusing of genres like jazz, soul and funk with ancient Ethiopian musical roots—deserves an appreciation from both musical and sociological perspectives. This nexus, epitomized in the West by vibraphonist, keyboardist, songwriter and bandleader Mulatu Astatke’s Ethio-Jazz, led to a reappraisal of the music recorded in ’70s Addis Ababa over the past three decades, starting with the work begun in Falcetto’s Ethiopiques anthologies.
Few have the specific knowledge of the breadth of Ethiopian recordings that occurred from the late ’60s, at the end of Selassie’s rule, and those that came under the Derg’s regime which followed, starting in 1974. The general tendency, in academic and wider discussions of music, is to romanticize the pre-Revolutionary experience up to 1974 and to trivialize the post-Revolutionary experience. This phenomenon is observed when examining some of the clichés used to compare the music created under the two regimes: It is common to hear the former period referred to as “golden era of modern Ethiopian music,” a term propagated first by Falcetto himself. The music on this anthology, if anything, will serve as a reminder that “golden era” Ethiopian music can spring from outside of the classic period; the bulk of Mesfin’s recordings were made between 1975 and 1977. This was the era when Mesfin founded the Black Lion Band and succeeded in creating one of the greatest discographies of Ethiopia’s 1970s. His is the last bastion of unheard Ethio-groove, and the culmination of decades of modernization in Ethiopian music.
AYALEW MESFIN AND THE BLACK LION BAND
“I had already established my band in 1973,” Mesfin states. “Nersis Nalbandian… helped me import all the musical instruments and sound system, which cost 40,000 birr. I could afford this because of my fans, some of whom have actually tipped me very substantially; I also had a partner who used to help me.” His plan involved poaching members of the Police Pop Band and musicians he’d heard performing at various nightclubs. Thus, the Black Lion Band was formed, with founding members Tamiru Ayele, Tamiru Wolde A’b, Teshome Deneke, Tamirat Ziltini, Tekle Tesfaezgi and Italian Giovanni Vincenzo. Their main thrust was live performance, and they played first at the Patris Lumumba Night Club, and then at Mesfin’s own Stereo Club, and lastly at the Etege Taitu Hotel.
Signed by Amha Eshete for a string of releases on Amha Records, Mesfin used songs recorded at the Ethiopian National Radio to establish the baseline for his version of the Ethio-groove he would record for the entirety of his career. Amha Records entries AE 740, 750 and 760, presumably released concurrently as each feature a standard cover in three different color variations, showcase the variety of styles that Mesfin wished to master. One song in particular, “Hasabe,” sticks out. “So singular is his style: angry, very rock-R’n’B and very fast,” wrote Francis Falcetto in Ethiopiques Vol. 8. He must have been referring to “Hasabe,” which tackles two of Mesfin’s musical favorites, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, in one go, in a synthesis never again duplicated in ’70s Ethiopia. Mesfin relates the last minute choice to replace the saxophone with a fuzz guitar in establishing the melody: It was an inspired, unique decision.
“(Eshete) worked so hard for developing the arts. When he asked me to record me and my band, I did not hesitate; we did not even sign a contract,” Mesfin recalls. “He paid the musicians 600 birr for the recording session and I was yet to be paid before he was forced to suddenly leave the country in 1975.” All of Mesfin’s Amha Records sessions were recorded in one take, with no overdubs, the songs arranged and perfected in his club performances, “improving… every time,” Mesfin states. “We also tested the reaction of the audience to anticipate what songs could be a hit.”
The Black Lion Band would morph over time, as Mesfin signed to Kaifa in approximately 1974; the bulk of his releases would come through the label. And his work would become better rounded, as he and his band perfected the Ethio-groove take on funk music, occasionally darting back to the psychedelic turns he first referenced on “Hasabe,” and also mastering the Ethiopian ballad, tezeta, and a particularly infectious chic-chic-a.
Mesfin knew that beyond his voice, the groove was at the core of his band’s appeal, and it’s not conjecture to posit that he and his compatriots took influence from key groove musicians the world over. “When it comes to James Brown, that was like when I was at the Hilton Hotel, playing with Walias Band,” Mesfin’s friend, Ethio-groove legend Girma Beyene reflects. “If you’re familiar with the song “My Girl,” we were playing all of that…..Wilson Pickett, you name it, African giants too, like Manu Dibango, we played “Soul Makossa.” Fella, man, when the Walias Band played “African Woman,” it was a great time, they played it so good!”
Early in his run with Kaifa, Mesfin grounded two consecutive singles with funk (“Libe Menta Hone”) and a psychedelic interpretation of Ethiopian folklore (“Ambasel”), while the B-sides focus on the chic-chic-a rhythm, underpinned by wah-wah guitars, sounding more like Fela’s Afro-beat than anything coming out of Addis Ababa at the time. Mesfin attests that he created songs that made his career in a group effort with the Black Lion Band. But he always arranged the songs himself, as is noted on the label on each of his records. “I usually start with the introduction for the wind instruments and the keyboard. My next focus is on the bass and rhythm sections, and I often work[ed] with the keyboardist very closely,” he offers, before stating that “other musicians also have the freedom to be creative, and they can change or develop the music.”
This period in Mesfin’s career was intense—he is amongst the most recorded on the Kaifa imprint, often taking several consecutive 7” releases in the label’s matrix. And Mesfin had messages he wanted to convey during this crucial moment in Ethiopian political history. “Most of my works revolve around social issues, as well as political commentary. Even though my songs appear to be about lovers, or other mundane topics, they are open to interpretation,” Mesfin now states. “ Social issues and social problems inspire my songs. I write the lyrics first, and then compose the melody.”
This is not to say that Mesfin didn’t write actual love songs. “Rehab” is a striking tezeta, and “Yetembelel-Loga” is an ode to a tall, beautiful Ethiopian woman, set to chicken-scratch James Brown-styled funk. But, by the end of his run with Kaifa, he was fed up with the Derg, and he decided to voice his frustrations through music. “My discontent with the military government grew over time, until I got to the point in deciding to expose the brutal dictatorship through my music,” Mesfin states. “Before distributing [for free] most of the 4,000 cassettes [I made], a close friend of mine informed the government agent about my endeavor and my plan to leave the country. Considering the brutal treatment at the time, I was fortunate to only be imprisoned for three months.”
The Derg’s offenses are numerous. Wolde Giorgis, member of the Commission to Organize the Party of the Workers of Ethiopia, described the Derg’s approach to Eritrean citizens in 1975:
Young men and women were dragged out of their homes at night, strangled and thrown into the streets in what the death squads themselves called the “Piano Wire Operation.” Hundreds were killed in this terrible manner.
That’s not to say that, just because he considers himself “fortunate,” Mesfin’s time in prison was easy. He was routinely beaten and was never told just how long he would remain behind bars. Upon his release, he found that all of his studio and musical equipment had been confiscated, along with his Mercedes Benz, more than five pounds of gold and stacks of birr. “I had a parole officer assigned to me for 13 years, during which I was forbidden to write and perform my music, in addition to leaving town without prior notice and reporting back to the local agents at my destination,” Mesfin states.
But he never gave up, recording in secret with an ever-changing version of the Black Lion Band in a studio he established in his record store, Ayalew Music Shop, located in Piazza, nearby his Stereo Club. This was a time of a great exodus from Ethiopia, as hundreds of thousands fled the Derg’s regime. Still, those who remained flocked to Mesfin’s studio to record.
Following the Derg’s downfall in 1991, Mesfin, one of but a few of the country’s silenced greats who had chosen to remain in Ethiopia, again began recording and releasing music in earnest, and he found that his countrymen still adored him. He celebrated two decades in music in 1995, memorialized by a mass-produced booklet that details his career. The back cover contains images of him performing in front of thousands in Ethiopian sporting arenas.
He moved to America in 1998, first to Minnesota, then to the West Coast and finally, to Denver, Colorado, where he lives now. He re-established his Ayalew Music Shop in the city and ran it for the better part of a decade. He is a pillar of the Ethiopian community in the city, and travels throughout the country, engaging those in the Ethiopian diaspora in cultural issues. But he rarely performs. “Regrettably, my… years in the United States have been a void in my musical career. As I tell my musician friends, once you leave the country, your musical life will be like that of a fish out of water,” Mesfin laments. “First, everyone is busy working to pay the bills. Second, all the musical crews we used to work together with are dispersed all over the states, and it is very difficult to get together again and work on our music.”
Many Ethiopian musicians, like Mulatu Astatke, found there were two sides to being celebrated in the Ethiopiques series: while those outside of the Ethiopian diaspora found out about their music, and while that sometimes led to late-career resurgences (Astatke’s work with the Heliocentrics, saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria’s work with the Dutch punk band The Ex), their intellectual property became tied up in convoluted paper trails that had started under Selassie’s regime and eventually landed in France.
Mesfin wasn’t part of this process, and while that means that many who have enjoyed the music of other Ethio-groove greats over the past two decades have heard only a superficial amount of his music, it means that now, Mesfin is in control of his musical destiny. The living room of his Denver townhouse is centered around a reel-to-reel recording set-up transferred to America from Addis Ababa. Multiple master tapes, most unreleased in any form, fill shelves to its side. Mesfin still carries a ’70s-era record book, each sleeve containing an unplayed copy of one of his 7” singles. “I still have the dream and stamina to get back to working my music someday though!” he exclaims, when asked about this stage in his career. With this, the beginning of a new chapter in not just Mesfin’s musical life, but in the annals of Ethio-groove, we can feel optimistic and excited: If this treasure trove of music is but an introduction to wonderful, unheard music of the same caliber, then there are many years of discovery ahead.