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Emahoy Tsegue and Maryam Guebrou: Ethiopiques 21: Ethiopia Song

The Éthiopiques series is known for high-energy pop, brass bands and jazzy instrumentals-dance music for swingin’ Addis Ababa. But the 21st volume acts like a nightcap after a night out on the town. Playing solo piano, Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou works through 16 delicate compositions that sound like a somber Claude Debussy interpreting Ethiopian music: pentatonic, modal and mostly in the middle register. The performances come from the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s, all made after Guèbrou had become a nun because her dreams to become a full-time musician were dashed by governmental interference. She made these recordings to raise money for charities, and it’s a relief she didn’t give up on music entirely after politics derailed her dreams. Emahoy is a strange, sui generis CD.

Zanzibara is the sister series to Éthiopiques, investigating Swahili popular music from the early 20th century to today.

Zanzibara 1 honors one of the most famous taarab orchestras, Ikhwani Safaa. The CD was recorded in 2004 and 2005, and it covers eight of the most popular songs from the group’s historic catalog. Taarab is heavily indebted to Egyptian music, but it includes Indian and indigenous influences for a soothing, swaying sound that evokes Asia, Arabia and Africa all at once. The music is rich with accordions, keyboards, ouds, hand percussion, strings and voices, and it swells and recedes in an almost slow-motion dance with the wind.

Zanzibara 2 features archival taarab recordings made between 1965 and 1975 on the island of Mombasa (off the Kenyan coast). One thing that sets apart this style of taarab is the use of a tashkota, a stringed Japanese instrument that’s been amplified. Also, the tablas are much more pronounced. Because of these instruments-and because of the influence of Bollywood movies on the island-taarab from Mombasa has more of an Indian feel. The 15 songs on Zanzibara 2 originally came out on the Mzuri label, and like Amha Records was for Éthiopiques, it’s a goldmine.

Originally Published