Gétatchèw Mèkurya was not a jazz player, but he did invent one of the most original saxophone styles I know, a kind of independent sound parallel to Albert Ayler that predated Ayler’s breakthrough by a good five years. By transferring a vocal Ethiopian war chant called shellella onto his tenor with ferocious power, he moved far beyond his formative saxophone experiences in military and dance bands. Gétatchèw created a unique voice that positions him as the Coleman Hawkins of Ethiopian sax—the primordial stylist to whom all subsequent players must respond, knowingly or not.
He sits proudly tuxedoed, tenor at the ready, in the formal portrait of the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra from the year of its founding, 1956. The leader of that orchestra, Nerses Nalbandian, knew that Gétatchèw’s was a special voice and gave him a cadenza—virtually a free-jazz moment—near the beginning of the band’s theme song, “Amara Rumba,” the show opener. This prominent position points to the honored place his sound had in the Ethiopian imagination under their last Emperor. Later, during the repressive Derg dictatorship (1974-1987), Gétatchèw’s shellella was blasted through street speakers as a call to arms, something I learned when playing a recording for a group of students at MIT. One of the students, an Ethiopian, recoiled in horror at the sound. I noticed and asked him why. He said that when he was a boy, it was the sound you heard before the repressive regime began a violent action. The Derg knew how much juju there was in Gétatchèw’s saxophone, and commandeered it for their purposes. But he survived them and had a final act on the national and international stage over the last two decades, including a prestigious steady hotel gig in Addis Ababa, tours with the Dutch band the Ex and a handful of Éthiopiques shows.
Gétatchèw played with my band, the Either/Orchestra, a few times, so I got to know him, although his minimal English and my even weaker Amharic prevented detailed conversation. He was formidable even in his old age, and exuded confidence in knowing that he could conjure up the intensity of shellella on command. He always asked me if I had an extra reed that I could give him, and I always did. As a ferenj saxophonist playing Ethiopian music, I owed him more than a few Vandorens.
I remember a moment during the set-up time for an Éthiopiques concert at the Barbican, in London. For fun, pianist Rafael Alcala and I were playing a duet on a standard tune. Gétatchèw was sitting in the front row and leaned forward with great interest. To my knowledge he never played American standards or jazz tunes, always focusing on exactly what he could do better than anyone. But at that moment he was tuned in to me, speaking my native tongue, and was all ears.