Alemayehu Eshete: “Tey Gedyeleshem” (Ahma Records, 1972)

 Sometimes, language is a prison. It locks you into hearing a sound a certain way, because you can’t divorce what you’re hearing from the meaning of what you’re hearing. I think this is why I’ve long been drawn to music sung in languages I don’t understand; the lack of understanding frees me from the chain of meaning and lets me really hear what the voice is doing without having to think too hard about it.

I especially love listening to foreign-language music played in a style I’d normally associate with English, the only language I speak well. Listening to Spanish-language boleros from Cuba isn’t quite the same, because the bolero is a style built around the rhythms and cadences of Spanish, whereas, for instance, this Alemayehu Eshete track is basic funky soul sung in Amharic.

The music, which opens with a great instrumental hook, scarcely hints at Ethiopian modes, or even the characteristic three-against-four rhythms you hear in a lot of Ethiopian popular music. You instead get a horn section and a rhythm section grooving the hell out of something essentially Western-sounding.

And then there’s Eshete, whose singing is strongly rooted in Ethiopian vocal traditions, with their attendant modal harmony and melismatic adornment, singing over the top of it. Amharic is not a similar language to English. English is written alphabetically, and this reflects the way it’s pronounced, with a fluidity between vowel and consonant.

Amharic is not written alphabetically. Originally, it was an abjad, similar to Hebrew or Arabic, in which only consonants were supplied, leaving the reader to supply the vowel sound. This reflects the way these languages are spoken, which is to say gutturally, with a sort of clip over the vowels that connect the consonants. Most European languages are spoken from the mouth; Amharic and other languages that use abjads are spoken more from the back of the throat. 

Amharic has evolved away from a pure abjad over the centuries. A lot of abjads add little markings above or below the consonants to guide the reader in choosing the correct vowel sound, and the Ge’ez script, used to write Amharic, Blin, Me’en, Tigrinya, and several other languages, has adopted these markings as a permanent part of the script. Linguists call this an abugida, and each consonant/vowel marking combination represents a syllable or portion of a syllable. So the vowels are a little longer in Amharic than in a lot of nearby languages. 

But Eshete is still figuring out a way to sing music that was designed for one kind of language in his own, very differently spoken language. His solution is basically to let it rip, a solution he shares with a lot of his contemporaries and one that makes Ethiopian pop from the 60s and 70s distinctive and a joy to listen to.

I don’t know what he’s singing about. Possibly girls? I’d rather not know, honestly, because not knowing allows me to dwell on the wonderful things he’s doing with his voice, an experience I don’t get to have when I know every word.

— Joe Tangari

My contribution to One Week One Band’s always-great year-end them week.


Black Sabbath - The Wizard

I will plant my tongue firmly in cheek here and say that with The Wizard, Sabbath invented the unicorn chaser. Well, they toyed with the idea of it anyways: After grabbing the listener by the throat, pounding them with doom, Ozzy smiles that innocent schoolboy-smile and pulls out a harmonica. “Oh good,” says the shellshocked audience, who came wanting to hear some good blues music (you know, like John Mayall or Fleetwood Mac), “they’re gonna do Baby Please Don’t Go!”

And Ozzy, suddenly experiencing a strange vision of having a dove in his pocket, puts the harp to his lips and bends one note a couple of times. Fellow British harp players in the audience are not impressed, like, “Dude, Paul Butterfield totally used that minimalist thing in Born In Chicago. Have you even *heard* Clapton?! He’s god, you know!” And then Ozzy finishes holding that note for the third time, and everything goes back to hell.

In Popoff’s first book, Ward speaks: 

“I really liked ‘The Wizard,’” reminisces Bill. “That was a real sod to figure out. There are lot of movements, just like ‘Symptom of the Universe.’ Doing those live, you had to pretty physical to be able to play both of those. Especially ‘The Wizard,’ because it actually doesn’t stop for me as a drummer from beginning to end. There’s no actual time [signature], so I’m actually just pushing it through with all the different rolls and things like that from top to bottom.” (Popoff, 25)

That they make it sound completely natural is testament to their tight delivery on this track; even as a musician, I never noticed the weird time on this song, even when playing along with it, until I read this passage of Popoff’s book. This whole record has a very primitive feel to it, and this strange stomp is an essential part of that; Sabbath were deep in murky waters, picking up on something dark and heavy that was slouching towards England to be born. This song, arhythmic but viscerally gripping, is the sort of music one would expect to find in R’lyeh, where the mathematics don’t work right.

In lieu of having time to do my own post today, I instead leave you with this. A great song and a great piece of writing. 

With out waaaaarning! A wizard walks by. 


Darling, it hurts me

One could rationalize why this song wasn’t included on OK Computer*. While it has the tight evocative precision of other OKC tracks, thanks to the J. Greenwood/O’Brien double tom bash (which was resurrected a few years later for “There There”) and vaguely market-in-Cairo intro, it veers away thematically. A Third World girl’s predilection for rich white tourists with oh so straight, blindingly bright teeth? Oh boy.

As a B-side, “Pearly” is a catchy and expertly constructed gem. Despite the impromptu sounding intro (the buzz of a guitar, the tentative shaker), you get the feeling that each part was finely honed on the road and that when they went in to record it, it just came cleanly and easily, no wasted takes. Listen to the interplay just past the two minute mark, the bottom drops out and it’s just Yorke going up to falsetto and a single guitar. Then a second guitar snakes in, around the vocal, setting up a fierce bass drum thump before everyone comes back in, each part different than the other but partnered beautifully, like exquisite choreography.

Here’s a live version. How I wish the cameraman had panned out to include O’Brien, who works hard for the money on this jam, covering second drums, vocals and ambient guitar.

* The Airbag/How Am I Driving EP is SO GOOD. Any of those songs could have easily sat on OK Computer had the rest of the tracklisting not been so strong.  Perhaps “Palo Alto”, despite carrying the OK theme, was deemed too cheery sounding, with too much Bendsian guitar crunch, “Polyethylene, Parts I and II” too bare and direct, “A Reminder” too ambient, too much space, more of a stand alone, and so on. They sound fantastic though and each song resonates. A highly recommended purchase. (On Amazon: Airbag/How Am I Driving?)

The Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP was my introduction to Radiohead. I had not heard them (not even “Creep”), but I had heard a lot about them, and lots of mentions of Pink Floyd and Genesis in reviews of OK Computer, so I wanted to check them out. I went to my local Circuit City, and this EP was $7.99, so I sprang for it rather than a more expensive album. The title track just about took my head off (it’s still one of my favorite songs), but I also really loved “Pearly” and remember really digging “Meeting in the Aisle,” too. 

The artwork stands out in my memory, too—I didn’t think any of the content was all that interesting, but I loved the effort that had gone into it. It was a hop, skip, and a jump to gobbling up the band’s whole discography from here, including a bootleg with all the Pablo Honey and Bends-era b-sides that I found at a place near Harvard Square that was mostly bootlegs—does anyone who lived there in the 90s remember what that place was called? It had a blue sign and was on the lower, below-ground level of a two-level shopping bloc.

If you don’t follow One Week One Band, Daniella Joseph/Soft Communication's Radiohead coverage is the type of content that makes it worth following.