Éthiopiques 8: Swinging Addis 1969-1974
A PHOTO OF Amha Eshèté in the CD booklet of Éthiopiques 8 shows the Ethiopian record producer striking a coolly defiant pose, clad in a modish single-breasted red jacket covering a black turtleneck. Beside him is a tiny reprint of the outfit's inspiration: the cover of 1966's The Exciting Wilson Pickett. The Man and a Half's taste in clothing wasn't the only aspect of American soul Eshèté emulated: From 1969 through 1975, his independently owned Amha Records released more than 100 singles and LPs documenting a sometimes bizarre, frequently arresting hybrid of Southern soul fervor and traditional North African cadences. Many of these sides, which make up the bulk of the Éthiopiques series, suggest an acid-fried Booker T. and the M.G.'s singing in Arabic.
The series' newly issued eighth volume may be the most consistent so far, perhaps even surpassing the highly acclaimed third volume. If the pounding grooves of Éthiopiques 3 sounded, as The Wire's Peter Shapiro commented, like they were "recorded in a high-school gymnasium," the just-as-funky tunes on 8 sound like they've graduated to the teachers' lounge. True, many of the 21 cuts here ride rhythms jagged enough to unsettle James Brown--the rickety rhythm guitar on Ayalèw Mèsfin's "Hasabé," for instance, sounds like it's echoing around a rusted-out aluminum can being strummed by barbed wire. But compared to the more eccentric third volume, you might almost say these tracks on part eight were designed to cross over to a broader market.
Of course, no such market existed. The most popular side of Amha's six-year career sold a mere 5,000 copies. The label itself was basically illegal: The government reserved all record-manufacturing rights for itself. Still, the snaking Vox solo and boisterous horns of Samuel Bèlay's "Aynotchesh Yerèfu" could have scored the Ethiopian equivalent of Superfly. Bahta Gèbrè-Heywèt's Stax-ish midtempo "Tessassatègn Èko" and the slower "Gizié" sound like a great, lost Sixties soul nugget and its equally worthy B-side. And the thick, sweet languidness of Girma Bèyènè's highlife-flavored "Ené Nègn Bay Manèsh" and "Sèt Alamenem" might have become radio favorites in another country, in another time. Maybe that time is now.