By Tony Hillier
Awareness in Australia of vintage Ethiopian soul music (aka Ethiojazz) has increased exponentially in recent years. French producer Francis Falceto put the idiom on the world map with his prolific Ethiopiques series, shining a light on classic tracks recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Tours by two legends of that golden era, singer Mahmoud Ahméd and saxophonist Mulatu Astatqué, last year helped raise the bar Down Under. Melbourne-based collectives like Afro Habesha Band and Black Jesus Experience have also played a part with their fusion excursions, but a recently released Ethiopian soul album and project out of Sydney, both bearing the moniker Dereb The Ambassador, promises to raise the profile even higher.
Actually, it was the titular singer who introduced Ethiopian music to the local scene, via his experimental 2007 duo album with Nicky Bomba, Drums and Lions. John Butler’s drummer was the conduit that led Dereb Desalegn, who arrived from Ethiopia in 1998, to hook up with Tony Buchen and create Dereb The Ambassador. The Sydney producer/player was introduced to Dereb a couple of years ago while working on Bomba’s solo album. “Nicky played me some of his stuff and it just blew me away,” Buchen relates. “I said to Dereb right there and then, sitting in this beautiful old vintage studio, do you want to make a record?”
What the sound engineer had in mind was a conceptual album that evoked the Ethiopian records from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Dereb could hardly believe his good fortune. “It took me over ten years to find someone like Tony Buchen. He was absolutely passionate about early Ethiopian pop music.” What’s more, Buchen had the technical know-how to recreate the sound required for Dereb The Ambassador, one of the last recordings to be made at Sydney’s Electric Avenue studio, where Buchen had worked for five years, specialising in vintage soul. “Every mic I used, every piece of pre-amp, every piece of gear was all pre-1970s, so that it would be pure from beginning to end. Dereb wasn’t quite aware how authentic I could make it sound. It was incredible watching him react to the music because it was like going back in time for him literally.” As 30-something Dereb admits: “It wasn’t something I ever personally experienced … the music I grew up with was more ‘80s, so to me when I heard the ’60s and ‘70s music I was just overwhelmed by the sound of it and how they recorded it.”
The 11-track set that comprises Dereb The Ambassador, arrived at by consensus and after a month’s deliberation by Dereb and his producer, includes compositions that featured on the aforementioned Ethiopiques compilations, including songs by Alamayehu Eshete, Mulatu Astatqué and Dereb’s personal hero, Tilahun Gesese. Now the producer of that series wants to use one of Dereb’s tracks on an upcoming Ethiopiques release. “Francis believes the most interesting Ethiopian music happening now is actually being made in the diaspora because the stuff that’s happening in Addis Ababa is all very electronic,” says Buchen. Dereb recently recorded a track for Colombia-based UK studio whiz Will Holland, the man behind the Qantic moniker, and US producer/DJ Cut Chemist wants to follow suit. “Everyone who’s heard the record over there has just gone nuts for it,” Buchen reports.
The record’s producer refers to the hybrid style they’ve come up with as “noir soul”. He expands: “The album’s got this dark, heart of Africa sound. Ethiopian music has a pentatonic thing around it but it has got its own scale really. All the musicians on the record, myself included, pretty much did it by ear. Once you get the series of notes, it’s more about the articulation, especially with the horns. It took a long time to get the exact type of sound. It’s dark and it’s dirty. It’s gotta be growly, but not in a 1980s’ saxophone solo way. It’s really about controlled looseness. If you listen to those classic Ethiopian recordings, they didn’t care about intonation — it was much more about the expression. It’s distorted and warm and that’s an essential part for me.”
The band is a combination of people who have worked with Dereb before and players handpicked by Buchen. The brass section, led by jazz saxophonists Peter Farrar and Matt Ottignon, was recorded live, usually in unison and mixed in mono. The players rehearsed for a couple of days and then spent two days in the studio. Buchen’s Farfisa organ, in tandem with Danny Atlaw’s keyboards, helped produce the swirling rhythm that’s a hallmark of Ethiopian music. But Dereb’s singing, modelled on the aforementioned legend Tilahun Gesese, is the album’s crowning glory. “Dereb has such a unique, sweet voice,” observes Buchen. “He started singing when he was very young and got a name for himself as a troubadour playing on the streets.” Dereb admits to being “quite big” in Ethiopia, where he has had half-a-dozen hits and released two albums over the past decade, though with a more ‘80s-orientated and commercial sound. The music he was brought up with in rural northern Ethiopia, in a place called Gonde, he says, was “much more traditional and organic”.
A couple of songs on Dereb The Ambassador feature the singer on masenqo. Buchen has recorded additional tracks with Dereb accompanying himself on the ancient one-stringed spike fiddle that he first learned as a 10-year-old from his musician father and an uncle, and he hopes to release them as an EP down the track. Dereb first performed publicly with his family when he was a tot. By the time he was 16 he was drawing crowds in the bars of Addis Ababa and around Ethiopia, as both a solo artist and with other Ethiopian musicians.
Ironically, Dereb missed seeing his illustrious compatriot Mahmoud Ahméd perform at WOMADelaide 2010 (also his sister in the band Dub Colossus) because he was playing at the Port Fairy Folk Festival on the same weekend. Dereb’s performance at the Adelaide festival earlier this year was among the best of the home-based contingent. With Ethiopian music de rigueur, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world wises up to his undoubted talent.