“There is no place in Ethiopia where Girma could do this!” an immigrant from Addis Ababa explained during Sunday night’s intermission at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club. “People there don’t pay attenton to classical music. It’s all cultural, traditional music.” Pianist and composer Girma Yifrashewa, then, is as unique in his homeland as he is in the United States: a man who has studied the European piano repertoire and has applied its devices to Ethiopian traditional music. At the club, he showcased both traditions in one of this year’s most mesmerizing concerts.
Yifrashewa made headway in the States with the release of 2014’s “Love & Peace,” featuring five original compositions for solo piano. (NPR named one piece, “Sememen,” its song of the year for classical and jazz.) But with the exception of the opener, a somber new piece dedicated to the recent Ethiopian victims of the Islamic State, his first set on Sunday was all repertory. His choices, though, were very revealing: heavy on Chopin (who wrote three of the seven selections), with his static harmony and dense latticework, and nearly all waltzes, including Tchaikovsky’s “Autumn” and Liszt’s “Consolation No. 3,” as well as his own composition.
This formed important context; waltz time (3/4 and 6/8) is very important in Ethiopian music, and Chopin, as became clear in the second half, is a major influence on Yifrashewa’s composing. They were also beautiful performances in their own right, Yifrashewa employing a tenderness of tone and light rhythmic touch that added heft to his more emphatic attack on pieces by Chopin and Schumann.
The second half opened with another waltz, James Lee III’s “Memories of Axum.” Then came Yifrashewa’s pieces from “Love & Peace.” These, he explained, were based on Ethiopian folk songs, but the European development techniques were so firmly in place that it was often hard to hear the East African elements. The pastoral “The Shepherd with the Flute,” for example, was built on a set of right-hand trills that emulated the titular instrument but also drew on Chopin’s filigrees; those same trills occupied “Elilta,” in this case evoking a joyful Ethiopian yelp, in a melody that resembled a Protestant hymn with Beethovenian ornamentation. “Ambassel” made the Ethiopian tradition most apparent, with rumbling modal harmony and stately 6/8 time.
Yet there was also a surprising amount of American influence in Yifrashewa’s music. “Elilta” was a 4/4 tune with triplet phrasing on the piano, reminiscent of swing rhythm; swing went from reminiscent to overt in “Chewata,” with a syncopated section that echoed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” “The Shepherd With the Flute” suggested a blues aesthetic in its middle section as well. And, as if to make sure this point wasn’t lost, Yifrashewa’s encore for the evening was a fast and lively rendition of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” From an Ethiopian musician who studied in Europe and was now performing in the United States, it was a tidy package.
West is a freelance writer.