Thomas “Tommy T” Gobena had all the pieces of a terrific song. He had a fistful of intricate melodies, inspired by Ethiopian folk music and shimmering like rare jewels. There was a thick reggae pulse — a thump masquerading as a lilt. And, of course, there was that low, latent, guiding groove coming from Tommy’s own bass guitar. Now he just needed someone to sing it.
Jump ahead to a Stephen Marley concert at Washington’s 9:30 Club at which Tommy spotted one of his musical heroes dancing in the wings. It was the legendary vocalist Mahmoud Ahmed. Was this really happening? Here was one of the greatest Ethiopian singers alive moving his body to a reggae beat. “I heard his voice on the track in that moment,” Tommy says.
The two eventually headed into the studio to record “Anchin,” a stand-alone single that Tommy released earlier this year on his record label Afroxoid. “I’ve always been a big believer of true fusion and mashing up different things,” Tommy says, looking back on how “Anchin” came to be. “As for Mahmoud, I know he’s [an adaptable] singer like Serge Gainsbourg was. I know what kind of musician he is. He’ll knock out anything you present to him.” Still, once the duo knocked out “Anchin,” Tommy only had one word to describe the result: “Unbelievable.”
That same enthusiasm is at the heart of Tommy’s work — from his solo recordings, to the music he’s trying to spread across the planet through Afroxoid, to his bedrock bass-playing in the polyglot punk group Gogol Bordello. Having moved to Washington from Ethiopia at the age of 16, the sounds of the world have been blending in his ears for decades. “That musical fusion, it’s not a concept,” Tommy says. “It’s my everyday life.”
Show: “Tommy T” performs with Gogol Bordello on Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. (doors) and Dec. 31 at 9 p.m. (doors) at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. 930.com. $35 (Dec. 30) ; $55 (Dec. 31, includes champagne toast at midnight).