In its first two years, D.C.-based record label 1432 R has stood out for its ethos and its ear, but also for a more curious reason. Even though 1432 R takes its name from a District street address, its catalogue is dominated by music from more than 7,000 miles away — Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Launched in summer 2014, 1432 R has released nine records, almost all featuring Addis Ababa-based producers Mikael Seifu and Endeguena Mulu; one is by Ethiopian American co-founder Dawit Eklund. Their music seamlessly brings together house music grooves, the stutter of U.K. garage, an uneasy electronic ambience, and — perhaps most notably — Ethiopian folk music.
“Ethiopian music is super distinct,” Eklund, 26, says. “There are only four or five musical scales that they play in; each has its own meaning and attitude and mood.” What has caught the attention of listeners around the world is how they are “drawing from this classical and traditional sound and coupling it with electronic sounds,” crafting music that is unique, inventive and emotionally resonant.
The music also explores the flip side of a decades-old issue: the musical exchange between Africa and the West. “Electronic music sampling African sounds was nothing new,” Eklund says. “Techno and house for the longest time have been sampling West African music because it’s drum-based,” but sampling the melodies of traditional Ethiopian music is much less common.
Almost as old as Western appropriation are critiques of such appropriation, often made by Westerners. “At a certain point, being African, it’s kind of frustrating that that’s always the case,” Eklund laments. “On top of that, the Western media are covering that aspect of [sampling indigenous cultures], and it’s almost doubly embarrassing: Somebody is taking from you, and defending your case for you.”
Mulu agrees. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions still about music that comes out of Africa in general,” the 29-year-old says, via Skype, from Addis Ababa. “I don’t know how exactly people listen to my music, but I would most certainly love it if it was organic without any stereotypical thoughts in the back of their minds.”
Turning the tables, Seifu and Mulu offer an African perspective on the electronic dance music of the West. “With a new and modern Africa, this sort of exchange levels the playing field: You can take from us, and we can take from you, we’re all on the same planet,” Eklund says. “It’s not this charity thing — ‘we need to protect tribal peoples’ — it’s definitely a pride point, it feels really good.”
“It’s more of a give-and-take than just a take,” 1432 R co-founder Sami Yenigun says.
That give-and-take is key to 1432 R’s entire operation. Co-run by D.C. residents Eklund, Yenigun and Joyce Lim, 1432 R is a passion project for the three music obsessives.
At the beginning of the joint venture, Eklund, the son of an Ethiopian mother and an American father, reached out to Seifu, with whom he had bonded over music-making while attending high school in Addis Ababa.
Seifu’s music was so impressive that the three knew they were on to something new and exciting, and it reinforced their decision to start a label; 1432 R had suddenly uncovered a pipeline to a world of Ethiopian electronic music that no one was paying attention to, Lim, 27, says, “and we couldn’t find a single sound in the entire world that sounded close to it.”
“This is a specific sound that I haven’t encountered before,” says Andrew Field-Pickering, co-founder of D.C. label Future Times, who advised the 1432 R principals to launch a label. “[There is a] pretty high ‘wow’ factor when listening to these records.”
In delivering that sound to a global audience, the label has tried to keep the connection between artist and listener as pure as possible. They have provided minimal touches when it comes to the music, limiting their input to the technical (how many songs fit on each side of the record) and the business-minded (helping assemble cohesive records). “Everything we’ve put out so far, we’ve given zero [musical] feedback,” Yenigun, 28, maintains. “We will talk with the artist about ordering, but not like ‘up the drums’ or anything.”
Seifu, 29, describes working with 1432 R as a “brilliant” experience.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better environment as an up-and-coming artist,” he says. “They are so supportive, and they really let me go all out with what I was doing; that’s really commendable.”
The principals of 1432 R have grown as artists, as well. As the label’s in-house designer, Lim finds herself using her art history degree in a way she didn’t expect. Her black-and-white, organic-meets-inorganic cover art reimagines Ethiopian folk art as digital geometry. “With every single piece I’ve done, I’ve started with the musician first, and asked what they want this to say, and then move backwards from there,” Lim explains.
The artwork is truly striking on the label’s vinyl records (the music is also available digitally). “We want to reach people everywhere that they are; we want this music heard by as many people as possible. There is a world that only pays attention to vinyl,” Yenigun says.” We knew that if it was in physical record stores it would reach a target audience that would connect with this music.”
The fact that Seifu and Mulu’s music is unlike anything on the market will also appeal to a certain audience. “Ethiopian music has sort of been this dead relic or whatever since Ethiopian jazz sort of ended,” Eklund says. “It’s a record people will want to have, especially for collectors, because Ethiopian jazz has already been in vogue, and this picks up and continues that.”
Connecting Ethiopian music’s past and present is especially interesting in the District, which boasts the largest Ethiopian population in the United States. “When I’m on Ninth and U Street, hanging out with my Ethiopian friends, they’ve all heard this stuff, and they love it,” Eklund says. “A lot of the great Ethiopian jazz musicians came here in the ’70s and ’80s and became cabdrivers.”
On the other side of the world, Seifu and Mulu are the leading edge of an Ethiopian electronic scene in Addis Ababa. Last year, online music portal Beatport described the city as “ready to rule dance music.” The designation might be premature — Seifu describes the scene as a “work in progress,” and Mulu doesn’t know if the city is a destination quite yet. “There’s a lot more work to be done: the infrastructure is not there yet, the culture is not here just yet. I find the nightlife very limited, but it’s getting better.”
As for electronic dance music in Washington, the 1432 R crew is at the center of their own scene. “All of a sudden there are a bunch of people into really good records [and] open about what the boundaries can be,” Yenigun says. There are “really open ears and open minds for what can work on the dance floor.”
“I always hear people complain [that] ‘D.C. is not cool’ and I feel like it always says way more about them than it does about D.C.,” Yenigun says. “You’re not paying attention: It’s happening, you just have to know where to look for it.”