Much in the spirit of Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, this six-piece ensemble from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa breathes new life into the music of a bygone era: the pre-electronic sounds popular during the twilight of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign in the 1950s and ’60s. Warm, subdued and nostalgic, each of the 15 tracks is built on an uncluttered bed of rhythms furnished by traditional percussion and double bass. Jazz- and folk-inflected arrangements leave ample room for agile but unhurried exchanges between the band’s leader, guitarist Girum Mezmur, and its mandolin, accordion and clarinet players.
European, Middle Eastern and Central African themes percolate throughout the album. A plea for national harmony, “Selam Yihoun Lehoulachin,” showcases mandolinist Ayele Mamo, who appeared on the original hit version in the 1960s, and has something of an Anglo-Celtic lilt. “Ambassel,” featuring mandolin and accordion, named for both a musical mode and a well-known African folk song, blends Balkan and Latin elements. “Yene Hassab” is an Armenian love song; a pair of tracks originated in Sudan, Ethiopia’s neighbor. The warm, breezy melody of “Fikir Ayarejim” is supplied by its composer, Sudanese oud player Ahmed Elmak.
A few numbers, such as the stirring party anthem “Alemoush Mambo,” feature vocals. The focus here, however, is on the spirited interplay among the band’s instrumentalists, and maybe nowhere so much as on “Yigermal,” an Ethiopian folk song galvanized by a gamboling pas de deux written for clarinet and mandolin.
“Selam Yihoun Lehoulachin,” “Fikir Ayarejim,” “Yigermal”