Part 2: Asmara All Stars bring Eritrea out of isolation
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In October 2010, the German label Out Here released a 13-track album that defied pigeonholes, government suspicion and bureaucracy. Eritrea’s Got Soul is a labour of love between the Horn of Africa nation and French musician Bruno Blum. World Tracks went to Asmara for the official launch and, in a radio exclusive, brings back a two-part series about this unique collaboration. This is part 2.
It was not long before the promise of government non-interference was tested. “Eritrean Girl” was the first song recorded in Joel Ghidey’s Admas Studio, the best recording facility in the country.
“The Cultural Affairs people hated it,” Blum explained. “They said it was an insult to the Tigrigna gwaila beat Eritrea has adopted as their national sound.
The problem is this sound is hard on the non-Eritrean ear. There are these loud, powerful drum machines and electric krar loops played in a hypnotic way.
"We added a little blues lick to it, introduced a bass line and mixed the drums down. The Eritreans who came to the studio liked it. Not so the officials.”
It took six weeks of negotiations (“I didn’t kiss their arses like everybody else did and didn’t let go of anything”) before the government backed down.
Blum filled his days by drawing Asmara and teaching the musicians to play reggae, rock’n’roll and blues. They also gave private shows under the name Bloom Brothers. The unexpected hiatus turned them into a tight unit.
“When the Cultural Affairs finally allowed me back in the studio again, the musicians couldn’t believe it. I’d gained their respect. It also encouraged other major names like Faytinga and (saxophonist) Aron Berhe to work with me.”
The recording had to be made at breakneck speed, however, a reality Blum regrets till today. “Some tracks are not fully evolved into my concept, they are just done the way they play them live, only with my sound. But that’s fine because their stuff is so genuine, anyway.”
The result is gripping. The jazz-funk spirit that permeated Ethiopian music in the 60s and 70s is preserved and embellished by Blum’s subtle production and blues-charged guitar playing.
The originality and tautness leaps out in the very first minute of the opener, “Amajo”. Intense Kunama drums, - which Blum compares to the pattern played by Dennis Brown in “Money in my Pocket” - is punctuated by Berhe’s unbridled tenor sax which introduces a slow reggae beat ... and Faytinga’s distinctively high-pitched voice.
Eritrea’s best-known woman vocalist had already recorded an acoustic version of this song, called “Numey” back in 1999, but this one grabs you by the throat and never really lets go.
“When I suggested that we try a reggae song,” notes Blum in the detailed liner notes
(superbly illustrated by veteran photographer Thomas Dorn), “Faytinga offered this tune, arranged on the spot, and recorded in little time on our very last session.”
The South African based vocalist and former guerilla fighter returns to her Kunama roots, near the Sudanese border to telling effect.
The intensity and invitation to improvise clearly galvanised the 14 artists Blum recruited. There are echoes of the big-band sound, infused by soul and jazz, which are the hallmark of Françis Falceto’s classic Ethiopiques collection.
And this is not total coincidence: the musical links between the two belligerent nations are there, with several Eritrean musicians featuring in some of Addis’ finest big bands.
People like distinguished krar (lyre) player Tèwèldè Rèdda and legendary singer Bereket Mengisteab who played in the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra in the Sixties – before joining Eritrea’s resistance army.
Yet, do not be mistaken, these 13 songs have a distinctively modern sound. Beginning with the pop-dancefloor track “Adunia”, sung in the Saho of the central Eritrean region.
The song is a lively introduction to the 14 members of the band, including the country’s only rapper, Temasgen Hip Hop, who opens with a confident rap in Tigrigna.
It was an immediate hit in Asmara where Eritrea’s Got Soul has already been released under the sober name Music from Eritrea.
A key to the relative harmony Blum helped instil amongst the artists was the complicity of Admas studio owner Joel Ghidey.
“Joel liked my style and supported me throughout. It didn’t matter if he normally composes computer sounds like Greek or Ethiopian pop music, or something, which I hate.
He knows the international market well, speaks good English and German and controls some of the music outlets in the Eritrean diaspora in Sudan and Germany. When everyone saw he was backing me, they complied with my direction.”
The Eritrean experience is not Blum’s first foray into African music. He already worked extensively in Lagos with ex-Fela musicians for his album Welikom 2 Lay-Gh-Us! (released in 2003).
There was also the collaboration with Ivorian singer Julie Brou and Congolese musician Sec Bidens for the song “Doc Reggae t’as marabouté le showbiz”.
In France, however, Blum first came to prominence in the late Seventies as a London correspondent for a popular rock monthly called “Best”. The late adolescent split his time between reporting and playing with the punk bands Electric Chairs and Private Vices, which he founded in 1977.
There remains something of the irreverent idealist of those rebellious days in this ambitious project, financed by the Alliance Française of Asmara and PFDJ Culutral Affairs Office.
“The Asmara All Star project is all about leaving politics behind”, trumpet both Blum and fellow-executive producer Jay Rutledge, who runs Outhere Records. But it took a healthy dose of politicking to ensure the project saw the light of day.
“I just did what I felt in Asmara, and did not let any guilt about ‘modifying local music” dictate what I had to do,” underlines Blum. “I did not give in to political pressure....And in the end (the authorities) respected me. So, it worked out fine.”
The album is thus a welcome antidote to the bleak media image of a beleaguered country, still dominated by a ruling elite obsessed by its security and absolute control over its citizens.
An elite which imprisoned and beat gospel singer Helen Berhane between 2004 and 2006, allegedly for being a member of the country’s Rhema Church.
“The harsh political realities are no excuse for further ignoring Eritrea’s outstanding culture, artists and tremendous music,” says Blum convincingly.
He hopes Eritrea’s Got Soul will be the first step in bringing its artists out of an autarchy stretching back for too many decades.
The international experiences enjoyed recently by Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly Rythmo from Benin and Congo’s Staff Benda Bilili could give credence to his aspirations.
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