Reviewed by David Lynch, Fri., Dec. 19, 2003
In contrast to Ethiopian stories of famine and war, the Buda label's Ethiopiques reissues prove that this 3,000-year-old civilization has much more to offer than bad news. Tireless French sound archivist Francis Falceto is the series' prime mover, nearly single-handedly researching, negotiating for, and preparing this stunning anthology. Totaling nearly 20 volumes to date, the series presents the golden age of modern Ethiopia, prior to 1975's coup and the repressive regime that fueled subsequent violence and unrest. Also included are urban styles that have arisen since the military junta's end in the early Nineties, and archival folk. Most discs feature slinky, nocturnal, groove-based cuts that -- in an alternate reality -- could've come from Clarksdale ("AB Teqay Qerèbi" by Thwhldh Rhdd on Volume 5) or the Stax canon (Tlahoun Gessesse's "Yèné Felagoté" on Volume 17). The vibrating organs, chunk-a-chunk guitars, jazz trap kits, and double entendre-soaked lyrics possess such honesty and swing one wonders why it's taken so long for these sounds to be heard outside Northeastern Africa. Critics hailed the 1986 re-release of Mahmoud Ahmed's Erè Mèla Mèla (Volume 7), but it was merely a leaf on the tree. Volume 4, Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974, is just as gritty and loopy, showcasing the talents of bandleader Mulatu Astatke, who cut his teeth in New York clubs in the mid-Sixties. Many titles feature hypnotic basslines, à la rock steady and funk. Others are jazzy, like the Sonny Rollins-with-Sun Ra of Gétatchèw Mèkurya's Volume 14, Negus of Ethiopian Sax. Each installment is uniformly excellent, with extensive liner notes, outstanding sound, and fitting photos. With more than two dozen volumes in circulation and on deck, Ethiopiques is a vital representation of a heretofore neglected corner of Africa.