Echoes in Africa
|Greg Burk (left) and Mulatu Astatke '59|
As our plane landed in Addis Ababa, my dream to visit Africa had come true. For musicians, like myself who are drawn to jazz and other African-American music, this trip meant going to the cradle not only of humanity but of swing. I arrived with an open mind and heart, intent on soaking in every beat. Ten days later, we returned to Boston, and the warmth of the friendships I had made and the beauty of the music I had heard made an unforgettable impact on me.
With an invitation to perform at the Ethiopian International Music Festival as the impetus, Russ Gershon '85, leader of the Either/ Orchestra (E/O), managed to put together the impossible: a tour with a 10-piece band (including acoustic bass) in one of the poorest countries on earth. As the first American big band to perform in Ethiopia since Duke Ellington, we became ambassadors of American jazz. With band members Gershon, Joel Yennior, and Jeremy Udden from the East Coast; Rick McLaughlin '92, Tom Halter and me from the Midwest; Colin Fisher from the West Coast; Harvey Wirht '95 (Surinam), Vicente LeBron (the Dominican Republic); and Henry Cook '85 (Italy), the band fit its American melting-pot profile.
On my first day in Addis, I met Mulatu Astatke '59. The first African student to attend Berklee, Astatke later became a pioneer in the blending of jazz and world music. His recordings during the 1960s introduced the sound of Ethiopian modal melodies to Western audiences. Today, Astake runs the African Jazz Village, a school and club, and hosts a nightly broadcast on the only radio station in Ethiopia. I spent my first nights in Addis with Astake listening to azmari bands, drinking tej, (honey wine), and talking about music.
Azmari bands play driving, melodic music in small bars all over town. There are always at least two musicians; one plays drums, the other sings and plays the masinko (a one-stringed violin). Flutes and a krar (lyre) are often added. In a four- hour set, the singer improvises praises of the clients for tips. At the bar around the corner from the band's hotel, the azmaris quickly learned all our names and earned a year's worth of tips in a week.
Ethiopian secular music is modal and most often in 6/8 or 9/8. There are four families of modes. Most are identical to our major and minor pentatonic scales. However, I'd never encountered Anche Hoye (1, b2, 4, b5, 6) before. That mode appeared to be the characteristic sound of Ethiopian music. I found the music strikingly melodic and poetic, not like my preconceived ideas of African music as primarily drum-centered.
On our third day, we visited the Yared Music School in Ethiopia. Students of the school are required to study a primary instrument, piano, a secondary instrument, and a traditional instrument, in addition to studies of classical theory, harmony, and solfege. Despite the fact that most students don't own an instrument and must practice at school on school-owned instruments, the level of musicianship is very high.
Unmarked bootlegs of the E/O playing Ethiopian music had been circulating among the students for months. When we began playing, the students realized that this was the band they had been listening to. Working with them in small groups, I quickly discovered that these students had a voracious desire to learn about jazz. Bebop phrasing and extended harmony hold a powerful allure for them. It seemed to me that to these students, jazz and improvisation represent the liberating ideals that I imagine they had in America during the 1960s.
When word got out that I taught at Berklee, a crowd of starry-eyed young jazz musicians crowded around to ask questions. Berklee's fame had long since penetrated this remote outpost of musical learning.
On a side trip to Uganda, organized by Jim Logan '85, we went to Kampala to play at the National Theater. In a workshop/jam with Ugandan musicians, I found a similar profound longing for any information on jazz theory/language.
Back in Addis, the festival continued with a police marching band, a string quartet, classical pianist and singer, reggae band, a begenna (King David's Lyre) player, and Anglo-Kashmiri pop star Susheela Raman. Enthusiastic crowds heard interpretations of popular and traditional Ethiopian music. E/O played to an enthusiastic, packed house.
With its rich cultural and religious backdrop, Ethiopia is a place of great contrasts. Despite the obvious poverty and challenges of life, the bright smiles and graciousness of the people touched me. The mutual respect we shared for one another was echoed in the music.