Various Artists

Ethiopiques, Vol. 10: Tezeta - Ethiopian Blues & Ballads

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Tezeta, an Ethiopian style with a relatively strict format built on repeated circular riffs, relies on the singer to put his stamp on the form with improvised verses and the up-and-down vocal spirals characteristic of Arabic music. The word itself means something like memory or nostalgia -- in musical terms, it's similar to saudade in Portuguese music, duende in flamenco, or blues and soul in the U.S. music world. It's that indefinable something that separates the great musicians from the merely competent -- you can't exactly say what it is but you know when someone's got it. All ten tracks here date from the early '70s, when versions of the tezeta were an innovative force in Ethiopian pop's golden age. There's a surprising variety: swirling accordion handles the circular riff accompanied only by minimal percussion on Fréw Haylou's opening "Eyètègnu Nègu," but an almost '50s rock ballad feel pervades Alèmayèhu Eshèté's "Tèrèdtchéwalèhu" and Menelik Wèsnatchèw's "Tezeta" is tranquil and dreamy. Tezeta is also an excellent launching pad for saxophonists Tèsfa-Maryam Kidané (featured on his own "Heywèté") and Tèwodros Meteku to provide backing fills and solos behind the singers. It's instrumental storytelling and the breathy saxes achieve that smoky, brooding flavor that seems unique to Ethiopian music, shading the music with a deep indigo to purple color. The slow, mournful versions really bring out that smoky trance sensation here. Sèyfu Yohannès is the first singer to really stand out on his nagging "Tezeta," supported by Meketu's fills and Mèssèlè Gèssèssè's prominent piano. Moges Habté and Feqadu Amdè-Mèsquèl duel tenor saxes over a mysterious Fender Rhodes lick and Andrew Wilson's sharp wah-wah guitar on Mulatu Astatqé's instrumental "Gubèlyé." And Mahmoud Ahmed's "Tezeta" runs for 12 and a half gripping minutes with swirling organ, muted sax, and bubbling bass runs supplementing the voice of the most expressive singer in Ethiopian pop music. With nearly 75 minutes of music and extensive liner notes, Tezeta is another impeccable release in the outstanding Ethiopiques series. But even more than earlier soul-influenced compilations geared toward dancing, these brooding love blues laments cut to the emotional core essence of the country's music. This music sounds distinctly Ethiopian, like it could be from no other place on the planet.

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