Mahmoud Ahmed is a classic, a consummate singer who is as central to the history of modern Ethiopian pop music as Khaled is to Algerian rai. His voice is flat-out marvelous, but unlike the melismatic swoops that are a key part of Khaled's vocal arsenal, Ahmed simply gets up and sings the hell out of the songs. Soul of Addis collects recordings from the '80s, when Ethiopia was under a military dictatorship that killed off most of the music scene that thrived there roughly between 1967 and 1975. But Ahmed didn't change his musical approach from his '70s recordings on the monumental Era Mela Mela -- he sings, and dual tenor saxes riff over a loping, soul-influenced rhythm section. The music has an indescribable something that makes it distinctively Ethiopian -- it just doesn't sound like it could come from anywhere else -- but the riffs and pretty basic drum backbeat make it fairly easy to follow. "Titesh" follows that mold, but "Bey Tirigne" works off a choppier, funkier rhythm with stop time sections for Ahmed's vocals, and Bibisha Tefere's lead guitar is more prominent on "Abet." "Behayen Befiker" is a titzia, the slow blues form that really gives Ahmed room to soar and the saxes to develop that smoky Ethiopian feel. The title translates as "Lonely and in Love," and the music really makes you feel the emotional desolation. "Ene Berdognal" brings back that buoyant, mid-tempo lope again, but Ahmed, again like Khaled, isn't afraid to try different styles, and the music is elastic enough to easily incorporate them. The bluesy "Nafkiot" has a little '50s R&B ballad flavor, and "Tenebal Loga" some offbeat reggae flavoring that goes totally Jamaican on "Salam," with Mulugeta Jiri's organ as the main instrumental voice and Ahmed in exceptional form again. "Yedetnesh" closes the album on a jubilant up-tempo note as Ahmed plays off the backing vocals. Soul of Addis is simply a great disc with varied material, strong playing, and a masterful singer at his peak. Era Mela Mela was such a startling jolt from the blues that it still rates as the pick of Mahmoud Ahmed's releases, but if you like the music there, no way will Soul of Addis disappoint you.
AllMusic Review by Don Snowden