Arts & Culture

‘Ethiojazz’ sets feet to tapping

4 min read

Fusion at Learning From Performers delights audience, players alike

A masinko is about as simple as a stringed instrument can get — a wooden box with a neck protruding from one corner and a single string stretched across its face. The one Setegn Atanaw plays is the amplified version, airbrushed in red and yellow like a Fender Stratocaster.

“There are no frets and no fingerboard. It’s very hard to get a clear sound out of it, and it’s very hard to play in tune. I have a masinko, and I played classical violin for many years, and I can’t play it.”

This admission of instrumental incompetence was made by saxophonist Russ Gershon, founder and leader of the Either/Orchestra, a 10-piece jazz ensemble based in Cambridge that has been playing together since 1985.

While Gershon (who earned his A.B. degree from Harvard in 1981 with a concentration in philosophy) may lack the chops to play like Atanaw, he can play with him, and with other Ethiopian musicians. He and the Either/Orchestra have been doing just that for the past three years.

In 2004, the band played at the Ethiopian music festival in Addis Ababa, the first large American jazz band to perform in Ethiopia since the Duke Ellington orchestra visited that country in 1973. As musicians will, the band members started trading riffs with their Ethiopian hosts, and one result of that collaboration was the CD “Ethiopiques 20: Either/Orchestra Live in Addis.”

Another result was an event last Friday (Sept. 28) sponsored by Learning From Performers, a program of the Office for the Arts — “From Azmari to Jazz and Pop: Ethiopian Traditional and Modern Music.”

In addition to Atanaw on masinko, the Ethiopian performers included Minale Dagnew on krar, a five-stringed instrument that seems to have changed very little from the lyre that King David strummed as he crooned the psalms, except that this one, like Atanaw’s instrument, sported an electric pickup and a colorful paint job (apple green).

The two string players were joined by Hana Shenkute, a young woman whose self-effacing manner and tendency to stare at her pointy pink shoes belied the fact that she is one of Ethiopia’s top vocalists. Vicente Lebron from the Dominican Republic, a member of Gershon’s band, accompanied the Ethiopians on conga drum.

Also on hand was Mulatu Astatke, keyboardist, vibraphonist, percussionist, bandleader, and composer, who is spending the 2007-08 year as a Radcliffe Fellow. Trained in England and the United States (he was the first African to study at the Berklee School of Music), Astatke returned to Ethiopia in the 1960s to create a fusion genre he called Ethiojazz. Several of his compositions can be heard on the score of the 2005 film “Broken Flowers,” directed by Jim Jarmusch. Astatke is currently writing an opera.

At Friday’s event, Gershon lectured on Ethiopian music with demonstrations by Atanaw, Dagnew, Shenkute, and Lebron. Ethiopian music, Gershon explained, is based on four five-note scales (pentatonic). Tezeta is a scale associated with “nostalgia and longing, the equivalent of blues or soul.” Anchihoy is employed mainly in wedding songs, and as a jazz musician Gershon said he finds this scale congenial because of its inherent dissonance.

The song the group played to illustrate the scale bati had a propulsive, danceable beat. Shenkute snapped her fingers to it before reaching for the mike and beginning her vocal, which seemed to dive porpoiselike in and out of the instrumental accompaniment, sinking at times almost to inaudibility, then surging upward to a full-throated wail. The fourth scale, ambassel, also fits comfortably with modern jazz harmonies, Gershon said.

In the second part of the program, Astatke played a video of tribal music from southern Ethiopia. A large group of men, clad in white robes, each played a single-note bamboo flute, coordinating their breath and intonation to produce a complex polyphony of sound. A second video showed how Astatke incorporated this music into an original composition performed in concert with his band.

Those who wish to learn more about Ethiopian music and its encounter with Western styles may be interested in a Music Department conference planned for April 13 and 14: “Ethiopians in America: The Practice and Performance of Cultural Creativity in Diaspora.” The conference will culminate with a free performance of Astatke’s opera in Sanders Theatre.