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World 101: Ethio-groove

by Rachel Devitt

World 101: Ethio-groove

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In the early 1970s, a Berklee College of Music-educated Ethiopian percussionist/keyboardist/composer named Mulatu Astatke began blending jazz and acid rock with Ethiopian pop and folk music. The result was the sinewy, seductive style called Ethio-groove or Ethio-jazz, a genre simultaneously part of the global psychedelic movement that blossomed in various locales in the 1960s and '70s and its own distinctive scene.

During the Golden Era of Ethio-groove, Addis Ababa was awash with musicians like Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessesse, Asnaketch Worku and Astatke, who were pairing the traditional krar (a plucked lyre) with the saxophone, twisting jazz licks with the pentatonic modes of East Africa. By the late 1970s, military coups and political unrest had quashed most of the musical scene and shut down the Ethio-groove record labels. But the body of work they created got a second life in 1997, when Paris-based record label Buda Musique began cataloging and reissuing the music in its Éthiopiques series -- which became a legend in its own right.

Meanwhile, young Ethiopian musicians at home and abroad, such as Samuel Yirga, Debo Band and Bole 2 Harlem, began reviving and evolving the tradition by sampling it in hip-hop and experimenting with contemporary jazz and global pop. And Ethio-groove's originators themselves are still very much in the game: The much-revered Astatke just released new album Sketches of Ethiopia, a blend of the pop tradition he helped found and new sounds drawn from Afropop, jazz and more. Get to know this compelling body of sound with our 101 primer.

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