Monday, August 23, 2010

Gig: Ethio Stars Band

Ethio Stars Band

Gladstone Hotel (Melody Bar). Friday, June 4, 2010.

Another free, early Friday night show at The Gladstone, again put together thanks to Nadine McNulty of Batuki Music.1 In fact, it seems that we have her to thank for the Ethio Stars Band existing at all — they first played at a special "Tribute to Tilahun Gessesse" show earlier this year, and we're fortunate that these fine artists have continued to work together. In the true "all star" tradition, any of these musicians could front a band of their own — and some, in fact, do just that. They also can be seen being pulled into ad hoc units put together when leading Ethiopian musicians pass through town on tour, especially saxophonist Girma Wolde Michael. The band also includes Ermias Assebework (vox), Gezahegn Mamo (keyb), Waleed Abdulhamid (bass) and Daniel Barnes (drums).

With an upbeat but relaxed crowd on hand, the band played two sets, the first starting off slow, slinky and groovy, with bass and keybs locked into the rhythm, leaving lots of room for the saxophone as the lead instrumental voice. From the outset, it was clear how much having a live drummer adds, having seen some Ethio-pop shows with just rhythm tracks provided by a keyboard player. However, this music requires a deft touch, as there's more pull than push, and the rhythms tend to twist themselves inside out a bit. In the hands of a lesser player, it could go awry quickly, but the steady Barnes — who is more usually found playing in the city's jazz scene — was excellent throughout the night.

After an instrumental that a bit brief by the night's standards — songs would usually go about seven or eight minutes — Assebework emerged, leading off with another slower number. With the less-frenetic start, the crowd was staying in place, mostly sitting down, but full of appreciation at the recognition of each song. Assebework turned out to be a top-notch singer, with a wide range and a tone that recalls Mahmoud Ahmed.

The band's repertoire is drawn from the vast pool of Ethiopian hits, from the "golden age" of the 60's up to more current sounds. I don't know enough to really be able to distinguish the classics from the newer material, but it's not hard to pick on on the shift in tone and musical approach from song to song. One, for example, had a jauntier groove to it, and the rhythmic complexity was toned down to the point where Barnes sounded not unlike those programed drum machines. Mentally, I filed this as "new school", but who knows? After the previous stuff — I mentally tagged at least one as Mahmoud Ahmed, and I'm sure there was some Gessesse in there as well — it felt a bit less vital. But it was a hit to a lot of the people in the crowd.

There was a also a ripple in the room when Kemer Yousuf, local notable in the Ethio music scene, came in through the front door a couple songs in. Although Assebework and the rest of the band aren't big on chatting or showmanship — something that you can get in abundance at one of Kemer Yousuf's shows — he clearly recognized their formidable talent as he hopped up on stage to stick $20 bills on the performers' foreheads. My endorsement is one thing, but you can take that as a iron-clad guarantee of quality.

After seven tracks in forty-five minutes, the band took a quick break before coming back for their second set. By now, it was starting to get dark outside, and the crowd was more boisterous, standing up and dancing. The band responded with a steady steam of uptempo stuff. This is where the band really shines, and there was a party atmosphere as the area in front of the stage filled up with moving bodies.

I wish I had more of a vocabulary to be able to describe some of this — though there's a certain set of tricks that seem to be cut across the different kinds of songs at play here, not in the least something like the reggae drop out (often on hitting the chorus) where for a moment there'd only be the drummer and vocals playing before the rush of everyone else coming back in. I also wish that I could identify more of these songs. There were a couple that I was nodding familiar with but couldn't put names to. Still, I know enough to dig this a lot. Talent transcends language or style, and a funky groove makes such distinctions irrelevant. We're fortunate to have a group like this playing in our midst — hopefully they'll have some more shows together coming up.2

You can check out a couple recordings from this set here and here.

1 The next of these shows, featuring roots reggae from House of David Gang, will be on September 3, 2010. To repeat — free! early! These shows are a great way to "get your feet wet" with some music that you might not check out otherwise.

2 Looking ahead a bit, I have already seen these guys a second time, and I can report that this show was no fluke — these guys have the goods and you owe it to yourself to check them out next time they play.


  1. Correction: You can check out a couple of recordings from here and here.

  2. Oops. I sometimes spell good. Noted, thanks.