Ethiopiques Barbican London June 2008

One of the greatest singers in the world and an icon of African music is now available for North American touring.  

‘It’s the quaver that makes the Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed‘s voice so arresting. He seizes on a note, brief or sustained, and makes its pitch tremble as if its urgency could barely be contained. It’s a show of controlled intensity, and in the course of a song, it happens again and again, making each phrase leap out anew: with sorrow, with anticipation, with a plea.” New York Times

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In Ethiopia the word is “eskeusta,” which roughly translated means ecstasy; more specifically, it is a shaking sensation that begins at one’s shoulders, quivering down the spine and into the legs and feet. Of all the great male vocalists that Ethiopia has produced (and there have been quite a few), none is able to create eskeusta better than Mahmoud Ahmed.

For over 40 years Mahoud Ahmed has deftly combined the traditional Amharic music of Ethiopia (essentially a five-note scale that features jazz-style singing offset by complex circular rhythm patterns that give the music a distinct Indian feel) with pop and jazz, yielding some of the most adventurous, passionate, ear-opening, downright surrealistic sounds this side of the deepest, darkest dub or the most out-there free jazz. In fact, until you’ve heard Ahmed’s sweeping multi-octave voice in full workout, words hardly do it justice. As with the late great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, he simply has to be heard to be believed and appreciated.

READ ABOUT MAHMOUD IN THE NEW YORK TIMES.

Ahmed has been a star in Ethiopia almost since the day he began recording. His swooping vocals, complemented by the freewheeling jazziness of the Ibex Band (with whom he recorded his masterpiece, Ere Mela Mela), are very different from what normally is lumped into the broad expression Afro-pop. The rhythms are repetitive and intense, not too dissimilar from, say, Fela, just a little less hard. But it’s Ahmed’s voice — swirling high notes that sound as if they’re chasing one another, impeccable tone and phrasing — that is the distinguishing element. By singing in this style Ahmed has attempted to fuse the past and present. He’s not an elitist when it comes to singing older Ethiopian music, but rather he hears the similarities in Ethiopian pop that have thrived over time and is keen to bring them together.

As the Western critical attention to Afro-pop centered on the music of sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopian artists like Ahmed and Hirut Bekele, Ali Birra, and Alemayehu Eshete were less likely to receive coverage in the music press. Recently, younger performers such as Aster Aweke (who emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-’80s) and Netsanet Mellesse have received more ink, thus opening the doors for those inclined to explore the music that influenced them. And for those so inclined that means becoming familiar with brilliant, demanding, but unknown artists such as Mahmoud Ahmed. He has been featured consistently in the award-winning Ethiopiques series of compilation recordings from Buda Musique, and has four separate installments —Vols. 67 (his seminal Erè Mèla Mèla), 19, and 26 — devoted exclusively to his catalog of works as well as his singles that appear intermittently on other volumes. Ethiopiques, Vol. 26 features Ahmed fronting Ethiopia’s Imperial Bodyguard Band between 1972 and 1974 (though he was no longer a member of that band); it includes all the sides he recorded with them in chronological order.

Mahmoud Ahmed – ‘Lale Lale’ @ Pioneer Works/BK from Windows Have Eyes on Vimeo.