At a field recording in the outer fringes of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's newest producers are recording Azmari tribal musicians onto their Macbooks. Rhythms are beaten out on horse hair guitars and oil-can drums. Singers exchange missives like a kind of Run DMC straight out of ancient Africa. "This is the original hip hop," says producer Endeguena Mulu. He'll use samples from today's session in the club tonight. "Kids in Wu-Tang hoodies play this music in tribal villages on mobile phones. We don't see it as exotic. It's the way we speak today.”
We're in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa to meet a new generation of producers taking Bristol dubstep and West Coast Brainfeeder sounds, and dragging them through hundreds of years of history. Sometimes using nothing more than a desktop PC, Ableton software and a mouse, kids mix Ethiopia's tribal, religious and jazz sounds with UKG garage beats to create a new form known locally as Ethiopian Electronic. "It's about the micro-tones, the poly-rhythms,” says Endeguena. “You just can’t synthesize this. These sounds are irreplaceable.”
Cutting up traditional sounds into ghetto computer music is not easy in Ethiopia. The original form is sacred and entrenched in culture. It's in the over-driven vocals and cheap keyboards at wedding parties. It's in the church where power failures cut the electric organ leaving behind a raw chorus of acapella singing. It's in the mainstream clubs where DJs drop Amharic folk tunes in between Rihanna remixes at 2am in the morning. Traditional folk dominates the charts thanks to mainstream pop icon Tedi Afro, who despite a stint in jail for a trumped up hit-and-run charge, remains a national icon. Mulatu Astatke, the father of ethio-jazz, is fixed into the contemporary consciousness thanks to the wildly popular Ethiopiques series of reissues from the 1960s and 1970s.
"In Ethiopia there are musical staples that people just don't mess with." We’ve come to the studio of Mikael Seifu (aka Mic Tek) to listen to his new output before we head to the club. Mic Tek is back in Addis after studying music at Ramapo College in New Jersey. His debut release, out now on Washington DC label 1432r is the defining statement of the new scene here. "I remember trying to collaborate with a jazz musician. He told me: you have to pay your dues. That concept threw me off guard. As an electronic musician, how can I pay my dues to a jazz guy? The scene here could really grow, but we're up against this challenging attitude, especially the old musicians."
Ethiopia’s tendency towards tradition and stability stems from its ravaged past. A famine in the 80s put the country on the world stage for the wrong reasons. Live Aid relief concerts came to define the country and the image of 30 second news clips of starving children have been difficult to shake off. Still today more than two thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day.
"People are forced to make choices early in life," say Mic Tek. "Most kids don't have time to become jazz drummers or whatever. They need to make money. They need to think about survival. But computers are starting to create an opportunity."
Mic Tek's studio is a Mecca for the neighbourhood kids. It gives them hope. "It’s not like these guys always understand what we are doing here," he explains. "Some come here to put down verses of hip-hop, Ethiopian folk, R&B and just hang out. But with computers and smartphones becoming more ubiquitous, more and more producers are going to come up. When we see what the new kids can do with technology. There are so many musical voices to be heard.”
We move across town fast, down back streets in a battered mini bus. The guy driving us to the club looks about 14. I’m sat in the back with Nitai, a legendary Israeli-Yemeni drifter who will DJ with Endeguena tonight. “Some things are really new here," he says. "We have kids typing 'how to mix' into google and some of them turn up at the club as these amazing DJs. With the broadband here you can download about four new tunes a week, so you have to choose wisely. But it keeps things interesting, each week you have to re-imagine the old with the new."
We arrive at Bole district, near the airport, pulling up in an area known locally as "Chechnya" due to a tense and highly volatile central intersection of hot cramped bars, diplomatic missions and hookers. When we get inside the club, there's a tight tribal vocal sample repeating over a dark droning synth. There's a guy with his hood up, head against the speaker; his mouth full of hallucinagenic Khat leaves, fully immersed in the noise. There are girls wearing Orthodox Christian crosses and spandex dresses switching up ancient dance moves - eyes and neck moves from northern Afar region, foot stomps from southern Omo valley - creating new forms of expression on the fly.
Endeguena drops a tune which is just a flute and a drum machine on loop. It sounds massive and the dancing switches up once again. There's only about 25 people here, but together in this small room they are kindred spirits. It feels like the new kids in Addis Ababa are nurturing something special. As Mic Tek says about the development of the scene: “Keep it small at first. Keep it local and build from there. Camaraderie, friendship, the good stuff. Build it around that and those values will continue even as the technology changes.”
Mikael Seifu’s debut EP, Yarada Lij, is out now on 1432r. Endeguena Mulu’s debut, Qen sew (for my father), comes out on the same label this autumn.