Weaving post-dubstep with local influences, Endeguena Mulu is driving forward the modern sound of east Africa
Ethopia is not somewhere you'd traditionally associate with electronica. The country located in the Horn of Africa is recognised more for its azmaris and jazz groups rather than Ableton and MPCs, but a new wave of young producers armed with little gear and a lot of ideas are redefining Addis Ababa's underground scene, sampling the street musicians that are ubiquitous in the cities of Ethiopia and combining that traditional sound with British-influenced programming and approaches to beatmaking.
One of those producers is Endeguena Mulu, who releases music under the name Ethiopian Records. His EP, released at the end of last year, references the music of his home country – all wooden clacks and stolen street performer vocals – underpinned with beautiful piano and synth pad chords. The result is something that sounds indebted to British "post-dubstep" but similarly sounds lifted straight from the streets of Northeast Africa.
We caught up with Mulu to talk about living in Addis Ababa, his inspirational late father and sampling his own live jazz sessions. Listen to his "The Sound That We Need" mix below, featuring a selection of his unreleased tracks and his picks of local talent.
How long did it take you to make your EP Qen Sew?
Endeguena Mulu: Technically about a year or so, but some of the elements I use in there I have been developing for much longer.
You dedicated it to your father, why?
Endeguena Mulu: The record has five tracks. The title track "Qen Sew" (for my father), is a track I conceived mainly when I was visiting my dad in the hospital where he was being cared for, for about a year. He had ALS and recently passed away. Qen Sew means "kind hearted person". My dad was a very selfless human being and nobody could help him at that time, no one was capable of it. We were quite helpless and I wanted to do something special for him.
I couldn't do anything other than pray and hope – the second best thing I could do was to dedicate my debut to him, I can't think of anything else that would mean as much. I just wish he could have listened to it.
What is this record about?
Endeguena Mulu: The record represents the beginning of my journey through sound, a preview of things to come . The record also references things that are important to me. "Feluha" is the name of my old neighborhood, it's the sound that reminds me of it, "Lela Lela" is a track I did with good friends of mine called Zion Rebels. I sampled an amazing improv jam session I had with them, me on guitar and them on vocals. "All The Things" is a track that includes Azmari vocals and traditional kebero drums, recorded and cut up. There are a lot of directions that Ethiopiyawi electronica could go in, these are just some of them.
Can you describe the scene in Ethiopia? Are you content there, or do you see yourself leaving?
Endeguena Mulu: Personally I can make music anywhere in the world, I do it everyday. I haven't tried it, but I don't think that I would be making the music that I do now if I was anywhere else or if I was in any other situation. So for me making music close to home is something very crucial even if it's hard. Finding and funding the equipment is much harder than if I was anywhere else in the world. I would like to shake it up a bit someday soon but for now I am good where I am.
The Addis Ababa scene is quite limited, there are only very few genres that dominate it – there are a lot of talented musicians playing around town but there are also a lot of talented musicians out there that are not being heard.
What influences you?
Endeguena Mulu: I am going to say everything is my influence. My life, where we come from, where we are going, from the people in my life, to the music I hear on the radio, in film or in video games, my culture, my country, to the fact that each passing moment is as unique as each human being on this planet. I am very visual, even when I make a track or listen to a track I can usually sit and close my eyes listening for hours trying to capture something that the sounds inspire visually and I decide which way to go with the track based on that visual in my mind. It could be something as simple as someone waiting for the bus or trying to imagine what it must feel like to fly in space.
Traditional music has a lot of influence in my work for one main reason, it's the one thing that has been given to me. Other than my arms, my legs and everything else, that's the one thing that is mine. Good or bad it is ours. I think for a lot of us youngsters of this generation, wherever they may be from, it has have taken quite a while to realize that tradition is there for us to try out or to leave behind. I think most of us youngsters think of these traditions as someone else's, as something that someone has done before that we have no control over or something, but it's our heritage and I think we should try to embrace it and make something that we call our own out of it, something that's not just passed down through time, or television or the computer screen.
It's quite an abstract thing to explain but in that place when I make music, that creative headspace when things come out of nothing, I don't think much – I feel and experience. To me music is all about what you feel and about not letting the expression of what you feel be limited by things you have heard before. Use those sounds that inspire you as jump starters and not as things to hold you back. I don't think much about how my sound should be or shouldn't be, it's a force of it's own.
Do you ever find yourself restricted by conventional ideas of form?
Endeguena Mulu: We have a preconception about how music should be – a 4 to 5 minute track that we can all consume and then dispose of, like we have these ready made ideas of how to make a killer track, these formulas. They are not the wrong way to do it but they are not the only way to make music. It's so much more than just a verse then a chorus, or equal temperament or fine tuning of an instrument.
The tools of the digital age have brought that forward so clearly for me. Music is one of the ultimate places where one can be free and confining it in just one place, or one state of mind, or one way of viewing the world is wrong. One of the problems I think for the scene here in Addis, or scenes everywhere, is that a lot of people think that good music makers are only the ones that are classically trained in the Western sense of the term. The Azmaris or the Lalibellas or the instrumentalists in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are also classically trained, a training refined with hundreds of years of perfecting instruments and ways of playing it. I think these parts of culture and tradition should also have a place in this brave new world of ours. That conflict of ideas is also a huge inspiration for me.
What do you think about when you make music?
Endeguena Mulu: Usually when I start making a track I like to keep my mind clear, but once I gets started my thoughts can jump around, from the task itself to family matters, to where the wood that make the masinqo comes from, to world politics, to where I am going to buy my groceries, to love, to where I am going to get equipment for my studio, to conspiracy theories, from the most trivial to the less trivial. All this can pass in seconds until I find that peaceful place again and get into the rhythm.
Buy Qen Sew here.