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Samuel Yirga – Guzo

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Ethiopian pianist and composer, Samuel Yirga is a young man with a bold vision and a voracious appetite. His debut recording titled Guzo – the Amharic word for journey – has been hailed as “an eclectic affair demonstrating impressive range” and “an updated version of Ethio jazz.”

Yirga’s personal journey is equally intriguing. As a child he devoured Ethiopian pop music, American R&B and other forms of contemporary music. Yet he received little to no encouragement from his parents who believed that music would distract him from his studies. At the age of 16 he auditioned at Addis Ababa’s Yared School of Music (the only higher governmental school in Ethiopia) and remarkably, came in third out of 2500 applicants without playing an instrument. When he announced his desire to pursue a career as a professional musician his father’s immediate reaction was, “We don’t need azmary (people of a lower class) in our house!” To make matters worse music educators attempted to discourage him from playing the piano on the grounds that his hands were too small and he was tossed out of a prestigious school for experimenting too much.

To his credit Yirga pulled himself together and plunged into Addis Ababa’s local music scene, where he honed his “chops” by sitting in with local bands whose repertoires ranged from Ethiopian music, classical music, Ethio jazz, salsa, funk and everything in between. Since then Yirga has performed and recorded with the Addis Funk Band, Nubian Arc and the UK/Ethiopian collective, Dub Colossus.

Guzo was recorded in Addis Ababa and Real World Studios in England. Essentially the album contains four segments: mesmerizing solo piano pieces, Ethio jazz (Ethiopian music with a jazz tinge), American jazz, funk and R&B. Yirga’s guests include, the Creole Choir of Cuba (formerly known as Grupo Vocal Desandann) and vocalists from Britain, Nigeria and Ethiopia. “It’s hard to decide who will listen to the album,” says Yirga, “but my aim is to show everyone what I have and have many audiences.”

Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite tracks:

Track 1 – Abet Abet: is a traditional love song which features the raw and melodic notes of the Ethiopian one-stringed fiddle, the messenqo. Recorded in Addis, Girza is accompanied by some of Ethiopia’s best young traditional instrumentalists.

Track 2 – Drop Me There: This piano solo written by Girza features three of Ethiopian music’s distinctive melodic scales and was written at Real World Studios last winter. “It was very quiet there,” says Sammy of his time at Real World, “so I could really feel every note when I played.”

Track 6 – I am the Black Gold of the Sun: This song features guest vocalists The Creole Choir of Cuba, Nicolette and Mel Gara and is a re-working of the 1970s psychedelic soul classic. The three sets of vocals are underpinned by the funk-laden chords and flourishes of Sammy’s jazz-infused piano playing. Page chose the song to cover because of Sammy’s love of 1970s and ’80s American music, and brought in those artists because together they told the story of a journey from Africa to the Caribbean, via the Middle East and Europe.

Track 8 – My Head: An upbeat Latin number recorded in the UK with the Dub Colossus horn section. The track reminds me of Mulatu Astatke’s early recordings where the Latin tinge is strong. For the adventurous, check out The Ethiopian Quintet’s Afro Latin Soul series (Volumes 1 & 2). Available at: www.vinyl.com

I should mention that Real World Records is not your typical record label. The company was founded by Womad (World of Music Arts and Dance) and Peter Gabriel and its ongoing mission is to provide artists around the world access to state-of-the art recording facilities. The label is renowned for bringing together musicians who share an empathy with music rather than a shared cultural background. Real World continues to push the boundaries via new artists, new recording methods and new meeting points for musicians from all over the world.

Guzo has yet to receive the attention it deserves stateside however it is currently at the number one spot on the I Tunes UK charts in the World Music category. Not since the Golden Age of Ethiopian Music has there been such a flurry of new music coming out of Ethiopia. Realize it or not Girza’s philosophy coincides with American artists such as pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Esperanza Spalding and singer/songwriter Jose James, who move between different styles with remarkable fluidity and prefer not to be confined to any particular style. Keep your eyes and ears on Samuel Girza. In spite of the odds, he is going places.

For Additional Information, Samples and Live Concert Footage visit: http://samuelyirga.com

Recommended Listening

The Ethiopian Quintet – Afro Latin Soul Volumes 1 and 2
(Worthy Records, 1966)

Multau Astatke – The Story of Ethio Jazz (1965-1975) New York – Addis London
(Strut Records, 2009)

Dub Colossus – Addis Through the Looking Glass

Tracks: Abet Abet, Tiwista, Ferma Ena Wereket, Ye Bati Koyita, Nou Se Soleil, I am the Black Gold of the Sun, Dance With the Legend, My Head, Drop Me There, The Blues of Wollo, African Diaspora.

Personnel: Samuel Yirga: whistle, piano, Fender Rhodes piano, midi keyboard; Nicolette: vocals on tracks 6, 11; The Creole Choir of Cuba: vocals on tracks 5, 6; Mel Gara: vocals on track 6.

Samuel Yirga on the Web: http://samuelyirga.com

Label: Real World Records

Release date: September 2012

Reviewed by: New York Co-Editor, Tomas Peña

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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