Saturday, August 7, 2010
Mahmoud Ahmed: Erè Mèla Mèla (1975)
If your ears are accustomed to the likes of The Decemberists, this recording may--and likely will--fuck with you. Listening to its ten tracks for the first time might, in that case, be comparable to doing neat shots of Bacardi 151 after years of sipping Franzia. Dizziness, confusion, even panic will ensue; you'll recoil, as if from an electric shock; and, finally, you'll grow used to it, love it, perhaps become hooked on it. Indeed, you'll marvel that you ever made do with boxed zinfandel, now that you've gained access to daddy's liquor cabinet.
There is something innately shocking about Erè Mèla Mèla (1975), a mind-expanding strangeness that alone makes it worthwhile listening for anyone weaned on Anglo-American pop. The first few bars of the excellent "Abay Mado - Embwa Belew," for example, sound familiar enough: a saxophone soli played atop a raucous foundation of percussion, resembling any number of soul-jazz records from the 1970s. But then Ahmed opens his mouth and begins to sing. As for what comes out, I have no idea how to classify it because I've never heard anything quite like it. It's a quivering, impassioned vocal that swirls up and down the scale with seeming ease, wonderfully melodic, as you'll see once you get the hang of it, and clearly Arab-inflected. The record's "trick," to the extent that it has one, lies in the way it brilliantly grafts these ecstatic Middle Eastern-sounding vocals atop a scaffolding of jazz rhythms. The thrilling result is a kind of trance music that demands your full attention but will, in return, elevate you into the sort of sublimely hypnotized state that one senses Ahmed was in when he produced it. Simply stated, songs like "Atawurulegn," "Era Mele Mele - Meche Neu," and the terrifying first two pieces (really one extended song) represent some of the most moving, danceable, and frequently ferocious music I've lately heard. They have the heft of ancient chants.
Ethiopia, it seems, witnessed a surge of musical creativity during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when a range of fiercely original voices entered the studio under contracts with national record companies (of which Philips-Ethiopia appears to have been the best known) that granted them a great deal of artistic freedom. Of these voices, Mulatu Astatke, who played with Duke Ellington, made the biggest splash, and was perhaps the most prolific. But Mahmoud Ahmed remains the most affecting of the ones I've thus far heard, and Erè Mèla Mèla (1975) seems to be the best introduction to his challenging output.
Erè Mèla Mèla
1. Sigedegnash Negn/Samiraye (5:33)
2. Indenesh Gedaow (3:45)
3. Bemin Sebeb Litlash (4:32)
4. Abay Mado/Imbwa Belew (6:57)
5. Atawurulign Lela (3:57)
6. Ohoho Gedama (4:44)
7. Ere Mela Mela/Meche Neu (8:01)
8. Fetsum Dink Lij Desh (4:31)
9. Belomy Benna (3:55)
10. Asheweyna (4:32)