Journey of a jazz prodigy
By Liza Power
It is 3:00 am in Addis Ababa and Samuel Yirga is padding around his bedroom listening to Ethiopian folk tunes. The 25-year-old pianist doesn’t keep regular hours. He goes to bed at 8am, when the Ethiopian capital stirs itself for a new day, and spends the witching hours composing music. If his mobile drops out six times during a phone interview, he’s not bothered. He simply picks up mid-thought and speaks of the African mobile network as one might a temperamental acquaintance: ”You just keep going until you get through. This is how it is in Africa.”
It’s a philosophy that might well apply to his music, not only in respect to convincing his father to let him study it – the older man had a career in engineering mapped out for his son – but also in his determination to revisit an era of Ethiopian music few outside his homeland are familiar with: the folk tunes of the country’s central and northern highlands.
You’ll find echoes in his work of the ethereal quality that has won his Ethiojazz compatriots, such as Mulatu Astatke, international acclaim. Yet, while Yirga often works in the five-note scale born out of ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church hymns, he reimagines them in compositions that meld jazz and classical influences.
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”I like to experiment and give [old songs] new life,” he says.
They’re not songs from the heady, spirited ”swinging Addis” heyday of the 1960s, music that re-emerged in the 1990s care of the Ethiopiques recordings that won Astatke and his contemporaries a new audience. That music spoke of the brief creative window that emerged at the end of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule, before the arrival of Mengistu’s brutal, repressive junta. Yirga’s favoured era precedes that: ”People think the 1960s was the only great moment of Ethiopian music. Yes, it was a flowering time for the country, but for me it was very influenced by American music. Mulatu had the opportunity to go to New York and London and make a name for himself but there were other composers [who didn’t have the chance] that nobody knows about.”
So in the small hours of the morning, Yirga, who is coming to Melbourne for next month’s International Jazz Festival, revisits Ethiopian music of the 1920s and ’30s. ”Really, it’s not hard [to find this music] because there is a renaissance [at the moment],” he says. ”Many great musicians who were living outside Ethiopia in exile because of the last regime are moving back. They’re playing in clubs in Addis, showing love for [their] country and [its] music. During the regime, there was a midnight curfew; people couldn’t stay out late to hear music. But now the energy is slowly coming back.”
Yirga’s family opposed his career choice. ”I asked my father and brother when I was younger to send me to music school but they always said, ‘Work hard and maybe when you are in high school.”’
When they reneged on their promise, the 16-year-old took himself to auditions at Addis Ababa’s Yared School of Music. So did 2500 other aspirants. ”I didn’t have any experience,” he says. ”Just the feeling to be a piano player and a singer and be famous in the world.”
Yirga blazed through the auditions and, when he enrolled, was told to choose two instruments to learn: one classical and one traditional. Having been told his hands were too small for the piano, he opted for the clarinet.
”It was OK but really not my passion, so I spoke to the director and finally, after weeks, he transferred me to the piano department. For three years I practised more than 12 hours a day. I was so much in love with that instrument.”
He also studied the krar, a five-string harp, and masenko, a one-string fiddle; both appear on his debut album, Guzo.
His love of traditional music stems from a childhood spent listening to the radio and dancing at family weddings and parties. ”Also, every night at home we used to dance with my sisters and brothers,” he says. ”That was our everyday practice. We would listen to R&B and Latin and pop music.”
At the Yared School of Music, named after St Yared, the legendary figure credited with inventing Ethiopia’s system of musical notation and the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, he divided his time between classical and traditional studies. He mastered traditional kinits (scales) – Tizita, Batti, Ambassel, Anchihoye – particular to Ethiopia’s various regions. It was a strange passion for a young student. ”Most younger musicians prefer to play pop,” Yirga says.
”There’s pressure for many musicians to emulate American jazz greats such as Chick Corea, too. But these old songs still get played on the radio. I remember the scales and notes. I had an argument with a musician at a club recently who said I should be playing more American music. I told him, ‘You have to decide what kind of musician you want to be. Like someone else or yourself.”’
Yirga’s debut album – guzo means ”journey” in Amharic – mixes modern interpretations of traditional love songs with an interpretation of the ’60s soul classic, I Am the Black Gold of the Sun. Collaborators range from the Creole Church Choir of Cuba to friends. ”Some are teachers at Yared School of Music,” he says. ”Others are famous musicians from traditional clubs. I told everyone about the album and invited them to join.”
After dates in Australia, Britain and the US, Yirga plans to tour Africa and find new musicians to work with. ”I was in Kenya last year to be a judge at the East African Music Awards. It was a great chance to learn more about African music. I want to do more of that. I don’t know [who I want to work with], only that I have to … find them.”
Along with his solo work, Yirga also plays with Dub Colossus, the London-based musical collective formed by Transglobal Underground’s Nick Page. The group’s two albums, 2008’s A Town Called Addis and last year’s Addis through the Looking Glass, fuse traditional melodies with contemporary instrumentation and overlays of reggae and guitar. Their line-ups include Sintayehu ”Mimi” Zenebe (hailed as Ethiopia’s Edith Piaf) and Teremage Woretaw.
As for Yirga’s family, they’ve finally accepted he’s not going to become an engineer. It might help that his four brothers and two sisters have chosen more traditional career paths. ”Actually, my father says he doesn’t remember any of the bad things he said back then about me going to music school,” Yirga says. ”Which is OK. I say you can win anyone by your success.”