Barry Davis Aug. 1, 2002
Ethiopian jazz band Ras Deshen hopes to take their music to new heights
in the Holy Land. Barry Davis gets a lift
The terms "Ethiopia" and "jazz" may not, initially, appear to be the
most comfortable of bedfellows. Most people naturally associate music from
anywhere in Africa with driving tribal rhythms. Then again, jazz is essentially
a form of black music introduced to the Western world by artists who originated
Addis Ababa-born saxophonist Abate Berimun, the first and, to date,
only Ethiopian jazz musician in Israel, will demonstrate the accuracy of
that juxtaposition when he leads a performance by the Ras Deshen band this
Tuesday at the Jerusalem Cultures Center as part of the Israel Jazz Showcase
series dedicated to promoting Israeli jazz. Abate will be supported by
pianist Yitzhak Yedid and Maleseh Fantahon, who will play the krar - a
sort of small African harp.
In fact, Abate has several strings to his musical bow. "He can play
numerous types of music from Ethiopia," explains Moshe Bar-Yudai, former
chairman of the National Arts Council (Omanut La'am) and the driving force
behind an ongoing project to establish an Ethiopian Jewry Heritage Center
"Each region of Ethiopia has its own musical traditions. There is also
the Christian liturgical style, which is similar to the Jewish liturgical
form. Abate plays both and many more."
Apparently, the catchphrase-oriented world of the latter part of the
20th century was able to accommodate improvised music from Abate's homeland
too, and the term "Ethiojazz" came into being in the late Sixties when
musicians like Addis Ababa resident Mulatu Astatqe and Cameroon jazz superstar
Manu Dibango were putting out a captivating mix of indigenous African music
seasoned with soul, salsa and other black rhythms.
When Abate arrived in Israel in late 1999 he was already an established
star in the Ethiopian jazz firmament. He had toured Europe many times over
a period of 10 years and was a regular feature of the jazz shows put on
by the Hilton and Sheraton hotels in Addis Ababa.
He first picked up a saxophone at the age of 17. He says he does not
come from a particularly musical family, although he has fond memories
of his father's closet vocal prowess. He was initially inspired to take
up an active interest in music by his neighbors.
"There was a military brass band that used to practice just down the
road from my house," Abate recalls. "I could hear them from my room. I
loved the sound of the wind instruments and the saxophones." Suitably bitten
by the musical bug, Abate got his hands on a saxophone and found his way
to the music school in Addis Ababa. It was there that he began to take
his new love seriously. "I did it all myself," he says.
"I told my mother I was going to the music school but my father used
to spend a long time away from home and he didn't know about it at the
Abate's father first discovered his son was a budding musician when
Abate invited him to one of his first gigs. "I remember that so well,"
says Abate. "As soon as my father heard me play he began jumping up and
down with glee. He was so happy and proud of me."
The music school not only provided Abate with formal training in jazz,
it also allowed him to listen to records of some of the legendary masters,
like Charlie Parker. "We had some records at home when I was growing up,
but they weren't jazz. My father worked with the Italians before World
War II and he got hold of albums by Frank Sinatra and some Italian singers.
That was all. But I could get hold of jazz records when I was at the school."
BEFORE LONG Abate had become proficient and confident enough to be able
to strut his stuff in public, and he soon secured regular work at the Hilton
and Sheraton hotels in the Ethiopian capital. "I played there every day
for eight years," Abate says.
Those gigs also provided him with an opportunity to meet tourists from
abroad who sometimes brought jazz records with them. There were also occasional
visits by foreign jazz artists, such as Manu Dibango, and Abate was able
to hone his skills in the company of far more experienced fellow professionals.
When he was 21, Abate began touring Europe with his own band and, until
he moved here eight years later, he went on the road for several weeks
three times a year visiting Sweden, Holland, Germany, England and France.
He says it was quite an experience, for all concerned.
"It was wonderful to see places outside Africa, and the Europeans were
excited to hear the music we played. But we worked hard. We generally played
five days a week every week for three months." Abate's last European tour
ended just three weeks before he came on aliya.
However, since arriving in the Promised Land, his professional fortunes
have changed dramatically - for the worse. Initially lacking local language
skills - he now speaks Hebrew reasonably well - and unable to find regular
work as a jazz musician, he resorted to almost all manner of menial work
to keep body and soul together. For a long time he worked a daily shift
as a restaurant dishwasher in the morning followed by an all-night shift
as a security guard.
"The dishwashing was ruining his hands," says Bar-Yudai, "so we decided
to do something." That help came in the form of a small stipend, organized
through the Ethiopian Jewry Heritage organization, to enable Abate to get
by just on his nocturnal work. "When I was doing both jobs I couldn't practice
or perform. I didn't have the time or the strength," says Abate.
Not that things are exactly rosy now. "It's still hard for me to practice."
And Abate's compositional efforts are not helped by not having ready access
to a piano.
However, one leading member of the local music community, veteran rocker
Ariel Zilber, has given Abate some much needed stage time and occasional
public exposure. "Ariel has helped me a lot," says Abate. "I've played
with him all over the country." The Zilber-Abate synergy also produced
a number called "Ethiopian Song," which has been performed on television,
in Hebrew and Amharic.
Despite his daily hardships, and drastic drop in professional standing,
compared with his life in Ethiopia, Abate remains hopeful that things will
work out in the end and that he will be able to make a living here as a
full-time musician. His current project with pianist Yedid promises to
bear fruit. Besides the forthcoming show, the two are working on a CD based
on a mix of Yedid's classically based avant-garde material and Abate's
blend of jazz and African strains. The latter include various Ethiopian
modes or scales, with names such as Ambasel, Amchihoya, Batti and Tezita,
all of which are used for ballads.
Yedid, who spends some of his working hours running Jerusalem's Swedish
Chef venue for original jazz music and Third Stream music, is delighted
to have the chance to work with the Ethiopian. Yedid and Abate were originally
brought together by radio presenter and ethnic-music expert Shlomo Yisraeli.
"Shlomo suggested I do something with Abate," Yedid says. "We got together
and we hit it off musically right from the start. I felt he was an amazing
musician. He is a jazz artist but he adds African scales. He plays in an
Ethiopian style on an instrument which isn't at all Ethiopian."
The Yedid-Abate chemistry worked so well that they were in a recording
studio after just two rehearsals. Thus far, they have recorded five tracks
as part of the album they hope to complete in the not too distant future.
Yedid does have some experience of working with Ethiopian musicians, but
he says playing with Abate is a different kettle of fish.
"I played with a couple of singers a few years ago, but this is a much
more serious proposition. Abate is an improviser. He has a very special
sense of musical structure - a very long structure. He can play for a long
time, it's almost like Indian music."
Yedid feels that Abate has something he has never encountered with any
other jazz musician he has worked with. "You can feel his African roots.
He is almost meditative in his way of playing." By all accounts, it looks
like next week's show should provide Jerusalem music lovers with a remarkable
experience. Let's hope there will be plenty more from Abate before too
August 1, 2002
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