A new album by the Asmara All Stars poses questions and subtly rewires the way we hear the music of East Africa.
Bringing the sounds of Eritrea to the world
Asmara All Stars
Eritrea’s Got Soul
Contemporary music criticism can be a strange and dislocating affair. What does it mean, for instance, to listen to an Eritrean album in New York with the charge of writing about it for an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper? How much should those earthly coordinates matter, if at all? Is there a point at which the specifics of place can come to mean everything and nothing at once?
Many questions attend what one might choose to call quantum global-music travel. It's not a new phenomenon, exactly. People have been curious about the sounds of foreign cultures ever since the very first accounts of mysterious music from far-off lands (and certainly for as long as recording technology has made it possible to hear music stripped of any abiding sense of locale). But its processes have accelerated and it is more far-reaching.
Now it's not the least bit unusual to while away the hours flitting from breakbeats crafted in South London to a collection of Turkish folk songs from the 1920s, finally settling upon a set of processed field recordings of ice and water in the Arctic Circle. (So went a recent afternoon, delightfully spent indeed).
As much fun as all of this is, occasionally it is also enough to make adventurous listeners stop and think. How much dilettantism is too much? How distorting are the presumptions and projections we bring to cultural artefacts whose origins we don't fully know or understand? How guarded should we be against our own limited frames of reference? Luckily, music has a way of cutting through such concerns with the simplest of gestures: blaring brass; a limber bass walk; the voice of a real person in a real room singing, no matter where.
All of the above feature prominently in a new album by the Asmara All Stars. Eritrea's Got Soul comprises 13 songs recorded by this band, named for Eritrea's capital city and assembled by Bruno Blum, a Frenchman who travelled to the East African nation in 2006. He went in search of cultural exchange, under the aegis of the French Alliance and with the blessing, after some coaxing, of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, Eritrea's ruling political movement. Blum taught music and played there, then gathered together a group of local artists in the hope of producing a record that would bring the country's songs to the world.
In those terms, Eritrea's Got Soul is less an album than a project, and it sounds that way. The first track, Amajo, starts off in media res, with a tumble of percussion dropped under a saxophone that seems to be at the end of a solo already in progress. It then settles into a sort of polyglot reggae rhythm, licked with sweat and that titular soul. Vocals come courtesy of a woman named Faytinga, whose appearances embody this record's strange and charming spirit: as the CD's liner notes tell it, Faytinga (pronounced "fighting-ah") earned her nickname as a young girl, volunteering for military service during Eritrea's war for independence from Ethiopia, and has since become "a national symbol of resistance".
As an artist, though, her displays of "resistance" are suggestive rather than forthright. She doesn't shout or growl; instead, her voice is sweetly defiant, an easy breeze of self-possession. It's as if any fatalism or anger has been thought better directed into celebration. This impression is, of course, born of sound and sound alone, but it's a strong current in the Asmara All Stars' work, from the haunting grooves of songs such as Ykre Beini to the humid jazz of Anisako.
Given this album's provenance, the presence of this latter style comes as scant surprise, but it can also be seen as a kind of reclamation. For many years East African music remained largely undiscovered by western audiences. That is, until the past decade or so, which has witnessed an upsurge of interest in archive recordings from the hotel-lounge scene of Eritrea's next-door neighbour, Ethiopia. As this album's creators are keen to explain: "Many of the musicians on vintage Ethiopian music were actually Eritrean." Decades of conflict between the two nations have seen to it that no love is lost between them in political terms. Still, music crosses borders and often negotiates its own détentes. To that end, the Asmara All Stars positively assert both Eritrea's sense of self and its place in a wider musical dialogue.
The project also subtly rewires the way much of the rest of the world hears this kind of music. A large proportion of African sounds enjoyed outside their domestic markets are accessed via reissues, compilations and stray releases that come together to make up their own patchwork map: spotty and roughly drawn, but valuably interconnected, all the same. For instance, the "vintage Ethiopian music" referred to above is undoubtedly that featured on the Ethiopiques series of compilations, first released in the late 1990s. Including editions focused on the work of artists such as Alemayehu Eshete, Asnaketch Worku and Mahmoud Ahmed, this comprehensive curatorial enterprise brought the sounds of East Africa to a whole new audience.
One album even made up the bulk of the soundtrack to Broken Flowers, a film starring Bill Murray and directed by Jim Jarmusch (the kind of musical explorer who would almost definitely have been introduced to the work of its creator, the band leader and inventor of Ethio jazz Mulatu Astatke, in a boutique record store in downtown Manhattan).
As well as achieving critical and commercial success, the Ethiopiques series also seems to have predicted the future. Reissues and compilations of African music existed before it, but the late 1990s marked the point when the market for such things changed profoundly. Thanks to the internet, borders dissolved and the flow of information gathered speed. No longer would this cultural terrain be the sole preserve of specialist stores and collectors of esoteric "world music". Instead, it would now be accessible to anyone with enough time and interest to happen upon an online review or recommended mp3.
Now we're awash in lovingly crafted collections of all kinds, from Pakistani movie scores to Beninese voodoo funk. Often they are marketed and consumed as glimpses into a novel and exoticised past, but increasingly in a more matter-of-fact way, as part of a musical dialogue that seems to expand in scope and historical understanding by the month.
All this makes Eritrea's Got Soul's status as a living, breathing project especially appealing. More than a product of months spent rummaging through warehouses filled with dusty vinyl, it is a document of an active musical scene, brought together for a stated purpose in the present day. Its content is diverse, drawing from a musical heritage that combines influences from the Middle East, Asia and Europe with Eritrea's own indigenous styles. Yet it is all neatly bound together by its roots in a community eager to be heard.
A pair of notable songs, Eritrean Girl and Gwaila International, play with the form of the gwaila rhythm, an insistent and hypnotic percussive pattern described as Eritrea's "national beat". Heard one way, both are relaxed, in-the-pocket exercises that circle elliptically around a structure that seems to accrue new complexity with every simple repetition. But it turns out that they also almost put Blum's whole mission in jeopardy. Their deviance from strictly traditional form rankled a number of people not involved in the band to such a degree that the release of Eritrea's Got Soul was cast into doubt.
Are these songs more significant as markers of a national heritage or as modernised transgressions? How should we even begin to engage with them? It is difficult to tell, but one possible answer can found in the rousing dance anthem Adunia. A raucous ensemble performance, filled with insistent funk guitar, fleshy bass, and horns that slither and snap as only East African horns can, it is immediate and infectious, whoever and wherever you might happen to be. Yet, at the beginning a voice calls out from afar: "This is a song of Eritrea." As such, its pleasures are both near and distant. Maybe that's the best way, in the end.
Andy Battaglia is a New York-based writer whose work appears in The Wall Street Journal, Artforum, Spin and Pitchfork