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Ethiopiques 17: Tlahoun Gessesse, 1970-1977 by Ben Tausig

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Dusted's Ben Tausig reflects on the album that mattered the most to him in 2004.

Ethiopiques 17: Tlahoun Gessesse, 1970-1977 by Ben Tausig

Ethiopiques: Volume 17 was one of 2004's great retrospectives, with little ink spilled. Two others are comparable; The World of Arthur Russell, Soul Jazz's homage to a singular composer and disco-era outsider, and Astral Glamour, a comprehensive collection of recordings by the smart, weird punk band the Homosexuals. These are comparable not only in quality, but in focus; all three offer fresh consideration to artists more nuanced than most in their respective genres.

The album cover speaks volumes about Tlahoun Gessesse, one of Ethiopia's most legendary pop stars – black suit, white shirt, silver mic, posed to the tips of his shoes but fully at ease. High contrast and god in the details.

Alive as of 2004, Gessesse recorded this material during the last years of Haile Selassie's reign in Ethiopia and during the transition to the subsequent regime in the mid-’70s. His songs were politicized by dissenters, not necessarily to the delight of the Selassie government, which banned at least one in 1960.

Political significance aside, Gessesse's bands (this disc includes recordings made with several, including the Imperial Bodyguard Band and the Army Band) played African soul with a tincture of deep funk, and Gessesse himself was a disciplined singer of phenomenal range. The percussion sections sponge like injera, jelling guitar, voice and horns. But this isn't funk, exactly. The songs are too short and the rhythm is not entrancing enough to fall into that canon. Instead it's a hybrid of high-life and soul, with unlikely arrangements that march in step.

Time has exposed some welcome flaws – out-of-tune horns, rhythmic hiccups, that sort of thing – that today would be grounds for another take. But we should be glad to hear what's revealed by these imperfections, as Gessesse clearly prized performance above the ideal of the studio.

This collection, less lauded than other retrospectives released this year, but just as creative and satisfying, deserves a note.

By Ben Tausig

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