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V/A - Sleeping in the Market, Ethiopian Music & Sounds from Amhara

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Artist: V/A

Album: Sleeping in the Market, Ethiopian Music & Sounds from Amhara

Label: Latitude/Locust Music

Review date: Apr. 12, 2005

Latitude/Locust Media’s recent offering, Sleep In The Marketplace, shines a light on folkloric Ethiopian music that, in this country, is probably not even heard over dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant. While the seemingly endless Ethiopiques volumes and a few albums by Aster Aweke comprise much of what Western listeners know about Ethiopian music, this compact collection of field recordings works like a little wooden sign, hammered into the dirt road shoulder, modestly proclaiming, “This is where it all comes from.” The occasional mic bump and gust of wind don’t take away from the offering; they add archival character and a sense of realism to music that doesn’t sound like it was meant to be performed or recorded in a static environment. Recorded by Yayehe Simon, an Ethiopian jew who resettled in Israel with 10,000 other Ethiopians in the 1980s as part of Operation Moses, the record documents Simon’s journey back to Ethiopia.

The almost raga-esque explorations of tone that accentuate these songs carry different emotions, sometimes several simultaneously. Joy, desperation, resignation, and hope abound: it’s nearly impossible to separate the feel of the songs from the oft-perceived desolation associated with life in the Northeast African sahel, and this contrast lends a feeling of triumph to the collection. The singers – ranging from a 9-year-old girl to a blind elderly beggar – sound joyful and whimsical despite themselves. As a young girl sings “Laluyeah (Yearning Song),” her breathless, unaccompanied voice travels a winding road of notes, frequently punctuated by high squeaks that act as a youthful counterpoint to the plaintive, nasal delivery. As with the other vocal selections on Sleep In The Marketplace, the little girl’s voice carries with it a veritable calling card of the region’s music: an impossibly fast tremolo, so consistent that it almost sounds mechanical, or like a special effect. This apparently indigenous technique is as distinct as the polytonal throat singing of Tuva, or the “click” like glottal stops of the Southern African Xhosa ethnic group.

In addition to the characteristic voices featured throughout, this brief yet seemingly comprehensive sampler introduces several instruments. On several songs, the use of the masinko, a bowed instrument, demonstrates the heuristic nature of the fiddle in folkloric music: not only is the timbre similar to that of the fiddle in some Appalachian or Celtic forms, it’s not even far off melodically. The addition of percussion, tapped out on the masinko, on “Bale Ageru” and “Ney Ney Ney (Come, Come, Come)” brings joy to the child singers as they step up their intensity (and giggle off-mic.) Additionally, the percussion, comprised of the masinko and a few handclaps, drives home the point that these sounds are borne of a largely pastoral society and its inherent resourcefulness, making such a full sound with voices, a fiddle, and the nearest makeshift percussion instrument. The rhythm of much of this music drifts between a lilting 6/8 and a galloping 2/4, loosely but purposefully.

Sleep In The Marketplace closes with “Endiaw Mela, Mela (Compassion)” sung in an Adiss-Abbaba teahouse by a professional Azmare duo. As a female singer embarks on a nostalgic lamentation to the homeland with her male counterpart on accordion, the room seems to respond with thundering hand-clapping and raised voices. It’s the closest the album gets to a spiritual moment, one in which the listener no longer hears the audio imperfections, but is surrounded by the very same roomful of people, embroiled in a tribute equal parts musical contest and conversation.

By Andy Freivogel

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