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Mahmoud Ahmed - Ethiopiques 19: Alemye

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Artist: Mahmoud Ahmed

Album: Ethiopiques 19: Alemye

Label: Buda Musique

Review date: Jun. 2, 2005

The treasure trove of vintage Ethiopian popular unlocked by the French label Buda is no longer a secret to aficionados of African music. This installment returns attention to Mahmoud Ahmed, the beloved singer whose stately, funky, hypnotic epics of love and pride, backed by the take-no- prisoners grooves of the legendary Ibex Band, were among the first Ethiopian pop records to be heard in the west. It’s a welcome addition, catching Mahmoud and the band in 1974, just before they created the genre-defining album Ere Mela Mela.

Mahmoud’s voice is urgent and clear as it entrains and entwines with the unique intervals and open spaces of traditional Ethiopian melody, communicating tales of tortured love and melancholic suffering and regret in a language rich with multiple meanings and metaphors; poetic and archaic turns of phrase reminiscent of King David’s Psalms or The Book of Proverbs. “Love is soul, not just physical,” Mahmoud sings in “Gubelye” - revealing, perhaps, the very essence of his message - over churning electric bass and combo organ, skittering congas and handclaps, an exuberant Stax/Volt-like horn section. .

Indeed, the back-up work by the Ibex Band should serve as a reminder of just how powerful this underrated assemblage of musicians actually was. Between the bass lines anchoring the songs via syncopated variations on the main melody, the ever-present organ adding smoky, noir-ish mystery, and the crackling punctuations and ruminative solos from the horns, the Ibex Band were as inventive in re-channeling and electrifying traditional cultural roots as were the more lauded African bands like Thomas Mapfumos’s Blacks Unlimited. Check out the slow-building intensity of the 12-minute “Tezeta” to hear how these musicians could build mood and texture beneath and around the smoldering intensity of Mahmoud Ahmed’s heart-rending expressions of nostalgia and lost love.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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