The fifth annual Hullegeb Festival will soon be upon us. It is one of the primary institutionalized vehicles for presenting the artistic skills and creativity of the Ethiopian community to the Israeli public. The festival, initiated by Jerusalem’s Confederation House and its director Effie Benaya, incorporates a wide swath of productions and genres, from contemporary and ethnic music to theater and dance.
The local acts include the traditional Ethiopian Jewish dance company Beta Dance Troupe; the Lala Ethiopian fusion band; the jazz-Ethiopian blues Ras Deshen twosome of saxophonist-vocalist Abate Berihun and pianist-composer Yitzhak Yedid; and a play performed by the Hullegeb Israeli- Ethiopian Theater Ensemble.
The closing act of the festival, the Addis Acoustic Project, will perform at the Jerusalem Theater on December 11. The sextet incorporates a range of styles and genres, from jazz and blues to folk and rock ‘n’ roll, with a strong retro element that harks back to the golden era of Ethiopian popular music scene of the 1950s and ’60s.
It seems like quite a handful to take in so many different musical directions, but 40-year-old guitarist, accordionist and band leader Girum Mezmur says it all comes naturally to him.
“I have worked as a professional musician for the past 18 years, so as a versatile guitar player I experience these styles with different bands. ” he says.
That professional backdrop stood Mezmur in good stead when he started to put the Addis Acoustic Project repertoire together.
“For me it was natural to fuse all these styles,” he adds. “In my arrangements you can hear Afro- Caribbean and Afro-Cuban influences that I heard and played at the jam sessions I ran in the past. Jazz, of course, is part of what we do, with improvisation, and there are a lot of influences of world music. There are also elements from Sudan, especially percussion. It is all open,” he says.
That does, however, mean that anything goes. “At the core, my job is also to guarantee the authenticity of the music that we play from the 1950s. That is why a lot of people like to hear our music because we don’t compromise on the melodies.” he says.
Judging by the stylistic spectrum of the members of the Addis Acoustic Project, it is not hard to understand why Mezmur covers so many directions in his capacity as arranger. Acoustic bass player Henock Temesgen brings a wealth of jazz-oriented sensibilities to the table. He graduated from the Berklee College of Music and moved back to Ethiopia after 26 years in the States. Besides his work with the band, he teaches at the Jazzamba Music School in Addis Ababa, which he co-founded, and also organizes the annual Acacia Jazz & World Music Festival.
Meanwhile, percussionist Misale Legesse plays the traditional Ethiopian kebero hand drum. Mezmur’s jazzy approach is underscored by clarinetist and flutist Aklilu “Johnny” Woldeyohannes, who also regularly plays saxophone with Hullegeb Festival opener Eshet.
So what makes Ethiopian music from the 1950s and 1960s so special? “It is based on pentatonic music,” Mezmur explains. “Of course, there are also Western influences in the arrangements. And the instruments that were used back then were special, like the double bass, the clarinet and a lot of mandolin. The mandolin died out in the 1970s.”
To recreate popular Ethiopian music of yesteryear, one really needs to have a mandolin player on board. In septuagenarian Ayele Mamo they not only address that instrumental aspect, but they also have a living link with the source era. “Ayele is one of the main guys who shaped the sound of the 1960s in Ethiopia,” notes Mezmur.
“He was a real leader, and he recorded with a who’s who of the music scene back then.”
With well-honed polished jazz capabilities at Mezmur’s behest, it naturally follows that there is going to be a generous amount of on the fly artistic endeavor in the band’s output.
“There are some songs to which we are too strongly attached to the melodies, and it becomes very difficult for us to improvise on them. But I would say that about 90 percent of the band’s repertoire has improvisation in it,” he says.
When he was in his mid-20s Mezmur became a central figure on the local jazz scene and ran jam sessions at the Coffee House in Addis Ababa for 10 years.
“That was great,” he recalls. “It was a good time for me to grow as a jazz player.” It was around that time that Mezmur had a brief musical encounter with Abate Berihun, who has become a leading figure on the Israeli music scene since he made aliya from Ethiopia 15 years ago.
“I jammed with Abate, but I was very young at the time,” says Mezmur. “He is a wonderful musician.”
They may even get an opportunity to make up for lost jamming time during the festival.
For tickets and more information about the Hullegeb Festival: (02) 624- 5206 and www.confederationhouse.org