At 75, Mahmoud Ahmed doesn’t jump as high or shake as ecstatically as he once did, but the Ethiopian superstar is still a magnificent entertainer with a vast treasure trove of songs set to infectiously rippling grooves. A vocalist and composer who defined the cosmopolitan Addis Ababa scene when its thrumming energy made it an East African counterpart to swinging London, Mahmoud has survived the fall of an emperor and a long reign of Marxist terror, a calamitous famine and bloody civil war. He arrives at Zellerbach Friday for the Cal Performances double bill “Afropop Spectacular” as a singular, unifying figure for his ancient, ethnically riven nation, a status he maintains through his indefatigable generosity as a performer (Mali’s Trio Da Kali opens the concert).
“I have seen dozens and dozens of concerts with Mahmoud all around the world, and I’ve have never seen him give a bad concert,” says Francis Falceto, who introduced Mahmoud and dozens of other Ethiopian musicians to the West via his invaluable 29-album Ethiopiques reissue series, speaking from France via Skype. “He jumps less high, but he’s always giving, giving. In Carnegie Hall last week people were standing by the third song, then they’d sit. By the second half everyone was standing the rest of the show, even way up in the balconies, which is something to see! He’s an incredible entertainer. It is his life to be on stage.”
Falceto started spreading awareness of Mahmoud back in 1986 when he brought two of the singer’s mid-70s Kaifa Records masterpieces to the Belgian label Crammed Discs, which were released on the album Erè Mèla Mèla (and reissued again on 1999’s Éthiopiques / Buda Musique). The album paved the way for Mahmoud to start performing internationally, but at home and in the vast Ethiopian diaspora, Mahmoud never needed a reintroduction.
“Most if not all Ethiopians around the world consider him a living legend, a national treasure, and young musicians in Ethiopia today still perform his old hits,” says guitarist Zakki Jawad, who was born and raised in Ethiopia and settled in Washington DC some three decades ago. He’s part of the eight-piece band touring with Mahmoud, a group featuring six DC-based Ethiopian musicians and two ringers from Boston’s 10-piece Either/Orchestra, trumpeter Tom Halter and saxophonist Russ Gershon.
The founder and artistic director of talent-laden Either/Orchestra, Gershon discovered Mahmoud’s music via Erè Mèla Mèla in the late 1980s, which led to a growing interest in Ethiopian music. The band included several Ethiopian songs on the 2000 album More Beautiful Than Death (Accurate Records), and made a historic visit to Addis Ababa to perform with Ethiopian musicians in 2004. Convinced that Mahmoud sounded best when surrounded by a thicket of horns, Falceto brought him together with Either/Orchestra for the first time at the 2006 Benlieues Bleues Festival, an encounter documented on the DVD Ethiogroove (Buda Musique). Mahmoud has performed with the E/O many times since then, adjusting his delivery to Gershon’s jazz-steeped arrangements of his songs.
“The guy brings it every time,” Gershon says. “He’s got the groove of James Brown, the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the love of Stevie Wonder. He was the biggest star in that culture, and could not be more a regular guy.”
Growing up in Addis Ababa, Mahmoud listened close to Ethiopian musicians of the day while soaking up sounds on the radio, particularly Sam Cooke, James Brown and Elvis Presley (from whom he borrowed his early stage moves). It’s befitting that a star of his magnitude has a Hollywood-worthy discovery story. Working as a cook in the kitchen at the Arizona Club, where Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Body Guard Band played nightly, he memorized their repertoire, and was ready to strike when an opportunity presented itself.
“I heard that the singer didn’t show up and offered up my services,” Mahmoud says in Amharic, with Jawad serving as interpreter. “I told them I know a few of their popular songs. They gave me the opportunity and the owner of the club happened to be there that night, He was so impressed that he said from now on you’re not working in the kitchen, you’re singing. The bandleader, an officer with the Imperial Body Guard, asked me to become a permanent member of the band.”
Mahmoud had already started writing songs, and quickly introduced several new pieces into the Body Guard Band repertoire. He’s singing one of those early songs for the first time in the United States, “Ala Wek Shilignim” (which translates loosely as You Don’t Understand Me). Working with various poets and writers, he’d explain his concept for a song, and they would supply the lyrics.
He recorded often through the late 1960s and early 70s, and part of the immediacy of those albums stem from the difficult conditions under which they were made. With only three studios and limited technology “the sessions were long,” Mahmoud says. “Sometimes we would use the government radio station, and the Ministry of Information had a studio we’d use when we were fortunate to book time there. A lot of songs were recorded on two track in one take, with no overdubs and no corrections and everyone playing at the same time.”
When Selassie’s long reign came to an end in the summer of 1974, he was replaced by a Soviet-backed Marxist–Leninist military government led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. Known as the Derg, the junta shut down nightclubs and brought an era of isolation to Ethiopia. Musicians had to apply for visas to leave the country, and were required to perform songs celebrating the government’s achievements.
“It was a drastic change,” Mahmoud says. “During he time of the Emperor there were no restrictions on the kind of music or lyrics. With the junta, all musicians were mandated to perform revolutionary songs. You could have a love song, but you also had to record at least one or two revolutionary songs.”
The rule of the Derg led to the end of the voluptuously orchestral big bands, with synthesizers replacing horns. Political repression and economic disaster meant new instruments were had to come by. Bands downsized and the golden era of Ethiopian music came to an end. But Mahmoud never stopped writing, performing and recording, and he recently finished a new album, recorded entirely in Addis.
Recommended gig: Matt Slocum trio / Linda Tillery
Matt Slocum, a smart young New York drummer/composer, brings his stellar trio to the California Jazz Conservatory for a Sunday afternoon concert. Featuring Berkeley High alum Dayna Stephens and guitarist Steve Cotter, the group is celebrating the release of an impressive debut recording, Trio Pacific, Vol. 1.
The great East Bay vocalist Linda Tillery presents “Music of Protest and Resistance” Wednesday at Freight & Salvage. Joined by a superlative cast of musicians including pianist Tammy Hall, guitarist Ray Obiedo, bassist Ruth Davies, and drummer Leon Joyce Jr., Tillery has compiled a soul-steeped program of songs by Donny Hathaway, Richie Havens, the Staples Singers, as well as traditional spirituals, material that speaks to the exigencies of the moment.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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