The golden age of Ethiopian soul music kicked off in the mid '60s with a flurry of horns, eerie keyboards, and whip-crack drumming. Woven through the groove was the strained, conflicted voice of Mahmoud Ahmed, the greatest pop star the country has ever seen.
Ethiopia has a history of brutal dictatorships; Ahmed's hazy, gritty sound offers a glimpse into the once-vibrant culture of nightclubs and beer halls of Addis Ababa (aka "swinging Addis"). Ahmed was known as "the soul of Addis," his vibrato registering what the Ethiopians call achinoy, an expression of beautiful, strained suffering, and eskeusta, a sort of ecstasy that inspires a wave of tingling sensations to flow through the body.
In the early 1960s, during the reign of the "enlightened despot" Haile Selassie—whom present-day Rastafarians consider both God and the son of God—Ahmed went from being a shoeshine boy to the leader of the Imperial Bodyguard Band (all the bands were government funded and had names like the Police and Army Orchestra). Music was everywhere, easily absorbed. After years of listening to the R&B music thousands of Peace Corps volunteers imported into the country, he had developed an anomalous voice that amalgamated American funk and Ethiopian brass-band music.
"Elvis Presley and James Brown started playing in the music shops," Ahmed says over the phone from Addis Ababa, with his local publicist, Teferi Abay, acting as translator. "This was all I listened to. We put traditional Amharic songs into these contemporary settings. That was the modern Ethiopian sound."
Ahmed became one of the country's first pop stars, imitating the dress of Little Richard and the stage presence of Elvis. Motown-like, his specialty became the love song, dripping with poetic melodrama. He sang in Amharic, racy/sacred sentiments like, "Your body is a love trap/there is no way I can't adore it" and "What words can I choose to describe you/You are utterly sublime/God created you perfect, without blemish." The music charged behind him in a pulsing, danceable wave.
When Mengistu Haile Mariam's abominable Marxist junta replaced Selassie's already repressive regime in 1974, Ahmed's government band was cut off and the country's musical culture was forced into hiding. Mengistu enforced a 10:00 p.m. curfew and shut down nightlife. Musicians were forbidden to release albums and thrown in jail for writing love songs that might contain clandestine antigovernment lyrics. For 13 years, it was nearly impossible to tour outside of Ethiopia. The few dozen singers that remained working in the country, including Ahmed, maintained covert recording careers and were forced to play in international hotel lounges, to tourists, after hours.
"During the Mengistu regime, audiences in the hotels had to come in at 11:30 and couldn't leave until 5:00 a.m.," Ahmed says. "That was the way we played music in Ethiopia."
In 1986, French music producer Francis Falceto discovered Erè mèla mèla, Ahmed's debut album, and the first "Ethiopian groove" record released in Europe, 11 years after its recording. Inspired by Ahmed's raw, funk-fueled sound, Falceto began compiling the Ethiopiques series, ensuring Ahmed's voice would finally reach America. In the same way that the Buena Vista Social Club illuminated an entire generation of neglected Cuban music, the 23-disc Ethiopiques series revealed this forgotten period of sizzling Ethiopian jazz rock. Modern indie acts like Castanets and Broken Social Scene tout the series as a prime influence, and Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers was basically an excuse for the director to indulge his love of Ethiopian funk.
Now, 16 years after the fall of Mengistu, Ahmed is one of the few pop stars to emerge from the darkness. "Still there is censorship," Ahmed says. "If you want to give a message other than love songs, you cannot."
Yet his musical personality remains unscathed. Because of the country's isolationist government, Ahmed's poppier take on Afrobeat never found the international popularity of his Nigerian, Malian, or Senegalese contemporaries. The 15,000 albums he's sold in a 40-year career are actually a lot by Ethiopian standards.
After being presented with Ethiopia's prestigious Millennium Award three months ago, Ahmed began a rare international tour. In his all-white garb, he set out on a long string of sold-out shows, running the stage with swinging fists and gyrating hips, parading with his characteristic strut. Backing him is what he calls the "new generation of Ethiopian music," turning his '60s soul-jazz arrangements into full-blast rock. In the audience, Ethiopian immigrants, groove junkies, and world-music fans come together to hear one of the few survivors of Ethiopia's golden age send waves of eskeusta up their spines.