Photo by C Brandon/Redferns (via Getty).
8 Contemporary Ethiopian Artists to Check Out
Featuring Skat Nati, Iri Di, Ethiopian Records, Kelela, Batisso and more.
East Africa's youth culture is currently exploding like never before. In Ethiopia, a country that has a long history of fusing traditional music with modern sound, young artists are breaking out just as they did in the 1970s, when Ethio-jazz staked its claim on the world stage.
From experimental electronica to pop and hip-hop, Ethiopian music is being recognised across the globe for making joyful noise. Artists in Addis Ababa strive to reach out to the wider world, as at the same time, those in foreign lands send their messages back to a home they grasp at, one that aches right the way through them.
Here are some tracks that span Ethiopian artists from Addis, artists who moved away at a young age and those whose parents took that journey to find a new home.
Born in Addis Ababa, Endeguena Mulu aka Ethiopian Records started experimenting with his country's traditional music at a young age. His obsession has even spawned a whole genre in itself: Ethiopiyawi Electronic, which fuses electronica with Ethiopia's venerable past. Sampling street musicians and jazz sessions, Mulu's talent has gained him recognition globally. His deep respect for his heritage and traditions helps create a journey that highlights a vision of community action and higher consciousness. This video, which is only days old, teases us with the welcome knowledge that more uplifting tracks are on their way.
If you measure music by how many million hits are totted up on YouTube then rest assured of Kelela's current place in the music industry. With blatant nods to the seductive grooves of Janet Jackson at the top of her game, Kelela adds her own sanguine vocals to assertive production. A second-generation Ethiopian-American, she has already worked with Clams Casino, Danny Brown and Gorillaz but there is certainly plenty more to come from this prodigious talent. Check out her record with Asmara for slow-motion ambient jazz that will leave you more than a little blissed out.
Dexter Story's chaotic joy is sung from the top of the world. Familiar Ethiopian melodies sang in English communicate an innate positivity that Dexter struggles to contain within himself. These are the big vibrations of someone eager to share love the same way Earth Wind & Fire did: on the dance floor. A multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles, there is enough sunshine in his sound to make you need to see him live. Prepare to get happy.
For now, this 20-year-old producer is bubbling away on Addis Ababa's underground scene. His is electronic music that rides a wave of ancient glory all the way to the snappy trap sounds of the present day. Batisso is not afraid of mixing it up. Traditional sounds are not elbowed out the way but instead given centre stage in his cosmic world. It's a heady and bass-heavy journey that is inter-generational, in the way that psychedelics guide you through your ancestry. With a nod to Ethiopian Records and Mikael Seifu, it resonates with the future-past.
Skat Natiruminates on Addis Ababa as any rapper defending his turf would. Not that we would need any further proof that U.S. trap/hip-hop continues to be the international language of rebellion to come adorned in Louis Vuitton and gold chains. His recent smash "Abogida" has plaintive guitar lines that sound like they were played by John Frusciante ‚— echoing Headie One's "Aint it Different" sampling of Crazy Town's "Butterfly" in 2020. Skat Nati is unapologetically the voice of the street and the WHOOP's ring out just as they do from any music studio in LA, Shanghai or Helsinki. Uncomplicated and passionate flow, girls in the video, big rims on sports cars... Skat Nati represents his vision of Addis Ababa and he's loved for it.
There is a doubtless poise toIri Di's music that addresses the world without castigating it. Possessed by the harmony of a hauntingly pure voice, she tells her stories as any poet would. Having left Addis Ababa for Montreal in 2011, Iri Di continues to explore her Hamar roots through polyphony, accompanied by simple guitar chords. The cinematography in her videos further transports you to the world she dreams of, that takes you barefoot through an agonizingly tender universe.
Marseille-based, half-Ethiopian and half-Norwegian Camille Myhre makes bedroom experimental pop that awaits the bigger stage. Sorrowful and beleaguered vocals float over her programmed beats as she glides and then drops against despondent synths. This is the music of the reflective outsider; intimate storm-cloud music. There is a yearning for some kind of impossible connection, but the insistent rhythm that fires beneath her melodies hints at her strength to overcome regrets at her own pace. There is nothing passive about Varnrable no matter how wistful, and with an album in the pipeline, 2022 bodes well for her.
It is easy to get lost in Mikael Seifu's music. The past and present are captured as effortlessly as on any Ethiopian Records track. Like the rattle of a dream that you try to get back into from half-conscious sleep, Seifu opens doors to other dimensions that sound and feel like being carried away on clouds. He deals in timelessness as deep vibrating strings echo out to forever and thumping drums act as amulets against all bad luck. Seifu makes music as hopeful and heartbreaking as life itself.
This article appears as a part of OkayAfrica's Crossroads, a special series examining Global Africa at critical moments. For our first package, we will dedicate 4 weeks of coverage to examining the lands of Ethiopia through a deep dive into music, politics, and culture. Keep up with the campaign here.
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