11 songs that sample from the golden age of Ethiopian jazz featuring Mulatu Astatke, Nas, K'naan, Madlib, Jay Z and more.
It’s 2000 something. I’m holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon’s suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine dudes jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.
My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beatmaker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.
The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad’s car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers.
“Where did you get this?” He asks puzzlingly.
“The internet,” I respond smiling.
In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d’état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label’s tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.
Éthiopiques album covers.
Fast forward, 1997. The Paris-based record label Buda Musique, stumbles upon a collection of decades old Ethiopian music and releases Éthiopiques Volume 1: The Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music, a compilation of largely forgotten songs from an extraordinary period of musical experimentation. Funk, soul, jazz, rock—popular western and traditional Ethiopian music ground together into a dizzyingly fresh sound with subtle scents of bunna (coffee in Amharic) breezing through the music’s notes.
At the forefront of this musical explosion was Mulatu Astatke, the legendary jazz musician, who expertly meshed jazz and traditional Ethiopian melodies with a sprinkle of Latin-influenced rhythms. The result: Ethio-Jazz, a sweepingly beautiful sound of a certain unique tonality.
Buda Musique has released 29 Éthiopique compilations to date with gems on gems throughout the collection, ranging from traditional Ethiopian music while some focus on specific genres or highlight the works of certain artists such as Alemayehu Eshete, Asnaketch Worku, Mahmoud Ahmed, and Tilahun Gessesse. None of the compilations within the series feature the more contemporary synthesizer-based Ethiopian pop music.
The Éthiopiques series, made possible by an unexpected but beautiful cross-cultural exchange of extraordinary proportions, has naturally caught the attention of music-heads, audiophiles and producers alike. And with that brief history in mind, I present to you a list of ten modern tracks, all made in the new millennia, that have sampled Ethiopian music, expanding even further the deep multicultural history of Ethiopian, and by extension, all music.
Stream our Apple Music playlist below and read about the individual selections underneath.
1. Nas & Damian Marley "As We Enter" / Mulatu Astatke "Yegelle Tezeta"
Let’s begin this list with a song that has ‘enter’ in its title. Nas and Damian Marley sample "Yegelle Tezeta" by Mulatu Astatke from the 4th Éthiopiques for the track "As We Enter" off the 2010 hip-hop and reggae fusion album Distant Relatives. Throughout the album they fittingly rap and sing about Pan-Africanism, the plight of the continent, and offer ruminations on important social issues.
2. Common "The Game" / Seyfu Yohannes "Tezeta"
The first single from Common’s 2007 album Finding Forever was "The Game" featuring DJ Premier. Produced by Kanye West, the track samples Seyfu Yohannes’ "Tezeta" from the 1st Éthiopiques CD, which is translated to “remembering or nostalgia” from the Amharic. Kanye skillfully chops up the sample, intersperses the track with scratches and adds gritty drums for Common to rhyme about the perils of "The Game" over.
3. K’naan "ABC’s" / Mulatu Astatke "Kasalefkut Hulu (From All The Time I Have Passed)"
Somali-Canadian rapper, singer and songwriter K’naan’s first single from his 2008 Troubadour, "ABC's" featuring Chubb Rock samples Mulatu Astatke’s "Kasalefkut Hulu" from the 4th Éthiopiques album. K’naan adds some obligatory braggadocio and raps about the violence and lack of opportunities in his homeland and by extension poor areas across the world, from ghetto to ghetto backyard to yard.. The chorus has children singing “They don’t teach us the ABC's/ we play on the hard concrete/ all we got is life on the streets.” "ABC's" also samples Chubb Rock’s "Treat ‘Em Right" from 1991.
4. Cut Chemist "Adidas to Addis" / Mulatu Astatke ft. Belaynesh Wubante & Assegedetch Asfaw "Alemiye"
Cut Chemist, a DJ and producer, who did a concert with Astatke back in 2009, samples the Astatke joint featuring Belaynesh Wubante and Assegedetch Asfaw for his 2012 track "Adidas to Addis." Cut Chemist adds a fast and funky breakbeat, stutters portions of vocals, and moves the tempo up a notch bringing the track into break-dancing territory.
5. Madlib "Mighty Force" / Alemayehu Eshete "Yebeqanal"
Madlib, the prolific West Coast beatmaker who recently produced Kanye West’s "No More Parties in L.A." for the much anticipated Waves album, samples Alemayehu Eshete’s "Yebeqanal" off the 22nd Éthiopique offering for his track "Mighty Force," which can be found in his 2007 tape Medicine Show No. 3—Beat Konducta in Africa. The track is short, rounding off at the minute mark, but it bounces with some gritty snares that punctuate the Eshete sample.
6. The Gaslamp Killer "When I’m in Awe" / Mahmoud Ahmed "Bemen Sebeb Letlash"
The Gaslamp Killer’s 2010 song "When I’m in Awe" featuring Gonjasufi samples Mahmoud Ahmed’s Bemen Sebeb Letlash off the compilation's 7th offering, which exclusively features tracks by Ahmed. The sample is for the most part untouched, and only has minimal changes from the original. No fancy flipping, chopping, or pitch changes.
7. Songs Featured In Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers
Not only did producers sample Éthiopiques but filmmakers also utilized songs from the series. Jim Jarmusch used multiple Mulatu Astatke songs for the French-American deadpan comedy drama starring Bill Murray, Broken Flowers. Here’s a favorite of mine, "Gubelye (My Gubel)" from the fourth Éthiopiques offering. The song has a smooth and melancholic air, perfect for a chill Sunday, but be warned: it'll have you in your feelings, as Astatke songs are known to do.
8. Jay Z "Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)" / Menahan Street Band "Make the Road by Walking"
Although not Ethiopian, the Menahan Street Band is heavily influenced by Ethio-Jazz and Mulatu Astatke in particular. Jay Z’s song "Roc Boys" samples the band’s "Make the Road by Walking." A listen to the track and you’ll quickly notice the Astatke-like grooves the Menahan Street Band employs. The band, which was formed in Bushwick, Brooklyn was inspired to name their debut album for the social justice organization Make the Road, which is located in the neighborhood.
The compilations have spawned inspiration across the world. Upon hearing Éthiopiques 13: Ethiopian Groove—The Golden Seventies, Either/Orchestra, a jazz group, was inspired to incorporate the Ethiopian sound into their music. The band was eventually invited to play at the Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Ababa in 2004, the first non-Ethiopian musicians to do so and the first U.S. big band to perform in the country since Duke Ellington did in 1973.They also were featured in a Buda Musique-released Éthiopiques DVD. Here is them performing "Eyeye."
10. K’naan "Somalia" / Tilahun Gessesse "Yene Mastawesha"
I’m gonna go ahead and add one more song by K’naan who seemingly has a special place in his heart for Ethiopian music, not surprisingly as his homeland of Somalia borders the country. An ode to his place of birth, the song Somalia samples Tilahun Gesesse’s Yene Mastawesha which can be found on the collection’s 17th offering.
11. Oh No’s Dr. No's Ethiopium
We're going to end the list with a bang. Not a song but a whole damn album. Oh No, the Oxnard producer and younger brother of Madlib, made a whole project using samples from Éthiopiques. A follow-up to Oxperiment, Stones Throw records released Oh No’s Dr. No’s Ethiopium in 2009. The beat tape samples an array of the Ethiopian music from jazz to folk, psychedelic rock to soul. Here’s his track "Soul of Ethiopia."
Make sure to check out the whole Éthiopiques series.