Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Nov 16th 2010 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
Of course, if it happens it will be in Addis Ababa. The singer known as Gigi is trying to make plans to return to her native Ethiopia (where she was born as Ejigayehu Shibabaw) for the first time since she left in 1997, hoping to play a concert in the capital on Jan. 7 – the Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas.
When she left, she was just an aspiring performer. But after settling in the US – first in San Francisco and later New York – she became a sensation in world music and beyond, endorsed and encouraged by fellow Ethiopian expat Aster Aweke, signed by Chris Blackwell (the man who built Island Records and turned Bob Marley into a global icon) to his Palm Pictures label and produced by eclectic innovator/bassist Bill Laswell (who later became her husband). It's a rise that, she has been told, those at home followed with great interest. This would be the first time she'd gotten to perform for her Ethiopian fans.
"I really became famous after I got here," she says, talking from her Manhattan home. "I made one record there, but it came out after I got here. I'm not sure, but from what I've heard from people I have a huge following there. A lot of people know my records."
Whether you can go or not – whether she can go or not – you can get a taste of what it might be like, as Gigi has just released a live album, 'Mesgana Ethiopia,' her first in-concert collection and her first of any kind in more than four years. The band behind her sports international jazz and traditional music frontliners (the latest edition of Laswell's Material, including adventurous American drummer Hamid Drake and Senegalese percussionist Aiyb Dieng, Ethiopian-Japanese keyboardist Abegasu Shiota, Zaire-born guitarist Dominic Kanza and a two-man horn section). And with her voice a fluid, powerful instrument, Gigi revisits and recharges songs from her studio albums, along with a pair of earthy traditional Ethiopian songs and one previously unrecorded original, 'Shemum Mune.'
Gigi, 'Shemum Mune'
The Addis gig, though, would be a bit different.
"I've been thinking about it," Gigi says. "To be able to do what I have to do there, maybe I'll incorporate some of the musicians from there, too. And it's a holiday, so people might want to dance. Might probably do some songs not on my records, traditional songs, the most popular ones that people like. I'm not really known for dance music or disco. But I want them to have fun. So I'll think about putting some of that in."
Not that she's normally dour or anything. The music on the three studio albums she made with Laswell, starting with 2001's stunning 'Gigi,' is rooted deeply in the traditions of her childhood in the Northeastern Ethiopian town of Chagni and sung in Amaharic, yet are decidedly modern and original (note the official descriptor on the back cover: "Electric Ethiopia – One World Music"). Even with the wide exposure we've had in recent years to Ethiopian music via the comprehensive 'Ethiopiques' series on the Buda Musique label, Gigi's style stands apart, with her and Laswell drawing on a truly global range of sounds – jazz, dub, pop, unclassifiable ambiences – and bringing in such innovative musicians as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Pharaoh Sanders and Karsh Kale to craft the settings.
"In terms of traditional music, I'm not really in tune with is," she says. "But I like very popular traditional songs, songs everybody knows. I don't see myself as a traditional singer. There are modes I'm very good at, and I can do some of the traditional tunes, things I grew up with. But the culture has a lot more to give than what I do with traditional music."
Still, the vibrant, focused arrangements of the band on the live album, running from the supercharged 'Mata Mata' to the stripped-down 'Ethiopia,' reveal the strong ties to the land she left. The Horn of Africa is at the center of the musical map, even on such decidedly original compositions as 'Shemum Mune.'
"It's a love song in a way of Ethiopian tradition to say something about a nice countryman," Gigi says of the new one, given a buoyant full-band treatment here. "Not just a love song but universal, kind of saying nice things about an Ethiopian man, dressed up no matter what, always looks nice and beautiful and handsome."
"And he brings everything alive around him."
Did she have anyone specific in mind when she wrote it?
"Not really," she says, but another burst of laughter keeps the question open. "I don't remember."
That's most explicit ties are heard in 'Tizita and Zerafewa,' a medley of two actual traditional tunes performed as a duet by Gigi and Shiota, accompanied only by percussion and Shiota on the mesinko, a one-stringed bowed fiddle. 'Tizita,' she explains, and the original opening song, 'Bati,' both take their titles from the modes in which they are written – two of the four modes/scales that are utilized in most Ethiopian music.
"It's a song about a memory of love," she says. "I grew up with these songs. I don't remember when was the first time I heard it. But what I'm doing is a version like I heard. Most of it or all of it is traditional as people sing it there. Some is probably taken from Aster a little, style-wise. But it doesn't sound like Aster. It sounds like Gigi when I sing it."
The second part, 'Zerafewa,' offers another side of tradition.
"That's a traditional war song," she says. "Singing kings' names and nations' names. It's kings' names of the past and the wars they fought."
This pair serves as a hint of what might be to come. Gigi is planning to make an album entirely of traditional material. But as she gets ready for the possible return home, the most pointed song on the new album may be the one simply titled 'Ethiopia.'
Originally found on the 2003 album 'Zion Roots,' with Gigi featured in an acoustic setting as part of a group billed as Abyssinia Infinite and released by the German label Network Medien, the song in the live version is compelling, hypnotic, her entrancing voice accompanied just by flute, percussion and a little sax. It's a performance tied inextricably to her love for her homeland and her continued affection for the sounds and spirituality of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
"It started as a political song, but also telling about Ethiopian beauty," she says, recalling that it was written and recorded when she was pregnant with her son. "The mountains, how beautiful the valleys are. And telling people to feel good. Not feel bad about the poverty in the country. Whatever governments come and go, they don't really buy our laughter and cries. Just singing about hope in Ethiopia. You can avoid feeling oppressed and believe in your heart that they don't own you. Everything comes from people's belief in themselves."
The melody and the praise for the qualities of the country and its people, she says, also comes from the tradition of such war songs as 'Zerafewa' with their listing of the virtues of kings and warriors.
"That's the reference it comes from," she says. "But I'm not singing a war song. It's a hope song."