Samuel Yirga is a talented, young jazz pianist from Addis Ababa. His music is indebted to the “Golden Age” of Ethiopian music, that funky mish-mash of Western jazz and East African folk styles that was popular in “swinging” Addis before the 1974 Communist revolution. However his style is even more cosmopolitan, grabbing at all sorts of Carribbean rhythms and inflections as well as the work of modern jazz players. There’s a smoothness to his style that shares an aesthetic with players like Keith Jarrett or George Winston: Yirga’s got a very clean, fluid way about playing the piano that is technically adept and virtuosic. Now, those aren’t the first associations that come to mind when I think about what makes that old, iconic Ethiopian music so cool. Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemeyahu Eshete—those musicians’ “Golden Age” recordings are so gritty and bombastic, played with the funkiest touch. Yirga’s touch is cooler, but that’s the very quality that makes his music an interesting listen. As a teenager, Yirga received classical training in Addis, but he’s got a UK connection. Guzo, Yirga’s solo debut, came out on Peter Gabriel’s label Real World Records, and it was produced by Nick Page (who also goes by Dubulah), the ringleader of Dub Colossus. The record title means, simply, “journey” in Amharic.
“Abet Abet” is the album’s key track. Yirga pounds out a propulsive, brooding vamp on an electric Rhodes piano, which has a murkier timbre than the acoustic piano he plays on the rest of Guzo. A gaggle of brass and a slinky, violin-like instrument called the messenqo deliver melodic counterpoint. “Abet Abet” is the cut on Guzo that’s the most openly nostalgic for the classic, “Golden Age” grooves of yore, but it’s also the song in which Yirga’s approach is at its most focused. Judging by the rest of Guzo, Yirga is overflowing with technical ability. Licks, runs, and flourishes spill from his fingers onto the keys with ease. “Abet Abet” is a tightly arranged ensemble piece where Yirga’s piano-playing is a more atmospheric—simpler lines enriched by the bell-like textures of the Rhodes. His smooth, soft touch sounds soulful but also brings a clear-headed and contemporary vision to Yirga’s strongest influence: fiery, groovy Ethio-jazz. words/a spoto