Terms like Ethio-jazz and Ethio-groove seem common currency today even in the most vaguely world-inflected corners of the music market. We hear the familiar pentatonic modes, laid-back keys and vibes, and intricate brass in everything from the works of master percussionist Mulatu Astatke to Brooklyn's wordlessly funky Budos Band, from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv to Boston and beyond. Thanks mainly to Buda Musique's Éthiopiques series, such sounds evoke an imagined golden age, a simpler time of silver-throated singers and gloriously sophisticated funk.
Of course, it's not unusual to take music from the past and reframe it in the present, whether through direct reprints or thoughtful reinterpretation. Frederiksberg Records shows us both cases with a vinyl and digital reissue of Sons of Ethiopia, one of the few – if not the only – known record of Ethiopian-American music from the 1980s. Originally released by Washington, DC-based group Admas in 1984, Sons of Ethiopia fills in a distinct gap between the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie I (whose later years, despite marketing buzz, were marked by a good amount of corruption and stasis rather than being a widespread golden age) and today's revivalist and revitalist movements in global Ethio-jazz.
Like many, the members of Admas came to DC as refugees during the Derg military junta's war-torn reign over their home nation. Among similarly displaced countrymen in DC, they made a kind of music inflected not only by their backgrounds, but by their current time and place: a synth-heavy melting pot of Ethio-jazz (itself ultimately a mixture of Ethiopian and American sounds), highlife, dub, samba, and even local go-go.
As the album opens, it does so at perhaps its most straightforwardly Ethiopian. "Anchi Bale Game" has a gloss that lends itself well to the backgrounds of restaurants like the one at which Admas had already established a residency. Cool technique – Henock Temesgen's bass is a quiet star behind the stellar keys of Tewodros Aklilu and Abegasu Shiota; Yousef Tesfaye's drums are here, as elsewhere, softly and subtly powerful – makes the twentysomething musicians sound like longtime veterans. "Bahta's Highlife" follows a lighter, brighter piece that incorporates the classically West African titular genre.
"Tez Alegn Yetintu" is ready to become a mainstay of quiet storm format music beds, while "Kalatashe Waga" leans on cosmic disco beats. The hearty reggae of "Wed Enate" sees the band at its most straightforward, and "Samba Shegitu" takes the Afro-Latin influences always present in Mulatu's Ethio-jazz and puts them at the forefront. The album ends with "Astawesalehu", the album's only piece with vocals, which, though a tad over-processed, allow Admas to restate their roots once more.
Sons of Ethiopia isn't quite a classic, nor does it have a timeless quality – there are far too many sonic elements that belong to a certain time and space. The album's approach is unique enough to ensure it stands out. This is an album that captures not just the product of exile, but a moment of relocation. Admas' performance is both laden with cultural heritage and subject to the needs of a modern-day audience in equal measure, and 36 years later, it's a history lesson for us – and a reminder of how history, politics, geography, and expression are and will always remain inextricable.