There's something magical about African music. Sure, each country has its own styles. But, regardless of the country, classic African artists like Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, and Ali Farka Touré create music that can hypnotize. It's easy to get pulled into the polyrhythm and call and response. At some level, many African musical cultures have an ecstatic feel, where the players and the listeners all immerse themselves into the songs. This is music that demands movement and rewards focus.
Gigi Shibabaw, a singer transplanted from Ethiopia to San Francisco, follows in this rich tradition. She got her break in 2001, when Bill Laswell produced her album Gigi. Backed by a pack of famous jazz players, she stood out based on her strong, warm voice. Now married to Laswell, Gigi continues to produce beautiful and wonderful music. Her latest, Mesgana Ethiopia, features Laswell's latest Material lineup. This is a live recording of a show in Austria from last year. The sound is great and the set reflected a nice potpourri of styles.
Baty eases into a dreamy, ambient beginning, sounding a bit like Carlos Santana's jazzier work. There's a call and response feel between Gigi's phrasing and the solos. The overtly African feel doesn't kick in until Mesgana Ethiopia's second song, Gudfela. This has a perfect in-the-moment feel that recalls Fela Kuti. Gigi's voice is compelling, with a storytelling cadence. The jazzy African style is tight: repeated guitar figures, complex syncopation from the drums and percussion, and washes of horns. The band has some great energy here. The jazzy horn work at the end is perfect.
Throughout the rest of the set, Gigi's voice is complemented by African pop mixed with jazz or R&B. The main exception to this is the traditional Ethiopian sound of Tizita and Zerafewa, which ditches most of the band to focus on a vocal duet, backed by simple percussion and a quavering fiddle-like instrument. This is a case where I really wish I understood the lyrics. This leads into the sweet Ethiopia that expresses a loving homesickness.
Gigi's silky voice, fond respect for her roots, and great backup musicians make Mesgana Ethiopia a wonderful CD. I'll skip continents, though, to pair this up and offer some chai from India to complement the exotic feel.
Drop by Amazon to hear selections and buy this great album.