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Ethiopian Sounds to Be Served With Ribs

July 20, 2008

By Gary Budzak, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jul. 20–Music from the “horn of Africa” will be among the sounds heard at the Jazz & Rib Fest next weekend.

The Either/Orchestra, a 10-piece jazz band from Cambridge, Mass., which last performed in Columbus in 1991, will return with four musicians originally from Ethiopia.

The band’s guests will be Mulatu Astatke (vibes, keyboards), Setegn Atanaw (masinko, a one-string violin), Minale Dagnew (krar, a five-string lyre) and Hana Shenkute (vocals). The band will play on the Bicentennial Park Stage at 8:30 p.m. Friday.

“Most people hearing Ethiopian music blindfolded, so to speak, think that it’s some sort of combination between African and Arabic music,” said Russ Gershon, the orchestra’s saxophonist and leader, in a recent interview.

“When you think of Ethiopian music and have the Either/Orchestra play it, you have the African rhythms, the (Amharic-language) singing, jazzy horn solos and Latin grooves,” Gershon said.

“Both Latin and jazz music come from Africa to begin with. So American musicians, we’re heirs to African music. But on the other hand, Ethiopians have been very strongly influenced by American music, so it really mixes together very well.”

Ethiopia’s former emperor, Haile Selassie, was a fan of military bands, so horns and nightclubs were plentiful during his reign, Gershon said. The communist regime that followed tried to silence the music, but it has since made a comeback.

Gershon said the Either/Orchestra performed in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, in 2004.

The orchestra has incorporated “Ethio jazz,” which Gershon credits Astatke with inventing, into its repertoire and frequently performs with Ethiopian musicians.

The band might play some originals during its 90-minute set, Gershon said, but the Ethiopian sounds have dominated in recent years.

“Ethiopian music has the great African rhythms in it, but it also has strange scales, which we as jazz musicians find to be a challenge.”

Ed Myers, artistic director and production coordinator for Music in the Air, the branch of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department that puts on the festival, remembered the Either/Orchestra from its earlier appearance.

“I got ahold of Russ, and we talked about the possibility of the guest artist,” Myers said.

“That’s something I really wanted to feature as part of it. It does add quite a bit of the flavor of Ethiopia with the instrumentation and rhythms.”

Other Jazz & Rib Fest headliners include the Curtis Fuller Super Band, guitarist Will Bernard, saxophonist David Sanborn, single-named singer Simone, the electronica band the Motet, Eric Person’s Meta-Four, the Maurice Brown Effect, the Afrobeat band Albino and Randy Weston’s African Rhythms Sextet.

“There are a few artists I’m really looking forward to hearing,” Myers said. “The Charles Tolliver Big Band, that’s going to be hot, and (drummer) Dafnis Prieto, he’s going to be here with his sextet. I think he’s great.”

gbudzak@dispatch.com

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