Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Yoseph H. Bekele: Ethiopian bass player's fresh start brings musical challenges

Yoseph H. Bekele with horn player Harry Angus. Photo: Eddie Jim
Music may be the universal language, but Ethiopian musician Yoseph H. Bekele shows us cultural differences.
Yoseph H. Bekele was touring with a celebrated Ethiopian singer, US-based Aster Aweke, when he sought asylum in Australia about 18 months ago.
The bass guitar player, who prefers not to say too much about his refugee status, sings of the challenge of beginning again on a new compilation of "Persian hip-hop, Hazara beats, Ethio-pop and Arnhem Land roots and soul".
"If you go somewhere to a new place, it feels
like [you are] being born again," he says, interviewed at the Melbourne home trumpeter friend Harry Angus shares with his wife, Tinpan Orange lead singer Emily Lubitz and their toddler, Louis. ''Everything is new - the language, the food, the weather, the culture."
Angus is best known for his work with the Cat Empire. He collaborated with the musician from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on the song, New Directions, with his band Jackson Jackson, a side project with producer and film composer Jan Skubiszewski.

Bekele and Angus, both 31, met eight months ago through Multicultural Arts Victoria's mentoring program, Visible, in which established musicians collaborate with others from refugee and indigenous backgrounds.
Among those featured on the new Visible 8 CD, 16-year-old Ethiopian Sinit Tsegay wrote her first song with Melbourne singer-songwriter Jen Cloher; Yirrmal, from east Arnhem Land, collaborated with Blue King Brown's Carlo Santone and producer Craig Pilkington; and Hazara pop star Taqi Khan recorded with producer Ivan ''Choi'' Khatchoyan.
"I think it is important to mention that Yoseph is not just a guy who has come here from Ethiopia who happens to play the bass," Angus says. "He has played with the best … Yoseph finds himself in this crazy situation where he is a world-class musician who has to start again."
Bekele has until now written in Amharic, the language of the people of the central highlands of his Horn of Africa homeland. The new song is his first with English lyrics. "Even if you are using the same word in a different language, the feeling is different," he says. "I was trying to express the moment; just what I feel.''
Music may well be a universal language. But he has found some fundamental differences in scales and time signatures. "We are mostly 6/8 instead of 4/4," Bekele says. "That is the difference mostly."
Angus knew some Ethiopian music when they first met. "I had heard a little bit here and there," he says. "I think a lot of people into jazz or funk music and that kind of stuff have come across Ethiopian music because there is the whole genre of Ethio-jazz and all that stuff has become not mainstream but quite popular with musicians in particular.
"When a Western musician hears Ethiopian music for the first time, it is a unique type of music … I didn't realise, but there are lots of scales. Yoseph has explained to me how certain scales are connected to certain feelings. Like we have a major scale and a minor scale, but you guys have heaps of scales. Some of them are sad. Some of them are happy. Some of them are nostalgic, like a yearning feeling."
The two have found much in common and Bekele says he has been welcomed into the family. Angus is confident they will collaborate again. "But at the same time I think it's important for Yoseph to have his own musical journey as well and vice versa. That is what you can do as a musician. You can work on one thing together and then you go off and do something else."