In downtown Addis Ababa, most nightclubs have a disappointingly generic, western playlist. But on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital, you’ll discover a throng of exciting local producers throwing their own impromptu parties and packing out muggy backstreet bars. Meshing street musician samples and traditional folk sounds with UKG and Burial-inspired beats, they call the movement Ethiopiyawi electronic.
Music equipment is notoriously costly and difficult to get hold of in this part of the world but, recently, modern software like Ableton, along with MIDI controllers and hand-me-down drum machines have become more readily accessible. As a result, scene linchpins Endeguena Mulu (AKA Ethiopian Records) and Mikael Seifu (AKA Mic Tek) are offering their studios and equipment for use to local kids. They encourage them to absorb what they hear around them, while at the same time drawing upon the electronic patrimony of the UK and US. And rather than elevating the EDM sound, they prefer the twitching rhythms of Kode9 and Flying Lotus.
Often consisting of little more than a lyre or lute sample, underpinned by a chopped-up house or garage beat and overlaid with the looped chants of azmaris (folk singer-musicians), the Ethiopiyawi electronic style takes its cues from Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke and South African futurist collective Fantasma in the way that it smoothly blends traditional and modern styles. In a country with more than 80 ethnic groups and 40 native instruments spanning horns, percussion and strings, Ethiopian folk music is inherently diverse.
As such, the Ethiopiyawi Electronic producers recognise that these sounds can be rehoused in such a way that both promotes tradition and creates something new and refreshing. Mulu, for instance, is surrounded by a network of like-minded revivalists, such as acoustic act the Akebulans, reggae outfit Zion Rebels and various woodwind players, who contribute samples to his tracks. “This is my country, my culture, this is what has been passed down to me,” he explains. “Some of these instruments are as old as the history of our country itself, and the essence of the songs and instruments are a guiding force in what I do. These are sounds that are entrenched in who I am as a musician.”
At the same time, he is driven by the urge to create new musical hybrids. “We’re simply trying to make sounds that we ourselves haven’t heard or heard of before, with the tools and knowledge at our disposal. Ethiopiyawi electronic is a music that’s using technology, as well as the limitless, diverse sounds of Ethiopia, to make sounds that explore beyond the realms of our current understanding of music.”
Like many others, Mulu started out with basic sampling software at the end of the 90s, but hadn’t been able to get his material out until now. Washington DC based label 1432 R has become something of an ambassador for the Ethiopiyawi electronic sound, recently putting out EPs from both Seifu and Mulu. The pair also have a joint release in the works under the name Gold & Wax. “What I’m most excited about now is actually playing my music live with traditional instrumentalists,” says Mulu. “There are so many things I want to put out, but live performance feels like the natural next step.”