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Éthiopiques, Vol. 17: Tlahoun Gèssèssè

Tlahoun Gessesse

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Album Review

It's easy to wonder about the liner note proclamations that Tlahoun Gèssèssè is "the Voice of Ethiopia." If he's the man, why wait until Vol. 17 to dedicate a full disc of the exemplary Ethiopiques series to his '70s hits? It's not that Gèssèssè isn't a strong, expressive singer, but his voice is thinner than Mahmoud Ahmed's. That may boil down to a pop vs. roots soul/blues debate, since the arrangements here are very controlled and in the pocket. It sounds more like genuine Ethiopian pop music in the sense of well-crafted professionalism without many rough edges, so maybe Gèssèssè rates as "the Voice" by virtue of his ability to reach a mass audience. Another possibility could be that Gèssèssè latched onto his groove thing and worked it. Bookended by "Sego Mènor" and "Ras-Hen Betcha," at least half a dozen tunes here are peppy, uptempo Ethio-pop with answering horns, soul-style guitar comps, organ blankets, and Gèssèssè occasionally cutting loose but usually playing it cool. The ballads "Lantchi Biyé" and "Sethéd Sekètèlat" may be the strongest selections musically, with a very deep, dark moody aura created by minor-key piano, vocal melisma, and an up-and-down rolling bass riff. "Yèné Mastawèsha" is a lightweight pop ballad with a near-Indian feel, and "Sèlamtayé Yedrès" dips into the classic soul ballad bag with trumpet responses. The songs that leap out are the ones that sound different, and usually on the rougher or rowdier tip. "Aykèdashem Lebé" sports rapid-fire jazz-inflected guitar soloing through a more complex arrangement, punchier drums, and stronger horns playing off Gèssèssè's affecting melisma. "Ené Nègn Wèy Antchi" falls closer to his usual vein, but it's a pretty happening uptempo James Brown sound with a roving bassline, snappy horns, and the drums chop-funking up a storm. "Kulun Mankwalèsh" gets some of that smoky Ethiopian trance mojo working via a repetitive riff, wah-wah guitar, and flute for spice. Stronger horns adorn the looping octave drop riff to "Tezalègn Yètentu." Tlahoun Gèssèssè doesn't impress as a particularly daring artist on these tracks, more like one who found what works and stuck with it, relying on excellent craftsmanship and pop professionalism to get over. Early Motown on an Ethiopia-scale might be a reasonable analogy. There's a lot of good music here but also moments when attention flags and whole tracks pass by without registering, something uncharacteristic of the better volumes of Ethiopiques.

Biography

Genre: World

Years Active: '70s

Tlahoun Gèssèssè was Ethiopia's premier pop singer during the era of Haile Selassie's reign as emperor — dubbed "the Voice," his music channeled influences spanning from traditional African folk to American funk to free jazz, enjoying phenomenal commercial success that bridged ethnic and linguistic divides. Gèssèssè was born September 27, 1940, in Addis Ababa to an Amhara father and Oromo mother, a lineage that was essential to his pan-ethnic appeal. At 14, he was sent to live with his grandfather...
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