A longstanding musical tradition exists in Ethiopia. This country experienced its own “Golden Age” of music in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Despite the political upheaval and official rejection of arts during the 1980’s, Ethiopia’s musical heritage has remained strong, and more recently the country has bequeathed its rich tradition to the world through singers such as Ejigayehu Shibabaw.
Shibabaw, known popularly and professionally as Gigi, was born in 1974 in Ethiopia but has lived in the United States since the late 1990’s. She has released seven albums since coming to America, most of which have been produced by her husband Bill Lasswell.
Gigi’s music reflects her life in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Most of the material on her albums is original and delivered in Amharic, or in one case Agaw (a local dialect of Amharic), giving the material an exotic sound almost immediately. At the same time, when compared to traditional Ethiopian artists, like Tilahun Gessesse, her music sounds almost tame. This is partly due to its Western production and partly to the sound of the jazz musicians with whom she records. As a whole, her music has a modern, hip-hop sound to it. Yet the modality and traditional rhythms of the Ethiopian heritage are still there, lending a unique flavor to every track.
Although no two Gigi songs sound alike, making it hard to offer a “typical” example of her sound, all of her material is unmistakably “different”, and it’s easy to imagine her Ethiopian upbringing coloring many of her melodies. This is Gigi’s song Ethiopia from her album Mesgana Ethiopia, released in 2010. I would like to note that, after stumbling upon this album, I liked some of the music so much that I purchased it.
The main thing you notice about this track is something it has in common with much Ethiopian music – the accompaniment is constant. No drastic harmonic changes or polyphonic progressions. There is a feeling of peace and nostalgia as Gigi croons one stanza after another, repeating a flowing melody that seems like audible shape shifting. Although the language of this song is completely foreign, with the exception of the title phrase, it doesn’t even matter. The artist’s emotion in writing and performing in honor of her motherland shines through the music.
Also, here is a live jazz track with Gigi singing – a little longer but just as interesting, even mesmerizing. There are other cultural elements at play in this one, such as East Indian, but if anything these add to the general atmosphere. I really like this track.
Of course, one may rightly assume that Gigi has made many a concession to the Western musical tradition in order to obtain the recording and performing deals that she has. But her identity as an Ethiopian artist still shines, and her music remains – at least to me – a form of exotic hip-hop that I plan to continue to enjoy.
Sidenote: I now appreciate a lot of Ethiopian music, thanks to the research for this post. Some of the really old sounding traditional music from the 1940’s and 1950’s is surprisingly good, and the indigenous Ethiopian musical instruments are unique and fascinating as well.