Swinging Addis

Ethiopian pop was killed off by dictatorship, but left a rich and eccentric legacy.

Ethiopian pop was born not in a smoky downtown nightclub, but in the unpromisingly austere corridors of an Orthodox monastery. On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1924, Ras Tafari - soon to become the emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings and Lion of Judah - met a marching band of young Armenians orphaned in the recent Ottoman massacres. After a brief consultation with the Armenian Patriarch, he shipped the "Arba Lijoch" ("Forty Kids") back to Addis Ababa and installed them as the imperial band. Trumpets, trombones and military music arrived, colliding with the traditional krar (lyre) and begena (King David's harp).

Unlike its West African cousins, the weird, haunted music that resulted has remained largely unknown in the west. In the 1960s and 1970s, while Accra, Bamako and Dakar were turning out perfect R'n'B pop songs, soul ballads and full-on psychedelia (collected on the recent Luaka Bop CD Love's a Real Thing: the Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa), Addis musicians were playing downbeat jazz overlaid with the snake-charmer discordancies of traditional Ethiopian vocals. The music's eccentricity may have saved it from "nomad chic" or "global fusion". Now, its undeserved obscurity is challenged by The Very Best of Éthiopiques, the French collector Francis Falceto's pick of what was originally a 22-CD series of 1960s and 1970s Ethiopiana.

The story - or myth - traced on Éthiopiques is partly one of historical accident. Mountainous, anciently Christian, fiercely insular and the only nation in Africa to escape colonisation, Ethiopia has little in common with its neighbours. Its adoption of 20th-century saxophone, trumpet and guitar intruders was slow and suspicious. Independent western-style groups were banned, but the emperor's favourite Armenians were allowed to train approved (and salaried) institutional ensembles: the Imperial Bodyguard Band, the Army Band, the Police Band, the Municipality Band and the Haile Selassie Theatre Band.

But not even Selassie could fend off American jazz, R'n'B and pop. By the 1950s, the Imperial Bodyguard Band was moonlighting as a dapper, tuxedo-clad, Glen Miller-style set-up. Then, in the mid-1960s, 6,000 US Peace Corps volunteers arrived bearing (besides more essential gear) flares, miniskirts, guitars and Stax and Motown records. Soldiers from the US army base at Asmara, now the capital of Eritrea, lent out their records and played jazz in bars around town. As the ageing emperor's grip on power weakened, institutional musicians skipped off after work to play new-style jazz, funk and soul in the nightclubs of Addis. For a few years, for a few Ethiopians, their capital swung. Then, in 1974, the Derg military dictatorship closed the clubs, instituted a curfew that lasted 17 years, and killed Ethiopian pop stone dead.

Éthiopiques's tale of the rise and fall of Swinging Addis is an exercise in nostalgia - a mind- set so Ethiopian, that it has given its name to the country's own version of the blues, tezeta. Mulatu Astatqe's "Tezeta", "Yekermo Sew", "Yekatit" and "Gubelye" are tezeta with a jazz twist: slinky, skewed instrumentals punctuated by mournful sax solos. Astatqe was the first Ethiopian musician to train in the west (in New York, where he played in Harlem clubs), and his "Ethiojazz" is the most polished and cinematic music of this collection. It is also - uncoincidentally - the best known in the west, after Jim Jarmusch used it on the soundtrack to his 2005 study of one man and his past, Broken Flowers.

But the nostalgia of Éthiopiques is not simply atmospheric. Having struggled their way out of the imperial-era institutional bands, the country's big stars faced, from the mid-1970s, censorship, intimidation and exile. Falceto's liner notes make sad reading: Girma Beyene "sank into the limbo of the anonymous Ethiopian diaspora"; Bahta Gebre-Heywet "gave up singing to become an accountant at the Ambassador Cinema" in Addis; Ayalew Mesfin "left some years ago to try his luck in the USA"; Tewelde Redda "lives as a refugee in the Netherlands"; Muluqen Mellesse "emigrated to the United States and abandoned his career to embrace Pentecostalism". A few still scrape a living by playing at weddings or the Ethiopian restaurants around Washington, DC, a shadow-world described in Dinaw Mengestu's recent novel Children of the Revolution.

The musical remains of their "golden age" (which Falceto estimates consists of "500 seven inches and 30 LPs") are eccentrically varied. Typically recorded with a couple of microphones in the clubs, they are also rougher-edged than Astatqe's urbane arabesques. Mahmoud Ahmed's "Atawurulegn Lela", "Fetsum Denq Ledj Nesh", "Metche New" and "Ere Mela Mela" - the first Ethiopian song that Falceto released, in 1986 - are nasal, powerfully sung anthems. Alemayehu Eshete borrows his grunts, snarls and chuckles from James Brown, while Getatchew Mekurya translates old war cries into manically over blown saxophone solos on "Shellela".

These are defiantly urban styles, but there are also traces of Ethiopia's traditional music, largely played by azmari, the slightly disreputable minstrel class famed for its satirical wordplay and skill with the krar. One of the best tracks on Éthiopiques is Tewelde Redda's Eritrean independence song "Milenu", a mesmeric mix of loping, hitching beat, blurred bassline and a tangle of lyre and guitar. It's sunny and surprising, and a reminder that Ethiopia's answer to western music was more than picturesque melancholy.

"The Very Best of Éthiopiques" (Union Square/ Manteca) is out now

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time