‘Artists Are Not Just Entertainers’ | Ethiopian Records On Survival And Togetherness In His New Double EP, WEL
Solidarity, altruism, sharing, putting oneself in another’s shoes are ephemeral concepts in our ultra capitalistic contemporary society which assume new shape and form according to external factors that influence that specific context or reality. We choose which battles to fight and which ones to dismiss, who’s worthy of receiving help and who isn’t, what is privilege and what is not. It feels as if a new hierarchy of oppression has been created—at least in Europe—which depends on the geographical background of the oppressed rather than on their human condition. But how does that change when survival is at risk for society as a whole, when we’re forced to stop and to look inside and outside of ourselves and come up with new ways to cope?
The producer and electronic musician Endeguena Mulu, aka Ethiopian Records, thinks “society should be like a jazz band, we should be improvising, giving space for everyone’s voice, like Cornel West and Jorga Mesfin say” which is, in a nutshell, the ethos behind his forthcoming fifth album, WEL.
Informed and inspired by the concept of Wel “ወል”— literally meaning togetherness, in common or for all of us—that has been particularly dear to Ethiopian Records for years, the double EP will explore the theme of survival in the sense of making space for everyone’s voice to be heard, not in just a symbolic, tokenistic way, but in a meaningful and structural way that gives people power as a means of survival. “As an independent experimental artist, fighting for survival in an imperative way has pretty much been part of my life ever since I decided to go down this path. Both in my own country, region and in the rest of the world, there is no space for me, I have had to fight to get the little space that I have now. What makes this particular time different though is that the fight for survival and that little space I have are under threat like never before, like for many others. So survival is very much the central point of togetherness, there can be no togetherness when there isn’t cultural, structural and physical space for everyone’s voice to survive.”
WEL has been in the making for some time now and it was supposed to be the first work of the artist and his team as an independent record label/event/representation company called WAG and as a creation space by the name GODJO. However, both buildings were put on hold and defunded as a consequence of the covid-19 pandemic and the collective has decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo in order to complete the project by involving listeners in the creation of the double EP —find out more or make a donation here.
Mulu has been one of the most influential figures in the Ethiopian pioneeristic sonic realm for decades. His craft encompasses the most complex array of genres and sounds from both the traditional and the electronic sound palettes as he has recently shown in latest Fact Mag production mix and in his Against the Clock. After three EPs with Washington D.C.’s label 1432 R, his 2018 Ye Feqer Edaye / የፍቅር እዳዬ EP for Warp Records’s dance-oriented subsidiary, and this forthcoming double EP, he is now working on his debut album.
Jamming for hours on Ableton and with the many instruments at his disposal and writing are the main steps of his creative process since he was a teenager. His experimentation with traditional rhythms, sonic palettes and electronic music tools led him to the creation of a new pioneeristic signature sound within the Ethiopian electronic landscape called Ethiopiyawi Electronic. But Mulu has also been collaborating with live instrumentalists for the past 5 years as the collective aspect of creation is fundamental in his practice. “Conceptually what I plan to do is to hire and collaborate with many artists,” he told us “I am a Pan-Africanist who believes in the interest of the majority. Just like Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nukurma, Patrice Lumumba, Winnie Mandela, or Walter Rodney I believe that talks of togetherness that don’t fully try to embrace the majority of Africans or human beings through their diversity are just talk.”
We had an interesting virtual correspondence with the producer to find out more about his sonic universe, his outlook on the Ethiopian and Pan-African arts and music scenes, his new label, events and representation company and his future projects.
GRIOT: You talk about the dream of being an ‘independent East African Azmari’. If I’m correct, in the Ethiopian tradition Azmaris are itinerant musicians who hold a special status in society because their calling is music. Can you tell us more about this concept/tradition? How do you decline this in your work through electronic music?
Ethiopian Records: Azmaris have a dual place in our society: they are both loved and looked down upon. They are loved because of their skill, their music, and at the same time, being an Azmari hasn’t been viewed as something to be for a long time. As a profession it is something that people do not really appreciate. When someone calls you Azmari, it is more often than not in a pejorative way, when Azmari’s artists are what give most people’s lives more meaning than just the everyday redundant capitalistic life, perspective and flavour. Just like in most countries being an artist is both revered and rejected. People love music and art but they don’t really value artists and musicians.
I call myself a Sankarist Electronic Azmari because I am a Pan-African Azmari who wants to spread the word that’s already been out there for millennia. Artists are not just entertainers, they are an integral part of how a society develops and grows. I don’t make music only to push the craft and technical boundaries, I don’t make music only because I love it, it is and will be a part of my daily life until I die, but also because music and art are ways to shape the world by both revealing realities of the world and envisioning new ones. New realities that do not necessarily have the Western neo-colonial gaze in mind.
The concept of Wel “ወል” that you aim to explore musically in your forthcoming double EP is by poet Tsegaye Gebremedhin. Has his work influenced your music before? If so how?
He has, I have first discovered Laureate Tsegaye Gebremedhin in high school when my Amharic teacher had us read his poems, but I truly discovered him with his recorded audio poems and for years I have sampled his voice, his words in my music, in many of my live performances. Wel is actually a concept I have been developing for over 6 years.
Speaking of live performances, I remember attending the most joyful, inspiring gig of my life last year at Fendiqa Cultural Centre in Addis Ababa. What is the music scene in Addis like these days? Where do you see it in 10 years?
Fendiqa for me is one of the places that makes Addis Ababa an exciting city. Fendiqa is “one of a kind” space. I think 10 years from now there should be thousands of Fendiqa like entities all over Ethiopia, we need such cultural hubs focused on expanding tradition and preserving it at the same time.
Other than Fendiqa, the scene right now is frozen like everywhere else, but other than the Ethiopian pop scene and the heavily americanized club scene—even if there are a lot of young artists struggling in their own corners doing very exciting work—I would say that the photography, visual arts scenes for me are a lot more exciting than the music scene. But things will definitely be a lot more alive in the coming years, young musicians are pushing the thread and it is exciting to see where that will lead musically and structurally.
What were your main musical influences growing up? What about now?
The influences are many, from Asnaqech Worku to Tupac or game and film soundtracks, to Kassa Tessema and Ali Bira, to wedding ceremonies or church chants, to so many other things. It wouldn’t be fair to point out just one. In the past few years I have really been leaning towards the works of people like Halim El Dabh, Francis Bebey, The Bellevue Three and many others, and their unfairly undocumented contributions.
Can you name Ethiopians electronic artists we should definitely check out? What about non-electronic music artists?
Eyorr is an Ethiopian electronic artist you should definitely check out. There is also this group Ahadu that I really like, these are two artists moving in non EDM realms. Yony on the Beat is another artist you should definitely check out. Other than that, I like Yohanna Sahle, Mesob Band, Asli Band, Dawit Cherenet, Negarit Band, Chelina, Pamfalon, Iri, Melaku Belay, Ethio Color. There are definitely a lot more artists and you should check them all out. Other than Ethiopian Artists, I really like Rudeboyz, Gafacci, Hagan, Rvdical the kid, Dengue Dengue Dengue and again these are a very few, it is really hard to make a list, I feel it really isn’t fair.
If you could collaborate with any music artist or producer in the world right now, who would it be? Why?
Fela Kuti, Halim El Dabh, Miriam Makeba, Sun Ra, Asnakech Worqu, Umm Kulthum, Bizunesh Bekele, Tilahun Gessesse if they were alive, but right now, musicians like Gash Mulatu Astatke, Noname, Lowkey, Ana Tijoux, Etenesh Wassie, Boubacar Traore, Aster Aweqe, Ali Bira or Hailu Mergia. Also every traditional musician out there from every corner of the world, the list is endless filmmakers and visual artists, Osborne Macharia, Abderrahmane Sissako, Haile Gerima, Lucy Gebre-Egziabher, Fatoumata Diabate. Again there are so many the list could be endless because the vibe of these artists speaks to me.
What other projects are you currently working on or are you going to focus on in the near future?
I am working on WAG, our events and representation company, soon to be a record label and a creation space/studio called Godjo, and I am also working on my debut album.
Find out more about Ethiopian Records’ crowdfunding campaign for WEL DOUBLE EP here.
All images | Photo by Mekbibe Tadesse – All images courtesy of Ethiopian Records
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