Ethiopian music legends Mahmoud Ahmed and Ali Birra played two concerts with The JAzmaris to ecstatically exuberant audiences last Sunday. You could safely say that Mahmoud Ahmed is Ethiopia’s most beloved singer and the Playhouse at the Arts Centre rocked like nothing on earth with Melbourne’s Horn of African community on its feet in exuberant homage before the singing even began.
Presented by Multicultural Victoria, the two most revered jazz singers of Ethiopia sang with the band at high voltage – the love in the room was immense with members of the audience leaping on stage to plaster money on the white-suited singers’ heads and in their pockets, sharing a moment of song with them. The concert was unapologetically filmed and streamed by many in the audience – at least those who weren’t dancing and singing in their seats and in the aisles. Ahmed’s signature shoulder shaking eskista moves received whoops and shrieks from the crowd with contagious energy.
The music is loud, energetic, brass heavy and bass heavy, and distinctively rhythmic – Ethiopian jazz employs a big band sound which grew into its own in the 1950s (when Ahmed began playing) when local musicians began blending East African rhythms with western jazz. Now a genre of its own, Ethiojazz is fired by nationalist passion and a mighty joyous sense of freedom having been effectively repressed during an 18 year period of dictatorship by the Ethiopian post-Selassie communist military junta, the Derg (1973-1991). There is scarcely a dancier music on the planet. The genre is well-represented in Melbourne as we’re lucky to have the nine piece band The JAzmaris, highly regarded in the Ethiopian music scene, based here.
Most of this concert, comprising the legends' most well known and well-loved songs, was sung in Amharic but Ali Birra, known as the king of Oromo music, sang a few songs in Somali, along with the song that originally made him famous and gave him his last name: Birraa dhaa Barihe. Birra was hugely influential in the revival of Ethiopia’s Oromo language and music after decades of repression and although he is no longer recording, he makes a point of singing on tour in Arabic, Somali and Harari as well as Amharic and, of course, Afan Oromo.
In a nice surprise Mahmoud Ahmed and Ali Birra were joined on stage by local indigenous legend Uncle Kulthcha Edwards: a treat but a distraction as I wanted to hear more of that golden voice.
Arts Centre Melbourne presents
Mahmoud Ahmed and Ali Birra
with The JAzmaris
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
Date: 14 May, 2017