Ethiopian Jazz and Other Stuff You’ve Never Heard Of: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

by Selam

The self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: “Melodic.” On top of his columns, he has published a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.

The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz (World Music Network) Addis Ababa jazz godfather Mulatu Astatke has long cited the diminished scales jazz shares with the Derashe people of southern Ethiopian, who he suggests came up with them before not just Charlie Parker but those jazzbos Bach and Debussy. But where Astatke’s classic period definitely qualifies as jazz, it’s a little misleading to label the most irresistible of Rough Guide’s three Ethiopian comps that way, because for for all its horn sections and understated swing, its diminished scales rarely lean on extended improvisation or small-group interaction. Instead, with seven of the nine tracks postdating the fall of the puritanical Marxist-Leninist Derg regime as well as the Selassie-era recordings documented on Buda Musique’s Éthiopiques, these selections suggest a confident modernity‑-arrangements and sonics fuller, melodicism and harmonies defined and developed. Just to double back on this tentative theory, however, I’ll note that my favorite track is the finale, a thoughtful

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