Sunday, February 6, 2011

Aster Aweke Awakens NYC's Ethiopian Soul

The Queen of Ethiopian Soul still has it!  It's been ten years since the great Aster Aweke graced a New York stage. So one had to wonder. Could her voice still explode in a heartbeat from shimmering, Amharic lyricism into full-on R&B belting? Could she still kick out deeply funky, deeply Ethiopian grooves capable of transforming a dancefloor into a sea of shimmying shoulders? Could she still pack a New York club with Ethiopians for a wee-hours set, and get her fans singing a ballad with the force of a beloved national anthem? Based on Aster's showing at SOB's last Friday (Feb 4), the answer to all these questions is an unequivocal yes. This is, quite simply, ecstatic music, loaded with pent-up spirituality and passion, but somehow light, ebullient, sweet and highly social.  And nobody puts all that across any better than Aster Aweke.

Aster Aweke at SOBs (Eyre, 2011)
We are 20 years beyond the time when Aster had CDs on the mainstream world music market, and made regular appearances around the country from her base in Washington, DC.  (Afropop has fond memories of our program's beginnings in the late '80s, when we produced out of DC's Ethiopia-rich Adams Morgan neighborhood, not far from a restaurant where Aster was a regular performer.  In fact, Aster was one of Afropop's first on-air guests. )  More recently, Aster has returned to Ethiopia and established a new kind of stardom there.  The presence of such an outsize talent in the US was always driven by conditions at home.  Under the oppression of the Mengistu regime, which began bloodily in 1975, Aster was not free to pursue her vision of fusing ancestral traditions with international sounds--especially soul, funk, and R&B.  Aster faced indignities from those who considered such a calling decadent, immoral, whatever...  Time to leave and go to a place where contemporary art is respected.  But once Mengistu's dreary regime fell in 1991, a long process of social, political, and cultural recovery began, and Aster decided to return to Addis and become a part of that national reinvention.

Of course, Aster is not alone in making this choice.  Maestro and producer Abegasu Shiota is another major player in modern Ethiopian music who made the move from DC back to Addis to establish himself as one of the country's top producers.  Abegasu worked with Aster on here latest CD Checheho (Kabu Records).  We picked up a copy at the SOB's show and highly recommend it as a compensation for those who missed this historic concert.  The CD delivers a bracing dose of all the groove, subtlety, bluster, and spine-tingling joy one would hope for from this Afropop legend.  It is excellent.  Find it on iTunes, and watch this site for a full review. 

But back to the concert.  Aster was backed by a small band, the obligatory saxophone and keyboard creating the melodic and harmonic accompaniment--no guitar, other horns or traditional Ethiopian instruments.  One could have hoped for a fuller band, but this outfit was certainly solid, and kept the focus very much on Aster with her playful moves, and titanic voice.  The show drew an almost entirely Ethiopian audience, many of them too young to have attended Aster's 1990's concerts.  Despite good PR, there weren't many non-Ethiopians in the mix, perhaps because the music didn't start until almost 1AM.  Aster's first set ended sometime after 2, and there was more to come when Sean Barlow and I turned in.  This is how it goes with the best Ethiopian concerts.  To get a sonic and spiritual jolt of this intensity, you've got to be willing to sacrifice a night's sleep.  This crowd was more than happy to do it.  They sang along, danced, waved their arms high, and shouted out in ecstasy early and often.   This was a collective experience of authentic East African ambiance rare in New York City.  Here are some more images from this long overdue show.  Let's hope Aster is back soon and often.  She's a giant of her country's august musical heritage, and she's been too long absent from American stages.

Banning Eyre

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