Samuel Yirga's musical life so far has been full of obstacles: social restrictions, family regulations, hurdles thrown up by the reality of life. Yet in the face of all of this, the young and gifted pianist who grew up in the capital of Ethiopia and the centre of the heady mix of music known as Ethiojazz, has at last had his time to shine.
Bringing contemporary and classical jazz, celebrated pop songs from the golden era of Ethiopian music, traditional Ethiopian rhythms and deeply-felt classical piano undertones, this young man from Addis has opened up a whole new door on a musical genre and region which has already grabbed the interest of many people around the world.
Samuel was just ten years old when he knew he wanted to become a musician. At home he devoured the Ethiopian pop music and American R and B that he heard on the radio and cassettes but he had no encouragement from his parents who were afraid that learning music would distract him from his academic studies. One day, however, he heard that Addis Ababa's Yared School of Music was holding auditions for new students. The following week, at the age of 16, against his parents' wishes and having never touched a musical instrument in his life, Samuel entered the school and, with a coin tapping out rhythms on the top of the piano, breezed through the exams. Of the 2,500 people who took the exam, Samuel came third.
But the struggles weren't over. His parents eventually forgave him but it was one of the school's teachers who put up his next hurdle. "Because I came third in the exams," he says, smiling wryly at the memory, "I was allowed to choose whatever instrument I liked. I chose the piano." But the head of department looked at his hands and said it wasn't possible. "She said my hands were too small. I don't believe in small hands or big hands: music is not about that, music is about what's inside." Samuel was undaunted. Eventually, the school agreed he could study the piano that he'd so longed to get his hands on. And there began a relationship with the instrument that has brought him to musical acclaim in his hometown of Addis and now, with his debut album, to an international audience. He was determined, after all the obstacles he'd already mounted, that he was going to be the best pianist in Ethiopia.
Samuel took to his new instrument with unbridled enthusiasm and dedication. "I would go to school at 6.30am and at 11 pm I would go home. Usually I missed all my other studies and just played the piano on my own. It was really tiring," he laughs, "but it was my dream to be in music, and the piano was what I wanted to play, so that's why I pushed myself so hard." Samuel played like this, for more than 12 hours a day, for three years. "I was so into the music," he says, "that I didn't bother eating."
Samuel played the classical music he was given by his teachers but he also had a growing interest in Ethiopian music, from the popular wedding and folk songs he'd heard as a child, to the Ethio-jazz legends that, in the last decade, had made a comeback. Here he found himself once more in trouble with the school.
"I was playing my own versions of these Ethiopian songs, but the teachers passing the piano room would come in and ask me what I was doing. We weren't allowed to play any contemporary music because it was a classical music school. They would say that Ethiopian music was simple. I was very angry about that, because I'd always had a dream to change my country and its music. I didn't agree with them but I would just tell them that if something was simple, then we should try to make it better. We need to research and experiment."
And experiment he did. By the time the music school asked him never to come back because of his insistence on playing contemporary music, he was playing funk and Ethiojazz with one band, playing jazz gigs at a local club, experimenting with popular Ethiopian songs and creating contemporary versions with another band, and at the same playing salsa and classical music. Wherever his music went, however, he always held the beat of Ethiopian music at its heart. Samuel plays with Addis funk band, Nubian Arc and is a member of the UK/Ethiopian collective, Dub Colossus.
'Guzo' is Samuel Yirga's debut album, recorded in Addis Ababa and Real World Studios. The album is just the start of Samuel's journey, where he has explored Ethiojazz, soul and funk, American jazz, and Latin and classical music. Whilst there are deeply virtuosic piano solos, there are also more upbeat songs which feature guests vocalists The Creole Choir of Cuba, a Cuban choir whose songs go back to their Haitian roots; Mel Gara, a British singer whose origins are in Iraq; and Nicolette, a Nigerian-British singer, famous for her collaborations with Massive Attack. The album is produced by Dubulah (aka Nick Page), the British musician and producer behind Transglobal Underground, Syriana and Dub Colossus.