Addis Through The Looking Glass

Dub Colossus, 2011

"The aim", says Nick Page, the musician and producer best-known as Dubulah, also founding member of Transglobal Underground and Syriana, "is to constantly surprise."
The new Dub Colossus album, Addis Through The Looking Glass, does just that. It's a new departure in the band's remarkable history.

Dubulah first travelled to Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa in 2006 to collaborate with musicians and explore traditional Azmari styles, 60s Ethiopian pop, Ethiojazz and 70s Jamaican Dub Reggae. There he came across some amazingly talented artists - female vocalists Tsedenia Gebremarkos, a fine, soulful performer and highly successful African pop star, and Sintayehu 'Mimi' Zenebe who runs a nightclub in Addis and has been described as 'Ethiopia's Edith Piaf', extraordinary young pianist Samuel Yirga, veteran saxophonist and jazz exponent Feleke Hailu and Teremage Woretaw, a traditional folk singer, an azmari, an exponent of the one-stringed messenqo violin - Dub Colossus was born. When their first set, A Town Called Addis, was released back in 2008 it was hailed as one of the most inventive fusion albums of the year, with its blend of contemporary and traditional Ethiopian styles, jazz and dub reggae. Now comes a lengthy, even more varied and sophisticated album that moves the experiment on - with the Ethiopian contingent playing a greater role in the proceedings. It's still an experimental fusion set, not a straightforward recording of Ethiopian songs, but the successes of the past two years have led to growing trust and confidence in the band.

"This time they were saying to me "we'd like to show you our take on it, rather than you interpreting us", explains Dubulah. "It was a good exchange. They would come up with the subject matter, and ideas for the next phase of the group. And I'd transport some of their ideas into another world". As with the first album, recording took place mostly in Addis Ababa, where a local musician Abiyou Solomon, who plays bass on the album, lent the band a room in his house to use as a studio, "and it was brilliant - there were three cupboards which we could use as vocal booths, or put the horn section. It all worked well apart from the sound of rain on the roof - the rain hits very hard in Addis".

There were further sessions in the UK, where another set of musicians became involved. They include the reggae singer Mykaell Riley, famous for his work with Steel Pulse, Jamiroquai's drummer Nick Van Gelder, the Horns of Negus brass section, bass work from Dr Das of the Asian Dub Foundation, and double bass from Bernard O'Neill, who works with Dubulah in the Arabic-influenced Syriana. As for Dubulah himself, he plays guitar, bass, harmonicas and keyboards, produced the set, and co-wrote several of the songs.

The result is an album that constantly surprises and constantly changes direction, from atmospheric, wide-screen, drifting jazz-dub instrumentals like the title track, through to breathy love songs from Tsedenia, and bluesy traditional pieces featuring the messenqo fiddle or traditional krar harp, now treated to a Dub Colossus make-over, with spacey, microtonal keyboard effects added on the otherwise sparse Yigermel. For Dubulah "it's a beautiful song that reminds me of someone sitting on a hillside at night up in Gondar, in the north of the country, looking up at the sky with a fire going. I've got traditional recordings of the track, but there was no point in just providing a traditional Ethiopian Azmari album".



Songs like Kuratu, a soulful, thoughtful piece about the sometimes secretly dominant role played by women in Ethiopia, sung by Tsedenia, showcase the inventive piano work by Samuel Yirga, whose solo album, produced by Dubulah, will be released on Real World later this year and promises to be a superb mix of Ethio-jazz, solo piano and soul. Guragignia, a live show favourite, which features lead vocals by Mimi, is a ferociously funky Ethiopian song which sounds like a blue taxi going at full speed with no brakes during rush hour in Addis Ababa.

Then there's reggae, of course, from the jazzy, brass-backed Dub Will Tear Us Apart to the gently sturdy Wehgene, featuring Mimi's sister Tiruedel. There are also two Ethiopian-flavoured re-workings of great Jamaican reggae classics. Satta Massagana, originally recorded by The Abyssinians in 1976, is now treated to lyrics in both English and Amharic, with fine brass work from the Horns of Negus, while Althea and Donna's Uptown Top Ranking, a number one hit in the UK two years later, is given a similar multi-lingual treatment. It's a song that proved massively popular in the UK during the band's live shows, and Dubulah was naturally keen to record it "though Tsedenia was the only one of the Ethiopian musicians who had heard it before."

Mixed in with all this there's one other key influence, the jazz styles that became so important during the 'golden era' of Ethiopian music back in the Sixties and early Seventies; music that is now rightly popular among Western fans, following the success of the Ethiopiques compilations from the period. This was the time of Emperor Haile Selassie, a fan of brass ensembles and jazz - though not the reggae so beloved of the Rastas who deified the ageing ruler! - when some of the country's greatest players could be heard performing with the Police or Army Band, or the Imperial Bodyguard Band. It was a music scene that collapsed during the repression of the Mengistu regime, when many musicians fled to work in the West, but is now recovering. "For twenty years there were no brass sections in Addis", said Dubulah, "but now a whole new jazz-flavoured live scene has emerged there".


One of the best new horn sections are the Bole Better Brass, session players who regularly work with Feleke Hailu and Samuel Yirga in Addis, and can be heard on two tracks here. They are featured on a driving instrumental treatment of Feqer Aydelem Wey, an instrumental treatment of a song by the Ethiopiques star Ayelew Mesfin, and again on the album's final track, Gubeliye. Written first by Feleke, who adds an assortment of different brass and reed instruments, and then finished by Dubulah, this is a driving piece that's very different to anything else on the album, an experimental "soundtrack to the madness of Addis" that mixes big band styles and dub, with sturdy brass work matched against an equally sturdy bass line.

It provides a powerful ending to a set that marks yet another landmark in the colourful and wildly varied career of Dubulah, whose interest in reggae started when he played in a school reggae band in Hackney, east London. Since then he has "spent time trying to be an avant-garde composer and failing miserably, living in a squat in Stepney with one cold water tap and large rats", before working with reggae star Mykaell Riley "so I went from trying to sound like Bartok to playing in the style of the Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse!". He moved on to form Trans-global Underground with Tim Whelan and Hamid Man Tu, recording six albums with these world music mavericks, famous for mixing beats with a wide array of global influences, before leaving to form Temple of Sound with Neil Sparkes. Along the way he became a prolific producer, working with the likes of Natacha Atlas.

Dub Colossus - expanding to a mighty 12-piece live band - will be playing WOMAD Charlton Park this summer (29-31 July), with more dates to be announced soon. This may have started out as a studio-based project, but Dub Colossus proved that they are also a rousing live band known to transport audiences to the sultry clubs and pounding dancehalls of Addis Ababa with their intriguing and exuberant mix of traditional Ethiopian sounds, sturdy reggae rhythms and a modern dub twist, simultaneously familiar yet fresh, with echoes of such diverse acts as The Abyssinians, Sun Ra, Tlahoun Gesese, Pablo Gadd, Hirut Beqele, Dick Dale and King Tubby.

Reviews

  • Number 3 in No Borderz top 10 albums of 2011 Noborderz.com (Netherlands)
  • Album picks of 2011 One of the great fusion albums of the year. The African Report (UK)
  • One of All About Jazz's 10 best releases of 2011 All About Jazz (UK)
  • One of Afropop Worldwide's top ten albums of 2011 Afropop Worldwide Online
  • Number 3 Best Album 2011 - The Guardian Critics Choice Robin Denselow - The Guardian (UK)
  • Addis Through The Looking Glass voted number 5 in the Sunday Times top 100 world albums of the year Sunday Times (UK)
  • Adventurous horns and funky organs with cool reggae rhythms... Heaven (UK)
  • ...another mighty cross-cultural blend... Dub Colossus follow up to their debut with another mighty cross-cultural blend of Ethiopian jazz and traditional music, dub reggae and hot brass. Addis Through The Looking Glass continues the evolution of this startlingly original collective and, thanks to the driving instrumental 'Feqer Aydelem Wey' and 'Gubeliye', an unlikely mix of big band jazz and dub that closes the album, it leaves the doors wide open for the next chapter. Rock N Reel (UK)
  • Live review from WOMAD Charlton Park Festival 2011 ...a brimming cauldron of Ethiopian music and dub that ranged from a solo on the messenko (an ancient one-string fiddle) to Mykael Riley singing the Old Testament reggae "Satta Massagana". Samuel Yirga...added jazzy improvisations that threatened to burst out of the set (and did, when he played his own concert elsewhere during the festival). But "Uptown Top Ranking", with horns bright and hard and PJ Higgins's punctuating squeals echoed by the crowd, was lock-tight. The Financial Times (UK)
  • Live review from WOMAD Charlton Park Festival 2011 Younger faces did shine through [such as] Dub Colossus mixing up vintage Ethiopian jazz with dub and funk. The Telegraph (UK)
  • Live review from WOMAD Charlton Park Festival 2011 The most atmospheric performance area was the Radio 3 stage, surrounded by trees where many of the most intriguing acts of the weekend could be seen, including the reggae-Ethiopian mix of Dub Colossus... The Arts Desk (UK)
  • ...a versatile album. The brassy jazz-dub finale is a particular highlight... This record is a blending of traditional songs, featuring the massinko fiddle or Krar Harp, and will remind you of the golden era of Ethiopian music in the 1960's. All in all, an intriguing, inspired set. whatson.co.uk (UK)
  • An intriguing combination... of Reggae and dub and ethiopian music masterminded by Dubulah Jazzism (NL)
  • Live from WOMAD Charlton Park Festival 2011 ...more experimental African fusion work came from the UK-Ethiopian band Dub Colossus, with a kaleidoscope of influences ranging from brass-backed Ethiopian dance songs to a revival of reggae classics including Uptown Top Ranking, and inspired keyboard jazz from the young Samuel Yirga. The Guardian (Live review) (UK)
  • ...jazzily atmospheric... ...Nick Page, aka Dubulah, creates wonderfully lush and evocative soundtracks to films that don't exist. From the jazzily atmospheric title track to an Abyssinian folk take on Uptown Top Ranking, this takes you on a widescreen journey through a pleasantly edgy Ethiopia of the mind. Telegraph (UK)
  • ...inventive, exciting...sophisticated...involving... Nick Page and his long list of seasoned collaborators from London and Ethiopia never stop being inventive, exciting and involving in the most sophisticated and sexily sinuous manner. Nine times out of ten, albums that last more than the old LP length of 45 minutes outstay their welcome. Not this one...nothing sounds affected, mired in cliche, or in the least bit forced. Songlines Magazine (UK)
  • ...the second outing brings the collaboration to a richer fruition. Jazz-dub grooves, brassy funk, raspy one-string violin, classic reggae, and those extraordinary wayward Ethiopique vocals, make for as compelling a fusion of styles as you will hear all year. Guragigna is a hurtling dancefloor express, Wehgene a soulful rocksteady...Add in impassioned chants and stirring ballads and there's something for everyone in the audience. Irish Times (Ireland)
  • ...there's even more stylistic diversity throughout this record than its predecessor. ...Addis Through The Looking Glass contains plenty of head-nodding rhythms, scorching horns, rapid-fire flute solos and elemental, Amharic-language female vocals...excellent covers of The Abyssinians' roots-reggae anthem Satta Massagana and Althea & Donna's conscious reggae smash Uptown Top Ranking. And while Dub Colossus cook up Kingston-quality riddims and trance-inducing percussive assaults, there's even more stylistic diversity throughout this record than its predecessor. Rave Magazine (Australia)
  • The confident set regularly blends its styles into an exotic mix. This second album sees the collective come of age with a unique and unpredictable fusion of traditional reggae roots, Ethiopian jazz, middle-eastern mysticism and afro-beat. Coming from the Real World label, it's no surprise that this album is well produced and with high ambitions....it avoids cliché and focuses on the wider, more extraordinary musical styles from the continent. At a time when the world's eyes are focused on the events of the Arab Spring, the North African/Middle Eastern influence seems especially poignant....skilled jamming. Such musicianship hints that that the live Dub Colossus experience will be a much hotter ticket. Where the album really dazzles is in the vocals, which are otherworldly and shimmer like a distant desert mirage...This is a sturdy, functional and impressive collection that achieves its goal. MusicOMH (UK)
  • Addis Through The Looking Glass is one of fRoots top ten favourites ...remains fresh and at times surprising. This is a proper album, varied and worth getting to know over time. fRoots (UK)
  • This storming sound hits WOMAD in July. Dub Colossus is a collective of Ethiopian musicians working with Western musicians fascinated by the richness of the Ethiopian sound. A Town Called Addis...was their striking debut in 2008 but this is better, probably thanks to their live concerts. There's a strong reggae influence, but it's songs like the punchy Guragigna that stand out, with great vocals by "the Ethiopian Edith Piaf", Sintayehu Zenebe, underpinned by a piano ostinato and a muscular horn section with great sax solos. This storming sound hits WOMAD in July. London Evening Standard (UK)
  • ...perfect Ethiopian tradipop... There are moments in Addis Through the Looking Glass that feels like revelation...perfect Ethiopian tradipop... SvD KULTUR (Sweden)
  • ...more sophisticated ...Addis Through The Looking Glass is a more sophisticated, diverse and challenging album, with a stronger element of surprise. It's certainly deeper rooted in the distinctive hybrid soul/jazz/pop and traditional Azmari style that permeated the 'Ethiopiques' sound of the '60s and '70s, while retaining the dub reggae component. The opening title track sets the tone. An uncompromisingly jazzy instrumental work, it crackles with Addis Ababa allure, with just a hint of Latin in the mix. Later in the set, the driving big band piece 'Feqer Aydelem Wey' is equally arresting. "Mimi" Zenebe's extraordinary voice commands attention in the brass-backed 'Dub Will Tear Us Apart'. Tsedenia Gebremarkos's sweeter style haunts the soulful 'Kuratu'. Rhythms (Australia)
  • ...immaculately performed fusion... The collective remain cross-cultural...Their crossover comes off best on the spooky call-and-response of Yigermel...immaculately performed fusion... The Metro (UK)
  • ...woozy narcotic ambiance within. ...while their satisfying first set felt tentative, this appears much more their baby, with the talented musicians of Addis Ababa taking charge. The Catchiest hooks are on their version of Uptown Top Ranking. This is no novelty collection but a serious fusion of jazz and dub. The Times Playlist (UK)
  • ...mesmerising effect. ...Nick Page's multiculti project takes the process one step further. A follow up to 2008's A Town Called Addis, the sessions throw a multitude of influences into the mix before lighting the blue touchpaper. Simmering, jazzy horn arrangements, uncomprising vocals from Sintayehu "Mimi" Zenebe and Mykael Riley and the insistent pulse of the rhythm section combine to mesmerising effect. Sunday Times (UK)
  • The dub work all through the album is excellent, sympathetic and subtle In the car, all windows down and the sun beating down, this was fabulous and I just wanted to turn the volume up and up... The title (and opening) track is a wonderful exploration of a jazz groove with horns that veer in and out of the front line alongside the most insistent bassline, a real sense of wonder and awe. 'Dub Will Tear Us Apart' is also in a groove... The dub work all through the album is excellent, sympathetic and subtle - Dubulah at his best I think - and musically this is generally wonderful with some great use of traditional instruments as well as western - 'Tringo Dub' I adore and 'Yezema Meseret' - and fine jazz improvisations all through. Special mention should be made of their version of 'Uptown Top Ranking' which is a complete reimagining of the number. This is a properly grown up album from Dub Colossus and in some respects much more advanced than previous offerings... The Musicnews.com (UK)
  • ...epic and confident new set. ...fusion of Ethiopian jazz and traditional styles, dub reggae and wide screen, and atmospheric instrumentals. Africanised reworking of of Satta Massagana and the Althea and Donna hit Uptown Top Ranking, but the best tracks are those that sound the most Ethiopian. The driving and edgy Guragigna, with sturdy vocals from Mimi Zenebe and the African R&B instrumental track Feqer Aydelem Wey, featuring the Bole Brass, are updated reminders of the golden era of Ethiopian music in the 1960's...jazz-edged piano work of the brilliant young Samuel Yirga. An intriguing inspired set. Guardian (UK)
  • ...similarly ripe-for-the-pickin' ...fusion of Ethiopian groove, dub, jazz and space twang. Remakes of late 70s classics from Joy Division and Althea and Donna give a good indication of the breadth and taste on offer. Daily Mirror (UK)
  • 'Ethiopia coming through'... 'Ethiopia coming through', goes the shout on Dub Colossus's reworking of "Uptown Top Ranking", and that might be the theme for the whole album. Financial Times (UK)
  • Well-crafted, passionately felt, and highly recommended... Who would have thought, when Ethiopiques launched in 1997, that Ethiopian music would come up to bump like this, going on 15 years later? All About Jazz (US)
  • "Ethopia coming through!" indeed. An even more cohesive and enjoyable mix of dub reggae, jazzy would-be movie music and Éthiopiques-style funk and balladry. The Independent (UK)