Samuel Yirga, 2012
Guzo is the debut release of young Ethiopian pianist Samuel Yirga. Against the odds, Samuel found his way to music school in Addis Ababa and despite still being in his 20s and only having left music school relatively recently, he has developed at a pace remarkable for someone of his age. He has gone on to become one of Ethiopia's most promising young musicians and composers and in recent years, Samuel has gained wider international recognition through his touring and recording with Ethio-fusion group Dub Colossus.
The title, Guzo, means "journey" in Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia. Recorded partly in Addis Ababa and partly in the UK at Real World Studios, it is the product of his years experimenting with the music of his roots and the outside influences of American jazz (particularly Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock), Latin, and classical music. It explores the traditional musical history of Ethiopia, the more modern Ethiojazz that has brought his country's music to international attention, ventures into big-band brass ensembles, moves through soul and funk, and then simmers with the deeply impassioned solo piano tracks. Whilst the solo piano pieces are introspective and deeply felt, Samuel has enlisted some great singers and instrumentalists from Ethiopia, Europe and the Caribbean. Featured vocalists are 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.
While Sammy has been influenced by American jazz and funk, he also wanted to record some tunes which showed the great range of traditional music in Ethiopia. On these tracks, which he recorded in Addis Ababa, he was joined by some of the country's best young traditional instrumentalists.
"His world is opening up," says Dubulah (aka Nick Page), the British musician and producer behind Transglobal Underground, Syriana and Dub Colossus and also producer of Guzo, "He's feeling his way around and this recording is a statement of where he's intending to go and what he has to offer. I think the result will surprise people."
'Guzo' is both bold and sensitive. It is the start of Samuel Yirga's musical journey and a platform to showcase the extraordinary skill as both musician and composer of this emerging young talent. The album's roots might be firmly in the Ethiojazz of Samuel's homeland, but this young man from Addis has opened up a whole new door on a musical genre and region.
1. Abet Abet: is a traditional love song which features the raw and melodic notes of the Ethiopian one-stringed fiddle, the messenqo. Recorded in Addis, Sammy is accompanied by some of Ethiopia's best young traditional instrumentalists.
2. Tiwista: this is another well-known Ethiopian song and means 'nostalgia'. The tune is arranged with Sammy's own jazz-influenced base line. The melody is led by a subtle but powerful saxophone which weaves in and out of the piano through the track.
3. Ferma Ena Wereket: This tune's title means 'We don't need paper to love each other'. "Everyone can sing about love," says Sammy, "but the way you describe it is what's important." This track is a controversial statement about marriage.
4. Ye Bati Koyita: - a solo piano piece. The title means "A Time in Bati" - Bati is a town in northern Ethiopia, and also the name of the musical scale Samuel plays. Always the innovator, Samuel plays it not with the original time signatures in which it was written, but swapping between different timings to keep the tune fresh. The result is a mature, intricate take on an old Ethiopian melody which ripples with classical and jazz influences.
5. Nou Se Soleil: - Vocal introduction to I am the Black Gold of the Sun, sung by The Creole Choir of Cuba.
6. I am the Black Gold of the Sun: This song features guest vocalists The Creole Choir of Cuba, Nicolette and Mel Gara and is a re-working of the 1970s psychedelic soul classic. The three sets of vocals are underpinned by the funk-laden chords and flourishes of Sammy's jazz-infused piano playing. Page chose the song to cover because of Sammy's love of 1970s and '80s American music, and brought in those artists because together they told the story of a journey from Africa to the Caribbean, via the Middle East and Europe. The song brings with it the sunshine of the Caribbean, carried by the uplifting rich vocals of the Choir, as well as the urban tones of the British-based singers.
7. Dance With the Legend: a solo piano piece, which takes its inspiration from a song by Ethiopia's great singer Tilahun Gessese. The tune swings with a lilting rhythm and ripples with classical and jazz influences.
8. My Head: Recorded in the UK, with the regular Dub Colossus horn section, this track is an upbeat latin number.
9. Drop Me There: This piano solo written by Sammy features three of Ethiopian music's distinctive melodic scales and was written at Real World Studios last winter. "It was very quiet there," says Sammy of his time at Real World, "so I could really feel every note when I played."
10. The Blues of Wollo: Based on a famous Ethiopian song called Ambassel, featuring both traditional and modern instruments. Recorded in Addis, with wonderful keening vocals from Genet Masresha.
11. African Diaspora: featuring and co-written by Nicolette, African Diaspora is a melancholic song which demands "Africa, why are you letting your people leave?" The song reverberates with muted horns and the gentle tones of Sammy's piano playing.
- ...young Ethiopian pianist who blends his soul and jazz influences with music of his homeland. (Guzo) stacks up well next to the best music of swinging Addis. His three solo piano pieces show huge range: "Drop Me There" is crystalline and delicate..."Dance with the Legend" is as fluid as Keith Jarrett in Koln. Downbeat 4 **** (USA)
- No. 2 in Rhapsody's Top 10 World Albums... Sometimes an album just takes your breath away. Swirling together contemporary jazz and Ethiopian grooves with a graceful boldness and elegant subtlety that makes this Addis Ababa-born pianist's youth hard to believe, Guzo lures you in from the first creeping... Rhapsody (Online USA)
- Yirga's debut offers surprise after surprise. Samuel Yirga is a pianist from Ethiopia whose debut record "Guzo"sits somewhere in the fertile ground where jazz mingles with R&B and funk to create soulful beauty. ...Yirga's appetite is big, and each surprise within Guzo renders easy comparisons useless. Yirga's debut offers surprise after surprise. Los Angeles Times (USA)
- CD of the year...Otherworldly jazz from young Ethiopian pianist with dizzying potential This is both a bang up-to-the-minute album, but also a throwback to the glory days of Ethiopian jazz in the late 1960s and 1970s... the balance of instrumentation between brass, percussion and piano is a thing of wonder. ... the potential is dizzying and his joy in playing transmits wonderfully to the listener. The Arts Desk (Online)
- one of the most exciting and innovative jazz players in the world. (Samuel Yirga's) classical sensibilities fused with the native folk sound has made this young artist one of the most exciting and innovative jazz players in the world. Huffington Post (USA)
- Samuel Yirga: A Prodigy Reviving Ethiopian Jazz Yirga has had to fight for his right to be himself, and in the end, the voice and vision of a distinctive composer shines through in this impressive debut. NPR Music Online (USA)
- ...masterfully produced... ...his new album Guzo is a talented blend of sounds...and sparkling cameo performances. The Africa Report (UK)
- ...fierce debut...an essential purchase for anyone... who has fallen for the jazzier end of the ethiopiques spectrum. Among the highlights here - the swinging groove of My head...and I Am The Black Gold of the Sun. Mojo (UK)
- Powerful and beautiful...9 out of 10 Stereoplay (Germany)
- ...Yirga should be an exciting prospect to discover for any jazz fan. One moment he's pouring out emotive, classical jazz, the next fusing traditional Ethiopian sounds and Ethiojazz with sparse piano and elements of funk, or working alongside soulful guest vocalists. Loughborough echo online (UK)
- ...rich beyond its measure. ...some outstanding jazz soloing... The Weekend Australian (Australia)
- ...an enjoyably diverse set as leader. Guzo ranges from ruminative solo piano to the ebullient party blast of My Head... The Creole Choir of Cuba join him for an epic take on the psychedelic soul groove I Am The Black Gold of The Sun. The Times (UK)
- Guzo - Track 5 on Songlines Top of the World ...It's not often that one is greeted by such a strong debut, so effortlessly shot through with intelligence and creativity. ...a project that successfully takes the tunes and arrangements of Ethiopia's much-documented golden age and updates the into a modern setting, consolidating their originality and power in the process. Songlines (UK)
- ... it's a great introduction If you're already a fan of Ethiojazz, this is as good an indication as any of its new direction and if you're unfamiliar with the genre, it's a great introduction. The Morning Star (UK)
- Dub Colossus's young Ethiopian pianist is an incandescent talent. The Independent (UK)
- Summer anthem? Recon so. (I am the Black Gold of the Sun)...some sublime vocals from The Creole Choir Of Cuba.. Echoes (UK)
- ...His talent is remarkable ...influences of blues and funk clearly audible in the slower parts, while the frantic rhythms gripped listeners with anxiety. Spaceship News, Perth (Live review from The Ellington Jazz Club) (Australia)
- ....an impressive album. The Guardian (UK)
- ...accomplished debut. Yirga draws on his country's best-known musical currency - the dark flavours of Seventies Ethio-Jazz - on this accomplished debut. The Daily Telegraph (UK)
- ...solo mixture of abstraction and funky jamming ...solo mixture of drifting Monkish abstraction and HeadHunter-styled Hammond and Rhodes funky jamming. 'I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun' benefits from the Creole Choir Of Cuba's blissful gospel singing. The Financial Times (UK)
- Impressive debut from Ethio-jazz pianist - 7/10 Twentysomething Yirga is a man on a mission - to become Ethiopia's greatest pianist. He's surely halfway there. The best tracks here align him convincingly with the rediscovered 'Ethio Jazz' of the 1960's - "Twista", with its funky one-string fiddle, both entice. Uncut Magazine (UK)
- Incredible ... this album has absolutely blown my socks off! Gilles Peterson - BBC 6 Music (UK)
- An impressive debut album that attests to the originality of its author. Guzo, the debut set by Ethiopian pianist Samuel Yirga, is such a set. In short, this is an impressive debut album that attests to the originality and expressiveness of its author. BBC Music Online (UK)
- It goes without question that Yirga has talent...Yirga is a performer. ...his debut solo album Guzo is sure to launch him straight into the forefront. It goes without question that Yirga has talent; every track demonstrates virtuosity and jazz know-how....Yirga is a performer. The album oozes with feeling and heart. Every track is so full of artistic sensibility that it's hard not to be sucked up in the performance. ...piano solos like 'Yeh Bati Koyita' and 'Drop Me There', which are painfully beautiful. ...rarely is an album able to bring it's audience along for a passionate ride, full of ups and downs. Guzo does exactly that. And if Yirga can perform with such spirit on an album, I can only imagine what it would be like to hear him live, something I am definitely looking forward to. NOMAD's Playlist (Australia)
- ...melodic themes that touched the heart. Though sparingly unleashed, his deliberate, eastern-inflected solos were thoroughly transporting. The frantic final selection, 6 and 4, married a northern Ethiopian mode to a southern rhythm...propulsive interplay with bassist Yoseph Hailemariam Bekele and star drummer Nathaniel Zewde sounded like top-flight funk in anybody's language. The Age & The Canberra Times (Live review from Comedy Theatre, Melbourne International Jazz Festival) (Australia)
- ...one of the most thrilling bands on the world stage. His opening solo piece was staggering in its invention, facility and narrative skill. He led us through a fantasia of idioms, drawing on Ethiopian, jazz, Cuban, funk and classical...with the ease of one with a deep understanding of the convergence of their essences, rather than the disparity of their surfaces. On Tiwista his improvising was seismic in its power and transporting in its range... Feleke Woldemariam (tenor saxophone), Nathaniel Zewde (drums) and Yoseph Hailemariam (electric bass), musicians worthy of Yirga's singular gifts. Woldemariam played with a fluttering quality to his notes...suddenly the commonplace tenor saxophone became exotic and carried immense emotional sway. The explosive Abet Abet...Rhythmically the piece metamorphosed into the sort of funk that would lead some people to lock up their children rather than let them be corrupted by such raw, visceral and wanton music. breathtaking in its intricacy and complexity, while maintaining inexorable grooves. The Brisbane Times (Live review from The Blue Beat Jazz Club) (Australia)
- ...staggeringly brilliant album. Samuel Yirga is a bright new musical flame who shows that Ethiopia's rich jazz heritage is still alive and thriving in his young hands. Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
- One of the world's more remarkable young pianists is a 26-year-old Ethiopian who did not even touch a piano until he was 16. ...highly diverse - variously solo or ensemble, instrumental or vocal, 'pop' or not. Guzo includes three jaw-dropping piano-only cuts; they do not imitate Keith Jarrett but are in the same league as his solo flights. Preview - The Weekend Planet Radio (Australia)
- ....Yirga is such an exciting artist ...that deserves the recognition he is getting. Guzo is just a taster of what is yet to come from this talented artist. Musika.uk.com (UK)
- "It has all the ingredients of a masterpiece and certainly those that make it top of my playing list. Great balance between avant garde jazz and sweet r&b vibe in some tracks and those Ethiopian scales... all tracks are outstanding!" JPR at Simply Out Of This World/Covent Garden Radio (UK)
- I feel very privileged to have an early preview of this fantastic album." Juice FM It seems he's pulled out all the stops. His classical music experience shows in his sensitive and thoughtful approach to his solo piano work like Ye Bati Koyita and Drop Me There and at the same time can make a beautiful Charles Stepney tune like I am the Black Gold of the Sun sound fresh yet again. Powerful and dynamic performances on other tracks recorded with the UK and Ethiopian musicians show off his improvisational style but I keep returning to his solo piano work. Thoroughly rewarding album." AfroBase on Juice FM (UK)