Guzo

Samuel Yirga

Released 09 July 2012

  1. Abet Abet (Punk Mix)
  2. Tiwista (Tinish Mix)
  3. Firma Ena Wereket
  4. Ye Bati Koyita
  5. Nou Se Soleil
  6. I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun
  7. Dance With The Legend
  8. My Head
  9. Drop Me There
  10. The Blues Of Wollo (Dessye Mix)
  11. African Diaspora

Liner notes

Samuel Yirga was just ten years old when he knew he wanted to become a musician. “It wasn’t a case of knowing it or not,” he says serenely of this early musical conviction, “it was just something inside of me that told me I wanted to be a pianist.”

At home in the town of Addis Ababa, the centre of the heady mix of music known as Ethiojazz which was later to have such an influence on him, he devoured the Ethiopian pop music and American R&B that he heard on the radio. Samuel’s wish was to go to music school but he was discouraged by his parents, who were keen for their son to concentrate on his academic studies. By the time he’d reached the end of secondary school, he’d almost forgotten about his early wish to be a musician.

One day, however, he heard that Addis Ababa’s Yared School of Music was holding auditions for new students and the following week, at the age of 16 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.

“Because I came third in the exams,” he says, “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.” He was determined.

Samuel talks about the making of the album

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, though he is still in his twenties, has brought Samuel Yirga to musical acclaim in his hometown of Addis and now, on this 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 11pm 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.

Samuel played the classical music he was given by his teachers —from Chopin to Rachmaninov— 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. However, this led to 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.”

"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 Yirga
Photo credit: York Tillyer

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.

Guzo is Samuel’s journey out of Addis to Real World. Introduced to wider international audiences through his playing with Ethio-fusion group Dub Colossus, Sammy is now exploring new directions as a solo artist. This collection of work is the product of his years experimenting with the music of his roots and the outside influences of jazz, Latin, and classical music. It explores the traditional musical history of his homeland, moves through soul and funk, and then simmers with the deeply impassioned solo piano tracks.

Reviews

  • 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 (USA)
  • 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. The Los Angeles Times (USA)
  • CD of the Year: Otherworldly jazz from young Ethiopian pianist with dizzying potential The Arts Desk
  • [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 (USA)
  • Fierce debut... an essential purchase for anyone who has fallen for the jazzier end of the ethiopiques spectrum. MOJO (UK)
  • Powerful and beautiful Stereoplay (Germany)
  • Dub Colossus's young Ethiopian pianist is an incandescent talent. The Independent (UK)
  • 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. The Weekend Planet Radio (Australia)
  • Incredible... this album has absolutely blown my socks off! Gilles Peterson, BBC 6 Music (UK)

Listen

Credits

Samuel Yirga Acoustic piano, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, MIDI keyboards, Whistling.

Recorded in Ethiopia: Missale Legesse Kebero (tracks 1, 3, 10); Endris Hassan Messenqo (massinko) (tracks 1, 3, 10); Frew Mengiste Bass (tracks 1, 3, 10); Yonas Yimam Percussion (tracks 1, 3, 10); Genet Masresha Vocals (track 10); Tewodros Alula Trumpet (tracks 1, 3); Yishak Dawit Trombone (tracks 1, 3); Aklilu W/yohannes Tenor Sax (tracks 1, 3); Abiyou Solomon Engineer (tracks 1, 3, 10).

Recorded in UK: Ben Somers Tenor & Baritone Saxophones, Flute (tracks 2, 6, 8, 11); Bernard O’Neill Double Bass (tracks 2, 8); The Creole Choir Of Cuba Vocals (tracks 5, 6, 11); Clark Tracey Drums (track 2); Dubulah Guitars, Backing Vocals, Programming (tracks 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11). Feleke Hailu Tenor Saxophone (tracks 2, 8); Greg Freeman Hand Percussion (tracks 6, 10); Jonathan Radcliffe Trumpet, Flugalhorn (tracks 6, 11); Mel Gareh Vocals (track 6); Nicolette Vocals (tracks 6, 11); Neil Waters Trumpet, Flugalhorn (tracks 2, 8); Nick van Gelder Drums, Cuica (tracks 6, 8, 11); Paul Chivers Congas, Percussion Kit (tracks 2, 6, 8, 11); Robert Dowell Trombone (tracks 6, 8, 11); Toby Mills Tambourine (track 6) Claps (tracks 6, 8) Congas, Djembe (track 8); Winston Blissett Bass (tracks 6, 11).

Produced, rebalanced and edited by Dubulah. Recorded and engineered by Abiyou Solomon at Solomon Sound, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Greg Freeman at Real World Studios, UK. Paul Madden at Intimate Studios, UK. Piano solos recorded by Mat Arnold and Scott Barnett at Real World Studios; Toby Mills at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, UK; pod engineer Mat Arnold. Mixed by Mat Arnold, assisted by Owen Shiers and Jamie Brownlow at Real World Studios.

Published by Real World Works Ltd/Bug Music/Copyright Control. Design by Patwa www.patwa.co.uk. Cover image by Kibru Senbetta www.kibru.com. Sleeve notes written by Rose Skelton. Additional photography by York Tillyer and Sebastian Kroeher.

Thanks: First of all thank you God for helping me with everything and being with me in every moment. Ezra Abate is a great teacher, he shaped me to be a pianist. It’s not only piano that he taught me but also theory and to be a good listener. Thank you to Feleke Hailu who helped me in lots of things. He’s also such a positive person. Aklilu Zewdie is the first person who helped me to join the Yared School of Music. Hendeke Asrat was my good friend that supported me by giving me her upright piano. Elias Negash was my big inspiration to work on Ethiopian music. Meseret Berhe was my neighbour and she had a big wish that one day I will be a great singer and she promised to take me to music school, unfortunately, she died before I joined the Yared School of Music. Thank you to Berhanu Degafe who was a good friend of mine and he really inspired me and supported me very much. Thank you to Fasil Yemane I can’t describe how he supported me. Thank you to Brook Alador and Yonas Gorfe. Abiyou Solomon who is a great bass player and a good friend who supported me in many things including recording four of the songs for my album. Thank you to Aliance Ethio-Franciase, the French Embassy, Denis Charles Courdent, British Embassy, Francis Falceto, Kibru Senbetta, Sebastian Kroeher, Samuel Gezahegn, Zekarias Getahun.

Thank you to all my friends and all my fans. Thank you to Amanda Jones and Nick Page (Dubulah). Thank you to Ali Sachedina and Meron Dagnew. Thank you to my mom, dad, sisters and brothers. Thank you to all the musicians and singers who played on my album. Thank you to all my Facebook friends.

Dubulah thanks Justin Adams for the loan of his acoustic guitar and Dickie Chappell for the loan of all manner of things!

Further Listening

  • A Town Called Addis

    Dub Colossus

    Released 13 October 2008

    Dub Colossus collaborate with some of Ethiopia's finest performers. Utilising Azmari and traditional styles as well as the popular singing styles of the 60s and 70s the album seeks to combine the golden years of Ethiopique beats and Ethiojazz with the dub reggae styles of early 70s groups like the Abyssinians and the Mighty Diamonds.
  • Santiman

    The Creole Choir of Cuba

    Released 11 February 2013

    Freedom songs that have been passed down through generations of Haitian emigrants in Cuba are brought to life with vibrant harmonies, lilting melodies and rich, deep Caribbean rhythms. A hefty dose of Cuban flair creates a rich, soulful sound that evokes their proud history of resistance and resilience.

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