In the 1960s, Ethiopia prided itself on its hip, cosmopolitan clime as well as its leading role as one of the nonaligned nations clinging to neutrality during the Cold War. The capital city of Addis Ababa was a fashionable stopping point for the international jet set, and as the country took on worldly airs, Ethiopians hungrily devoured American and European pop culture. Meanwhile, national releases were limited to party tapes and anniversary albums produced for the political elite by the state-run record monopoly. Maverick entrepreneur Amha Eshete decided to take a gamble and disobey the government, figuring that the leaders might toss him in prison for starting his own label but that he wasn't likely to lose his life. Fortunately, he was right. Although the state label huffed and puffed, it eventually let things slide, opening the way for a musical explosion that captured the sounds of the wild Addis Ababa nightclub scene.
Currently up to eight volumes, the Ethiopiques series collects the best records from this golden era. The best-known performer in the series is Mahmoud Ahmed, whose sumptuous 1975 album Ere Mela Mela was reissued in Europe during the late '80s and became a world music holy grail (Volumes 6 and 7 of Ethiopiques document Ahmed's trance-inducing soul/jazz/belly-dancing blend). Other Ethiopian artists had a rougher time of it. Mulatu Astatqe, a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, tried for years to build a jazz scene in Ethiopia. While he made several fascinating albums (compiled on Volume 4), no one else in the resolutely tradition-oriented nation seems interested in picking up on Astatqe's innovative music.
African pop fans may be bewildered by the unique sounds in this series. Ethiopian musicians were stubbornly patriotic and culturally distinct from the rest of the continent, and never incorporated the Afro-Cuban rhythms that musicians of other countries favored. But as the latest collection in the series, Swinging Addis, documents, they did get into some seriously heavy soul grooves. The Ethiopiques compilations highlight one of the most unique, challenging, and sensuous styles of dance music ever produced -- a sound that is sly, slippery, and designed for world-class booty shaking.