Samuel Yirga: ”Ethiopian music will be all over the international media”
It has already been 2 years since Samuel Yirga took the international music world by surprise with the release of his mesmerizing solo debut Guzo that made it into our’s and many other’s best of the year lists. Although it felt like Samuel arrived from out of the blue, he had been performing for a few years with the Nubian Arc and Dub Colossus. Still, nobody had expected Samuel to deliver the eclectic mix of Ethiopian jazz, folk and soul improvisations that made up Guzo.
Since the release of Guzo, Samuel has been touring the world extensively and catching up with him has been challenging. But we finally managed to track him down in Addis for a talk about Guzo, his approach to the follow-up album, his musical inspiration sources and his experience performing live in Piassa in central Addis (which we covered in a feature last year on the Swinging Addis documentary). Furthermore, we got the chance to ask Samuel about the challenges and opportunities for young Ethiopian musicians, the lack of sustainability in music groups and projects, the need for more government support to Ethiopian artists and, finally, the future for Ethiopian music.
The reception of Guzo was phenomenal. Were you surprised by the world wide praise you received for the album?
The reception of GUZO was extremely great. I know I worked hard but as a new artist from Africa, I did worry what the response would be. But people really loved it and reviews were great. Medias all over the world have been playing it. I wasn’t surprised but I became so happy and gave me a wider idea what to do next.
Are you working on the sophomore album?
Yes I’m working on just rough ideas for the second album. Though I don’t want to state what the second album will be, but the idea will be another direction on Ethiopian music. The vastness of the culture has been giving me ideas of different projects. Other than the second album of Guzo, I’m working on my vocal album which is a mix of Ethiopian music with soul, funky R’n’B and reggae. I will be singing on this album and it will be an exciting one.
You previously recorded and toured with Dub Colossus. Are there any specific lessons from your time with Dub Colossus that you have used in your solo recordings?
The experience of recording with Dub Colossus was very much helpful for my solo album recording. I’m not talking about the elements in the music but the life of recording. Working with Nick Page gave me a lifetime lessons as a musician, arranger, producer and composer. He is a great musician and great personality. But the music in my album, it’s completely different from the music idea of Dub Colossus.
How was the experience of performing spontaneously at Piazza?
That’s was a completely different experience. Actually I had one experience of playing the piano in London on Liverpool street. There was a piano that they put for anybody to play on it. The Piassa is different. One, the idea of playing randomly was so strange. Because when it’s an announced one, people come deliberately. With this one it’s funny because you see the different reactions of the people. Then, do you expect them to applause or what? That’s also strange. Friends and fans who just saw me playing in the street were surprised. It was clear that the performance was for some purpose because a foreigner with cameras, organizers and such things made it clear. But I was stressed and excited at the same time. I really liked it though.
The last few years have seen several new jazz venues and music schools open up in Addis. How do you see the opportunities for young musicians in Addis now compared to when you started at the Yared Music School?
Oh that’s a really a big change. The reason why we see different young and talented musicians is because of the start of new music schools, venues, festivals and medias. This whole new movement is bringing energy on the musicians side. This is also bringing a change on the awareness of the audiences. Ethiopian music in the coming two or three years will be news all over the international media. Ethiopians should be proud of it and preserve the culture.
I always say that we Ethiopians are talented which is why with a very short time and small opportunities, we see different talents coming out. We start late and the fight with the culture and poverty takes away all that energies. But through all these situations, you see an amazing talent. But I don’t like waiting for an opportunity rather to work hard and attract the opportunity.
In an interview we did with Francis Falceto, he mentioned you as one of the hopes for contemporary Ethiopian music. How do you see the current talent mass in Ethiopian music?
As I said, the whole movement is great. There are lots of talents all over Ethiopia. Actually what we’re referring to is always Addis Ababa but I know there are extremely talented people outside Addis too. However, outside Addis Ababa there are no real opportunities for the talented musicians. It is very difficult for them to join the music industry. We shouldn’t to forget the life situation too. I can say that I see better talents now but we could see very few. Great musicians and producers who used to live outside Ethiopia moved back to their country which brought lots of changes and inspiration for the youngsters.
The other thing is, the music of Ethiopia is getting much acknowledgment in Europe, America and Australia which in some directions brought an awareness on the musicians themselves. However, I don’t see lots of new projects. Or when we see a new project, it vanishes after a year. Sustainability in groups and projects is limited. Recordings must be professional. In order to do all these things, there should be a support from the government and private organizations. The ministry of culture should know what’s is changing and what needs to be supported. Otherwise, with the current life situation, it will be very difficult to stay in the real music business for most of us full time musicians.
One of the most know Ethiopian pianist’s is Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Has she been a source of inspiration for you? And who else do you get inspired by?
I’m sure many of us were inspired of her. We’ve grown up listening to her piano and I can’t describe the feeling of that music. It is like a music from heaven. I don’t know what kind of inspiration she had when she wrote those songs. I had another big inspiration from my most favorite piano player Elias Nègash. Before having any idea about this great pianist, I used to listen to his works. However, before I was a musician I didn’t know who that person was. He is a fantastic musician and full of surprises in his playing.
I have different inspirations from other different musicians. For me, in the history of Ethiopian music, I give the maximum respect for Tèsfayé Lèma. Again for me, what he did for Ethiopian music is top of all. Hizb lè Hizb is the greatest of all projects in Ethiopia. Addis Rumble should write about him.
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