Bloomington (Indiana), USA – While hip music enthusiasts are digging through record bins for Ethiopian funk and soul of the ’60s and ’70s, a diverse crew of Ethiopians, other Africans, and Americans in New York’s Harlem have created a new sound with positive Ethiocentric rhymes, funky horns, lively percussion and booty-shaking beats.
Bole 2 Harlem, Vol#1 represents the emergence of a new musical identity for the Ethiopian diaspora and a sonic bridge between New York’s uptown “Little Africa” and Bole, Ethiopia’s airport of entry.
Bole2Harlem is the brainchild of American producer, percussionist, and musician David Schommer, who has written and produced songs for the Baha Men, Carole King, and Donna Summer, among others. He and his friends keep a collection of drums at a friend’s French-Moroccan downtown restaurant called L’Orange Bleue. Saturday nights are all about celebration, collaboration between live musicians and the house DJ, and dancing.A range of friends who met during these jam sessions joined Schommer at his 123rd Street studio to create Bole 2 Harlem, Vol#1, including the well-known Ethiopian singer Gigi’s sister, Tigiist Shibabaw, Ethiopian-American Amharic rapper Maki Siraj, Bahia-born percussionist and Stomp cast-member Davi Vieira, cellist Dave Eggar, Ethiopian bassist Henok Tenesgen, and Malian kora-player Balla Tounkara. The result of this spontaneous beat-driven collaboration simultaneously reveals an Ethiopian essence, a multicultural worldview, and an unprecedented modern sound.
Schommer’s father helped start the first university in Addis Ababa in 1950-58, so as a kid Schommer grew up surrounded by the folklore and artwork of Ethiopia. Six years ago, Schommer decided to re-trace his father’s steps, taking his first of four consequential trips to Ethiopia. He traveled with Siraj, already a good friend. The two had an amazing trip, but were disappointed to find that a fringe of Ethiopian musicians were creating mediocre hip hop emulating the West Coast American scene, and not embracing Ethiopian music and culture. Schommer envisioned a much hipper sound that integrated traditional song themes, melodies, and bass lines. The trip also inspired Siraj to start writing poetry in Amharic for the first time in several years. “We wanted to make a new sound for Ethiopia,” says Siraj, “which most people who live outside the country could relate to.”
These days in Ethiopia, the phrase “remix” has a unique meaning. If you step into a taxi in Addis Ababa, there is a good chance your driver will attempt to get on your good side by playing a cassette, and singing along with a well-known song, while improvising his own set of lyrics over the song. The new lyrics might take on social commentary or may simply be humorous, but they will likely have insider references to modern-day Ethiopian life.
The song “Ametbale” takes a page from this lyrical style and gets its name from a significant holiday celebrated in Ethiopia following a four-month fast. The first verse starts out by telling about the traditional ways in which celebrants break the fast: the drinks you have, the clothes you wear, the things you do. But in verse two, Siraj tells how modern day urban dwellers have adapted to the traditions. “Maki wrote from the Addis street experience,” explains Schommer, “just the way the cab drivers would tell the story. The verse says ‘I go get my suit, borrow my uncle’s Benz, and go out to the Gaslight [a popular dance club].’ The guy would never actually say this. He would act like he always wears a suit and like the car was really his. But here Maki is sharing an inside joke about how people try to up their status on this holiday.”
“Hoya Hoye” comes from a children’s song chanted during a holiday similar to Halloween called "Buhe." Kids travel door to door in groups singing this traditional call and response. They pound walking sticks to the beat and take turns singing praises in rhyme to earn coins and bread. “The kid has to be sincere and original in his rhymes to get paid,” says Schommer, who set the tempo of the track based on hearing a young boy in Addis Ababa sing it while shining someone’s shoes. “Every Ethiopian knows this song regardless of tribe.”
The song also points to the influence of Harlem on the project. “I go to my corner bodega and hear the best salsa and merengue,” explains Schommer. “I walk down to the Ital juice store and hear the best reggae. The Senegalese and Malian vendors are blasting their traditional and modern music. Our album has a little bit of all that stuff in there. Some of the songs, like ‘Hoya Hoye,’ are like a walk down the street in Harlem. I heard one of the hat vendors playing an old school break-beat and thought, ‘Of course! That’s the same tempo as Hoya Hoye!’ Then I came upon one of Harlem’s church choirs spilling onto the streets on a Sunday morning. That inspired the opening line of the song that goes ‘Feelin’ alright!’ We used riffs that could be either from the American Blues or from Amharic Tizita. We are open to all the sounds of Harlem and the experiences of Ethiopia.”
“Bole2Harlem is about being from Ethiopia and living in Harlem, in America, around the world,” says Siraj. “It’s a journey, one CD that takes you thousands of miles from one place to another.”
Now Siraj is getting calls from friends in Ethiopia’s capital who are hearing it played in taxi cabs everywhere, one of the best indicators that they have struck a chord. On their last visit to Ethiopia, one cab driver put it plainly, possibly paying the group the highest compliment: “We can’t re-mix this. You’re already speaking our language. There is nothing we can add.”
Buy Bole 2 Harlem, Vol#1.