Bringing Ethiopian Grooves to the Rest of the World

Tommy T - The  Prester John Sessions
Tommy T – The Prester John Sessions
Tommy T

The Prester John Sessions (Easy Star Records, 2009)

The Prester John Sessions is the debut album of Tommy T, one of the most interesting and significant musicians in the current Ethiopian music scene. Tommy T was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. He is now based in the United States, where he plays bass for Gogol Bordello. I have to admit that I find Tommy T’s Ethiopian groove style much more appealing than Gogol Bordello. "In the 70s, funk, wah-wah pedals, and jazz had a huge impact on Ethiopian music," Tommy explains. "The Prester John Sessions will give people an idea about the musical diversity of Ethiopia, which includes influences and ideas borrowed from the sounds of the 70’s with the added bonus of up-to-date production values."

The title of the album makes reference to the story of Prester John. Tommy T read about Prester John in Graham Hancock’s book The Sign and the Seal. “Hancock was looking for the Biblical Ark of the Covenant,” Tommy says. “His quest led him around the world, from Middle East to Europe and back to Ethiopia. While doing his research, Hancock discovered the legend of Prester John. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Prester John was an unknown Christian king with massive troops that got the attention of European kings. Prester John is the character I use to symbolize the man who will bring Ethiopian culture to the rest of the world.”

The Prester John Sessions is a state of the art recording that brings together Ethiopian roots, dub, jazz jams and funk elements. The band involved in the recording is known as the Abyssinia Roots Collective includes Tommy T on bass and organ, Mikias Abebayehu on drums, Zakki Jawad on guitar, Beniam Hussien on keyboards and organ, Andrea Fabbri om saxophones and David Sislen on saxophones. Guest  vocalists Gigi (Palm Pictures) & Eugene Hutz (Gogol Bordello). The most interesting material are the pieces that introduce Ethiopian music roots, such as the two pieces with Gigi and several cuts that feature the massingo (an Ethiopian stringed instrument).

A lot of popular Ethiopian music is based on a 6/8 beat called chikchika, but there are also many other rhythms in Ethiopia that have their own unique characteristics," says Tommy T. "I play with The Abyssinian Roots Collective on the album. They are sometimes known as The ARC, which coincidentally ties into the Ark of the Covenant and the Prester John story. We’re mostly Ethiopian, so getting the music down was easy. I gave them the tunes, and then we improvised the arrangements so the music has an organic feel.”

Tommy T composed and produced the music, along with his brother Henock. The tracks were written at Tommy’s home studio, cut live in studios around Washington, DC, and overdubs were laid down in real time with a final mix by Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, Gogol Bordello).

The Prester John Sessions fizzes with energy and is a serious contender for African album of the year.

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