The Prester John Sessions (Easy Star Records, 2010)
Enjoy a musical road map of Ethiopia, and discover a musical Eden full of treasures as Gogol Bordello bass man, Tommy T, inspired by the legend of Prester John, leaves the harsh punky Balkan sounds behind as he explores his Ethiopian roots in The Prester John Sessions.
Tommy T puts the music of Gogol Bordello firmly to one side and in contrast to both the bright blue and orange graphics of the sleeve cover and the harsher punk stylings of the Bordello brand of Balkan pop, we find a lush, well rounded, rolling album that fuses some of Ethiopia’s many musical forms with jazz, reggae and dub that you’ll want to play it over and over again. Its softer and perhaps more accessible than last year’s offerings of Ethiopian Dub / Jazz fusion from Nick Page’s ‘Dub Colossus in a Town called Addis’ and more focused, less psychedelic and meandering than Dan Harper’s ‘Punt’.
Tommy T has immersed himself in everything Ethiopian, legend, architecture as well as the musical influences from Wollo, Gondor, Omoro, The Imperial Bodyguard Orchestra, Tilahun Gessesse and in this album he proves himself not only as a great bass player but an original composer and a sensitive re-arranger of traditional Ethiopian music. He’s also gathered some fluid musicians around him, The Acoustic Roots Collective who move weave seamlessly in and out of organic roots, reggae, dub and jazz in what I believe could be a contender for the fusion albums of the year.
The opening tack, ‘Brothers’ starts with a jazz feel, of the Blue Note variety and quickly introduces the sinewy sound of the one stringed instrument, the Massinqo played by Setenge Satenaw. Not too dissimilar in sound to Juldeh Camara’s riti, for want of comparison. It’s played as a secondary instrument, giving the track its traditional texture and anchor whilst the horns and keyboards gently build up, creating the first full taste of what’s in store.
This instrumentation is repeated in three further tracks. ‘The Eighth Wonder’ an interpretation of the music from the Wollo region, referencing those magnificent churches of Lalibela, ‘Beyond Fasiladas’ an interpretation of the music from the Gondor region and home of some incredible castles and also in ‘Tribute to A King’ where Tommy T acknowledges that the horn section borrows heavily from Tilahun Gessesse known as the King of Ethiopian music.
A couple of other standout tracks both have motif’s of love, loss and union. ‘The Reponse’ which features vocals from Gigi is just one of the most engaging and gorgeous slices of Ethiopian blues that I’ve heard, as our lead protagonist in the track answers the ‘The Call’ and acknowledges the struggle made by her admirer and confesses her love for him. ‘September Blues’ opens with the sultry sax of Jorga Mesfin lamenting the loss of his love against a back drop of static crackle of the 78rpm variety as a woman leaves her man on the eve of the Ethiopian new year.
Gigi returns for the final track Eden which also has some great horn blasts. Bordello fans needn’t feel let down, there’s the bonus track, ‘Lifers’. An exciting, full on, rocked out, dubbed up remix of Omoro Dub with crispy horns, metronomic drumming and additional lyrics and the instantly recognizable gruff vocals of Bordello front man, Eugene Hutz reuniting Tommy T with his band members in a final celebratory blow out.
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By Jill Turner of GondwanaSound.co.uk
Author: Jill Turner
Jill Turner contributes to Songlines Magazine, World Music Central and is on the fRoots critics albums of the year panel. Her radio show GondwanaSound broadcasts on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM to the fourth largest city in the UK and is carried on both Radio Groovalizacion and African Internet Radio.