Mikael Seifu – Zelalem (RVNG International, 2016)
Ethiopian artist Mikael Seifu’s album Zelalem, Amharic for ‘eternity’, is his debut album. However, it doesn’t sound like a debut. The musician seems to have an elder’s firm grasp on well layered electronic music. Every single one of Zelalem’s five songs is a walk through intelligent composition and a well-honed ability to communicate musical complexity to a listener.
The album’s sound is ‘Ethiopiyawi Electronic’. It is music that Seifu and other electronic musicians produce and play in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Seifu is a weekly DJ at a lounge named Absinthe in Addis Ababa. His sound in particular’s DNA is that of a fusion between Ethiopian folk music and well-honed skill with electronic music. He studied music in the US before dropping out of college and moving back to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the cradle of human civilization. The very first human, Lucy’s, bones were near the village of Hadar discovered in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the longest settled area known to human history and so has the eldest folk culture. Seifu fuses that tradition of folk music, incorporating instruments, the masinko, and the krar, that have been used for 3,000 years, with a deep understanding and appreciation for a wide range of electronica. He even recorded Azmari musicians, who traditionally play the instruments just mentioned, in order fuse the two traditions well.
The album begins with a hypnotizing 1:49 song “The Protectors.” We hear much less synth then the rest of the album will have. However, the intellectual, if not philosophical, monologue that we hear in the song will be heard again through rap. It would be great to figure out if all of it: the monologues, the singing in what seems to be Ethiopian language (Ethiopians speak many languages) and the raps come together as some sort of story.
His synths sweep us off our feet. “The Solipsist” is a futurist song that is the most similar to the field of electronic music out of all the other songs. A man sings us a pretty beautiful music for a segment of the song. For most of the song however, we hear beautiful fusion where we here drums, synth but also the Krar, a harp like instrument played with ones hands.
“Soul Manifest” is third up. It is luxurious. Its beginning is a spellbinding. Its rhythm, in its entirety, is pure pleasure. It features a rapper named L.A. His raps are philosophical. It also features singing in an unspecified language, which is pretty cool to listen to. However, the songs best part is the rhythm.
Listening to “How to Save a Life (Vector of Eternity)” feels like one is going into a trance. It features the Masinko, a traditional instrument very similar to a cello that one plays with a bow. It feels pretty joyful to listen to the Masinko harmonize with the other sounds. The song actually feels like a Vector of Eternity, to eternal joy or at least eternal self-consideration.
Like “The Solipsist”, the last song, “ዘላለም (Vector of Light)”, is a futuristic sounding song. Without wanting to categorize it, it could belong to what we consider to be Afro-futurism, with includes many Sun-Ra albums. It’s extremely hip and there’s something very elegant about how the song is layered and the song in its entirety.
Zelalem is an incredible album. The album’s best segments are the earthy, traditional instruments heard under a layer of electronic synth. Seiku could work more on his songs lyrics. They are not easy to follow and sometimes a bit too philosophical. Everything else is mastered.