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Artist Profiles: Gigi

Gigi

Egigayehu Shibabaw, better known as Gigi, is a multi-talented singer from Ethiopia. Gigi’s music is inspired by Ethiopian tradition, culture and a sense of heartfelt spiritual freedom music. Her music is a unique blend of African, jazz, slight reggae and futuristic sounds.

Going against her father’s strict traditional wishes and Gigi’s refusal to buy into gender specific roles, she pushed the envelope towards musical freedom allowing funk, hip-hop, West African and South African music and the Ethiopian church (where she sang even though women are not allowed) to influence her work.

Gigi settled first in Nairobi, Kenya and then Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, where she soon established herself as one of the city’s leading singers. Cast in an all-Ethiopian theater production, Gigi toured East and South Africa, and eventually France, where she was invited to perform at a Paris world music festival. She was also involved in a French theater production of Solomon and the Queen of ShebaLater, she resettled in San Francisco, and soon caught the attention of Chris Blackwell, who signed her to Palm Pictures.

Gigi considers her music to be representative of the world and her international band reflects such with musicians from Ethiopia, West Africa, and the United States of America, including Native-Americans.

Gigi in 2010 – Photo by Petulia Mattioli

GiGi already has credits in two feature films in Ethiopia and a song for the soundtrack of the movie endurance.

On her first recording for Palm Pictures, produced by Bill Laswell, Gigi teamed up with some of the finest American jazz musicians: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Henry Threadgill, David Gilmore, Aiyb Dieng, Nicky Skopelitis, Pharoah Sanders, Art Baron, Hamid Drake, Bill Laswell and many more.

In 2003, Illuminated Audio came out. It was a complete reconstruction of Gigi’s debut album by producer and dubmaster Bill Laswell. In the same spirit as his noted interpretations of Miles Davis (Panthalassa, 1998), Bob Marley (Dreams of Freedom, 1997), and Carlos Santana (Divine Light, 2001), Laswell went back to the original multi-track masters and re-imagined new versions and perspectives to highlight Gigi’s singular vocals.

It works perfectly,” says Gigi of Illuminated Audio. “We wanted to capture the whole spirit of each track, and Bill’s remixes translate the original melodies and create a different music language that really put you in a pleasant place.”

Laswell’s reconstructions are long and patient, taking the essence of the original songs and building towers of dub around them. The floating vocals of “Abay” are reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins at their peak, while the deep basslines of “Sew Argen” and “Mengedegna” build on the groundbreaking studio stylings of Lee “Scratch” Perry and The Orb’s Alex Patterson. “//I really love what Bill does in the studio//,” says Gigi. “//He plays me the tracks and we discuss them – but I trust him completely. When it comes to remixes you can’t touch Bill//.”

After the great response to the original album’s release, Palm Picture’s founder, Chris Blackwell, suggested that Laswell and Gigi go back to the studio and “re-think” the entire album. The result is an ambient reinterpretation.

In early 2003, Gigi started to work in Axiom’s Orange Music Sound Studio on her second album of original material. Gigi was once again working with producer Bill Laswell and long-time collaborator Karsh Kale.

Gold & Wax came out in 2006. It is an organic blend of African songs mixed with elements of Jamaica, India and the United States of America. Featuring a stellar roster, bassist Bill Laswell assembled an eclectic array of musical talent for Gold & Wax. India’s great sarangi player/vocalist Ustad Sultan Khan, tabla player/drummer Karsh Kale, funk keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell, African multi-instrumentalists Abesgasu Shiota, Moges Habte, Aiyb Dieng and Assaye Zegeye; digital futurists MIDIval PunditZ and Skizz Fernando, and avant-guitarist Buckethead all contribute to this CD.

Gigi – Gold and Wax

Discography

* Ethiopia, Love songs, with Fantahun Shewankochew and Wores G. Egziabher (Inedit W260080, 1997)
* One Ethiopia (Barkhanns, 1999)
* Gigi (Palm Pictures 2068, 2001)
* Illuminated Audio, remixes (Palm Pictures, 2003)
* Gold and Wax (Palm Pictures, 2006)
* Mesgana Ethiopia (MOD Technologies, 2010)

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Gigi’s Gold and Wax, Amharic Delight

Gigi – Gold and Wax
Gigi

Gold and Wax (Palm Pictures, 2006)

Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw’s anticipated follow-up CD to Gigi, entitled Gold and Wax, is a quick and bright landscape propelled by Gigi’s spectacular vocals and some sharply crafted compositions. Guest appearances include some heavy hitters with India’s Ustad Sultan Khan, tabla master Karsh Kale, funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, Africa’s Abesgasu Shiota, Hoges Habte Aiyb Dieng and Assaye Zegeye, as wells as MIDIval PunditZ and Skizz Fernando and guitarist Buckethead.

Crafted with an eclectic sophistication and intricate musicianship combined with Gigi’s earthy Amharic vocals is a recipe for sheer delight. The driving rhythms of opening tracks “Semena-Worck” and “Anten” backed by powerful brass section allow Gigi’s vocals to float over and within the musical landscape.

The plaintive vocals of “Jerusalem” are almost prayer like in their simplicity, but tend to be crowded out by the composition. Personally, I would have wished for a more spare composition and less technical enhancement on this particular track to really showcase Gigi’s vocals, for she really has touching delivery and captivating style.

Fans get a better taste of Gigi’s earthy vocals with the track “Salam” which sparkles with brass, tabla and with Bernie Worrell’s subtle organ playing. As “Salam” gives way to “Gomelaleye” the richness of the compositions blossoms and is full of heart.

One of my favorite tracks on the CD is “Hulu-Dane” with the exotic combination of Gigi’s bright vocals and Indian influences make this fusion of Africa and India delightful. Tracks “Acha” and “Enoralehu” are two more lushly crafted pieces fusing the African sound into a modern conglomeration of world music. With the mix of guest appearances and stylistic flourishes, this CD can’t simply be categorized flushed with its Western Jazz elements, Indian touches and wide expanse African sound landscape, but it’s certain that Gigi’s vocals tie all the elements together and make it shine.

Buy Gold and Wax.

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Abyssinia Infinite, Featuring “Gigi”

Abyssinia Infinite – Zion Roots
The album Zion Roots (Network Medien) by Abyssinia Infinite, featuring Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw, brings back live instrumentation and experimentation to Ethiopian music. Its US release date is scheduled for December 9, 2003.

This CD with acoustic instruments and traditional songs is a return to a classic sound—it picks up right where music left off in the mid-’60s through mid-’70s.

Ethiopians believe that when Zion is mentioned in the bible they are speaking about Ethiopia,” Gigi explains. With that in mind, the album, Zion Roots, is exactly what the name implies: music rooted deep in Ethiopian culture. On this latest concept project, Gigi—who first came to fame in the West on her self-titled album on Palm Pictures—was able to realize her longstanding dream of melding elements of East and West African elements into the music of her home country. "This traditional project is something that I wanted to do to keep in touch with the music of Ethiopia. This does not represent me as a solo artist but more me introducing Ethiopian traditional music in different settings, as a concept project. As an artist signed to Palm Pictures, my next solo album Gold & Wax is due early 2004."

Gigi’s experience in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has largely influenced the sound of Abyssinia Infinite’s CD. Although this album contains no songs from the Ethiopian church, the phrasing and style of the traditional songs are very similar. The soul and vibrato characteristics of church music of Ethiopia are similar to American church music.

Abyssinia Infinite chose the songs for this album to convey a traditional spirit. Aba Alem Lemenea is a spiritual song written about a world that’s peaceful and loving. Gole is another traditional song that puts new words to a time-honored melody. It is sung half in Amharic and half in an older language called Agewña—a language that very few people speak with the exception of Gigi’s father’s tribe.

Abyssinia Infinite uses traditional instruments such as the kirar—which is referred to as King David’s harp in the Bible and is perhaps one of the oldest surviving East African instruments—and the washint—a simple bamboo flute. The band is composed of prominent players in the world music community including the magical Senegalese percussionist Aiyb Dieng, the virtuoso tabla-player Karsh Kale, the guitarist/accordionist Tony Cedras (known for his work on Paul Simon’s Graceland project), the Ethiopian saxophonist Moges Habte, and world music producer/musician Bill Laswell, with a rare performance on acoustic guitar.

Buy Zion Roots.

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Gigi in the background

Gigi – Illuminated Audio
Gigi

Illuminated Audio (Palm Pictures, 2002)

This review starts with the question, where’s Gigi? The Ethiopian vocalist sensation’s talent has been relegated to a musical wash that lingers in the background of Bill Laswell’s ambient mixes. So technically, Illuminated Audio is Bill Laswell’s album. Fans of the famous dub master Laswell won’t mind, but those individuals who enjoy listening to Gigi (Ejigayehu Shibabaw) will be disappointed to say the least.

Illuminated Audio
relies too heavily on reverberated instruments, exotic beats and bass often times sounding like a studio mix waiting for the vocal tracks to be laid on top. Then again, this could be expected from Laswell who also remixed Miles Davis’ Panthalassa, Bob Marley’s Dreams of Freedom and Carlos Santana’s Divine Light. Dubbing is one thing, but remastering the masters seems like an egoist’s dream.

Thankfully, there is a former version of this CD (simply named Gigi) that features Gigi’s vocals intact and it too was produced by Bill Laswell. The master musicians who appeared on the CD Gigi including saxophonists, Wayne Shorter, Henry Threadgill, Pharoah Sanders, guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, percussionists Aiyb Dieng and Karsh Kale’s musical gifts are highlighted in bits and pieces on Illuminated Audio.

Often times, the saxophones contribute to an overall wash that is anchored by Laswell’s bass and Dieng and Kale’s acoustic drums while Gigi’s vocals float over the top similar to a fickle breeze wafting through an open window. On the track, Guramayle, Gigi’s immaculate voice graces tribal beats and on Gud Fellow, the Ethiopian chanteuse’s vocals flow thoughout a haunting musical scape. Needless to say, there are some gorgeous mixes on this CD, especially for Laswell’s devoted following.

In 1956, John Cage claimed, "In the future records will be made from records." Let’s just hope this doesn’t become the exception to the rule since dead musicians would replace the one’s that are still living, breathing and paying their bills. It’s a difficult struggle as it is competing with live musicians and as the world becomes more techno-friendly, perhaps the creme of the crop will be hollering "brother, can you spare a dime." The good news for some is that you won’t have to pay to see master musicians in concert when you can catch them performing on a street corner near you. Just throw a couple of quarters into their hats.

Originally published on Cranky Crow World Music

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