Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw,
with Bill Laswell,
Abyssinia Infinite: Zion Roots
(Network, 2003)

Whoever thought that jazz and traditional Ethiopian music must exist in separate realms is proven wrong by Abyssinia Infinite. If I am not mistaken, this is the third joint project of Elijgayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw and Bill Laswell, and indeed this is a return to the roots of Ethiopian soul music. I was less than enthusiastic about the previous venture, Illuminated Audio, where Gigi's voice was almost mixed into oblivion.

In ancient times Ethiopia was also known as "Abyssinia," and again Gigi taps into her home country's unbelievably -- indeed infinitely -- rich heritage. Abyssinian history goes back to biblical times and that delightful story of King Solomon's little affair with the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopian tradition has it that the line of Ethiopian emperors springs from that happy union. Known as the negus negusti or "king of kings," these emperors bore as one of their many royal styles also the title "Lion of Juda" -- hence the album's appropriate subtitle, "Zion Roots."

The Ethiopians are one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, and their church can pride itself in a wealth of devotional and liturgical music. This provides an excellent medium for Gigi's return to a more classical sound, accompanied mainly by acoustic instruments. Although the lyrics are mostly in ancient tongues like Amharic and Agewna, Gigi's vocal interpretations are contemporary and progressive. Yet never has the listener the impression that comes this at the expense of authenticity or that original intentions have been compromised.

But apart from its connections with the Semitic scriptural past and early Christian orthodoxy, Ethiopia is also firmly rooted in Africa. The influences of the Dark Continent are underscored by the participation of a number of African expatriate musicians from outside Ethiopia. Two percussionists, Aiyb Dieng and Utkarsha "Karsh" Kale, have lent a hand in putting this compilation together. Producer Laswell himself has picked up the acoustic guitar for the occasion, while the versatile Tony Cedras provided additional musical support on accordion.

Abyssinia Infinite consists of 10 compositions. The album opens with three present-day adaptations of the country's love song tradition. In particular "Gela," a creation of Gigi herself, deserves explicit mention. It starts with an intro by Melaku Gelaw on the so-called kirar, reportedly one of the oldest string instruments in the world. Melaku also signs on for the flute on "Gole," an ancient chant usually reserved for special celebrations like weddings. The jazziest piece is "Lebaye," which towards the end is dominated by Moges Habte's saxophone. The evocative, almost hypnotic, closing number "Ethiopia" is one of my favorites on this CD. Its "ethereal ambience" -- as the album's flyer has it -- indeed conjures up images of the Horn of Africa's majestic landscape of valleys and mountains. Translated into music it makes for an appropriate audio testimonial of Gigi's native land.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 19 June 2004

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