Addis Ababa via Washington DC. Displacement and nomadic migration is a pretty common contemporary existence at this point – particularly amongst a creative sector – but it’s surprising how much music still fails to deliver as a biographical narrative for changing places and cultures in a successful and involving way. What is so successful then about Qen Sew that makes it feel such a breath of fresh air? There’s vigour to E.R. (Ethiopian Records) that provides an immediate and refreshing clarity for one thing. Though the layout of a track might be addled, it is never uncomfortable in terms of positioning – introducing complex layering and polyrhythmic sequencing as delightful touches.
Traditional Ethiopian folk music is a key influence, and the combination of these ideas with elements of dance music and the skittering sample-based beats of various House styles, or Burial & Dilla, mesh wonderfully. Apparently there’s a growing name and scene for it, Ethiopiyawi. In an interview for The Guardian last month E.R. talked of a latent intention to combine the “limitless, diverse sounds of Ethiopia” he has naturally grown up with new technologies in order to create these new sounds.
Philosophising aside, it’s the smoothness that gels for Qen Sew. Vocals are processed delicately, chopped up but deftly arranged so they bleed together. The title track’s manipulations reminding a little of Joy O’s tendency for heavy vocal manipulation as a hook, backed up by a laissez-faire post-dubstep current that seems to weave its way through in terms of influence. “Lela Lela” is derived from a session where E.R. played on guitar and his friends the Zion Rebels provided vocals, developed into a bounding half-step rhythm. No surprise perhaps to see Mala mentioned as another key influence by E.R, the last couple of years of UK production seeming to loom large in the development of Ethiopiyawi.
1432r, the Washington DC label through which Qen Sew is delivered, has acted as the first major passage through which these artists can channel their work – and can only be assumed to be the local connection through which Beautiful Swimmers have remixed the title track. Rather than straighten the piece out, they fit the track’s fluctuations into their own style, utilising floating chords and detached, papery retro-drum hits. The vocal sample ‘gotta keep my head up’ a fair appeal to the tracks suggestion that it might collapse or submit.
Above all, Ethiopian Records treats conflicting elements and re-routed cultural influences with an equal respect throughout, and so they quickly fall into harmony across each of the four tracks here. Coupled with a disorientating, de-Westernised focus – the affect is as of being pulled and pushed simultaneously. This is only the side-affect of my own personal, Westernised focus obviously, hearing something familiar mixed into something unidentified, but it is exciting to hear something that is different but not difficult.
A1. Qen Sew (For My Father)
A2. Qen Sew (Beautiful Swimmers Head Up Mix)
B2. Lela Lela