NEW ETHIOJAZZ PROJECT
SAMUEL YIRGA – incredible young pianoplayer from Ethiopia
Samuel Yirga’s musical life so far has been full of obstacles: social restrictions, family regulations, hurdles thrown up by the reality of life. Yet in the face of all of this, the young and gifted pianist who grew up in the capital of Ethiopia and the centre of the heady mix of music known as Ethiojazz, has at last had his time to shine.
Bringing contemporary and classical jazz, celebrated pop songs from the golden era of Ethiopian music, traditional Ethiopian rhythms and instruments and deeply-felt classical piano undertones, this young man from Addis has opened up a whole new door on a musical genre and region which has already grabbed the interest of many people around the world.
Sammy was just ten years old when he knew he wanted to become a musician. “It wasn’t a case of knowing it or not,” he says serenely of this early musical conviction, “it was just something inside of me that told me I wanted to be a pianist.”
At home he devoured the Ethiopian pop music and American R and B that he heard on the radio and cassettes but he had no encouragement from his parents who were afraid that learning music would distract him from his academic studies.
“There was no musical culture in my family,” says Sammy. “My father didn’t want anyone to become a musician. He wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer.” Despite him begging his parents to send him to music school, they refused and by the time he’d reached the end of secondary school, he’d almost forgotten about his early wish to be a musician.
One day, however, he heard that Addis Ababa’s Yared School of Music was holding auditions for new students and, excited, Samuel went home and told his parents he was going to audition. “My father told me that I was not going to be at the audition,” he says, “but my sister said she would help me.”
The following week, at the age of 16 and having never touched a musical instrument in his life, Samuel entered the school and, with a coin tapping out rhythms on the top of the piano, breezed through the exams. Of the 2,500 people who took the exam, Samuel came third.
But the struggles weren’t over. His parents eventually forgave him but it was one of the school’s teachers who put up his next hurdle. “Because I came third in the exams,” he says, smiling wryly at the memory, “I was allowed to choose whatever instrument I liked. I chose the piano.”
But the head of department looked at his hands and said it wasn’t possible. “She said my hands were too small. I don’t believe in small hands or big hands: music is not about that, music is about what’s inside.” He was determined.
Eventually, the school agreed he could study the piano that he’d so longed to get his hands on. And there began a relationship with the instrument that has brought him to musical acclaim in his home town of Addis and now, on this his debut album, to an international audience. He was determined, after all the obstacles he’d already mounted, that he was going to be the best pianist in Ethiopia.
At only 16, Sammy took to his new instrument with unbridled enthusiasm and dedication. “I would go to school at 6.30am and at 11 pm I would go home. Usually I missed all my other studies and just played the piano on my own. It was really tiring,” he laughs, “but it was my dream to be in music, and the piano was what I wanted to play, so that’s why I pushed myself so hard.” Sammy played like this, for more than 12 hours a day, for three years. “I was so into the music,” he says, “that I didn’t bother eating.”
Sammy played the classical music he was given by his teachers- from Chopin to Rachmaninov- but he also had a growing interest in Ethiopian music, from the popular wedding and folk songs he’d heard as a child, to the Ethio-jazz legends that, in the last decade, had made a comeback. Here he found himself once more in trouble with the school.
“I was playing my own versions of these Ethiopian songs, but the teachers passing the piano room would come in and ask me what I was doing. We weren’t allowed to play any contemporary music because it was a classical music school. They would say that Ethiopian music was simple. I was very angry about that, because I’d always had a dream to change my country and its music. I didn’t agree with them but I would just tell them that if something was simple, then we should try to make it better. We need to research and experiment.”
And experiment he did. By the time the music school asked him never to come back because of his insistence on playing contemporary music, he was playing funk and Ethiojazz with one band, playing jazz gigs at a local club, experimenting with popular Ethiopian songs and creating contemporary versions with another band, and at the same playing salsa and classical music. Wherever his music went, however, he always held the beat of Ethiopian music at its heart.
Hagere is Samuel Yirga’s debut solo release, showcasing Samuel’s playing – both bold and sensitive, often improvised, always deeply impassioned. Samuel is the piano player with Ethiopian collective, Dub Colossus, and whilst he left music school relatively recently, he as developed at a pace, both as a player and composer, remarkable for someone of his age.
Yeh Bati Koyita – a solo piano piece. The title means “A Time in Bati” – Bati is a town in northern Ethiopia, and also the name of the musical scale Samuel plays. The tune swings with a lilting rhythm and ripples with classical and jazz influences. Always the innovator, Samuel plays it not with the original time signatures in which it was written, but swapping between different timings to keep the tune fresh.
Abet Abet is a traditional love song which features the raw and melodic notes of the Ethiopian one-stringed fiddle, the mesenqo. Sammy is accompanied by some of Ethiopia’s best young traditional instrumentalists:
Missale Legesse (Kebero), Endris Hassan (Mesenqo), Frew Mengiste (Bass),
Yonas Yimam (Percussion), Tewodros Alula (Trumpet), Yishak Dawit (Trombone), Alklilu W/Yohannes (Tenor Sax), Abiyou Solomon (Engineer)
Habasha Diaspora (Addis Piano Mix) – this mellow tune reverberates with muted horns and the gentle tones of Samuel’s piano playing.
Featuring Ben Somers (Tenor and baritone saxes/flute), Dubulah (Guitars, Programming), Jonathan Radcliffe (Trumpet, Flugalhorn), Nick Van Gelder (Drums, Cuica), Paul Chivers (Congas, Perc kit), Robert Dowell (Trombone), Winston Blisset (Bass)
Ambassel In Box Revisited – a beautiful solo piano piece, recorded in The Wooden Room at Real World Studios. Open, spacious and full of melancholy and yearning, this is a deeply emotional virtuoso performance.