On Sat., July 26 from 3-8 p.m., ISSUE Project Room and Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation present a can’t-miss live show: Ethiopian legend Mahmoud Ahmed live in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It will be the first time that he has played New York since 2011.
Mahmoud plays a mixture of traditional Amharic music with soul, jazz and funk, a combination pulled together by an extraordinarily powerful voice. And it’s that chills-up-the-spine voice that made Ahmed a legend, first in Ethiopia, then throughout the Ethiopian diaspora, and finally across a global scene attuned to his music through its inclusion in the long-running Ethiopiques series.
In 1962, Ahmed took a position helping out at the Arizona Club, one of the semi-legal night spots that were popping up in Addis in those days. This was the time when Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Sellassie, in power since 1930, began to sense that his country was slipping away from him. In an effort to appease roiling popular sentiment against him, Sellassie would ultimately relax restrictions on music production, formerly the sole province of the state cultural organization and recording company, Agher Feqer Mahber (“The Love of Country Association”), paving the ways for Ahmed’s early releases on Amha Records. But first, Sellassie allowed state bands, like the Police and Army Orchestras, to create side branches that played popular music. Sellassie had had a hand in creating these brass orchestras when, back in 1924, he invited 40 Armenian musicians, refugees from Europe, to come to Ethiopia as state musicians.
Despite their new liberties, these institutional bands were technically barred from performing except when on official government contracts, but many defied this law. As it happened, the Arizona Club where Ahmed worked became a favorite moonlighting hangout for the Imperial Body Guard Band. One night when the band’s lead singer failed to show, Ahmed persuaded the band to let him sing a few current hits. Arrangers Sahlé Dègado and Girma Hadgu took up his cause and gradually introduced him into the band’s official lineup, where he remained until 1974. Ahmed recorded his first 45 r.p.m. single in 1971. He’s been recording ever since.
We at Afropop know how mesmerizing Mahmoud is, and we featured him heavily on our two Hip Deep shows chronicling the story of Ethiopian popular music: “Empire and Revolution” and “Diaspora and Return.” And while we definitely think you should delve into that double dose of history, we also want to make sure you get a chance to hear Mahmoud first hand. So, we are giving away a free pair of tickets to his Brooklyn performance.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Mahmoud!” for a chance to win.
And until then? Satiate yourself with this live clip. It may not be the highest fidelity, but it gives you a taste of the man’s raw vocal power.