One of the beauties of hip-hop is how it can serve as a gateway to other music. The best producers use samples like a lure, offering an insight into strange and distant musical worlds. Everyone has moments like this – hearing a hook for the first time and having to know from where it was lifted. Finding the source is satisfying but sometimes falling into the rabbit hole can result in something altogether more fulfilling.
Back in 2009, rapper and producer Oh No (half of The Professionals with older brother Madlib) crafted Dr. No’s Ethiopium using a variety of 1970s Ethiopian music as his inspiration and sample material. The original records came from the collection of Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, former general manager at Stones Throw Records and partner at Madlib Invazion, who had a passion for the region’s music and specifically for an artist named Ayalèw Mesfin.
Egon collected these records from a friend via an Ethiopian flight attendant, but when Mountain Dew enquired about using Oh No’s ‘The Funk’ (which samples Mesfin’s ‘Libe Menta Hone’) for an advert, Egon wanted to find Mesfin both out of monetary obligation and musical curiosity. It transpired the artist now lived in the US but the fascinating story of Mesfin’s life and career is intimately tied to the history of Ethiopia.
Western instruments that had originally been integrated into the national army at the beginning of the 20th century began to be used differently during the 1950s, and nowhere was this more apparent than in Ethiopia’s capital. Addis Ababa’s flourishing hotel and bar scene was vital in providing musicians with spaces in which to create and perform, venues where the confluence of guitar, bass, organ and saxophone with Ethiopian traditions resulted in something fresh and exciting.
Influenced by American artists such as James Brown, Ayalèw Mesfin and the Black Lion Band developed a sound that blended Ethio-groove, funk, jazz, rock and psychedelic music. For Madlib, Mesfin’s records were “a sampler’s dream”. Despite a prolific output of 45s on Kaifa Records in the 70s (which are now worth a small fortune on Discogs), political disruption in Ethiopia would have an unforeseen and tragic effect on Mesfin’s career.
After Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 by the Derg regime, a communist military junta, the landscape for musicians such as Mesfin looked radically different. His lyrics that critiqued the state were deemed dangerous and contrary to the new ideology. The government’s message to him was simple: desist and stay quiet.
Ignoring their threats, Mesfin continued to record and distributed 4,000 free cassettes to his compatriots before making plans to flee the country. A former close friend betrayed him however and he was imprisoned for three months, a decision that counts as a lucky escape given the Derg’s brutality and numerous human rights offenses during their reign. Upon release, he was placed under parole for the next 13 years, banned from writing and performing music (not that this stopped him) and unable to travel without permission.
After the dictatorship ended in 1991, Mesfin was able to record music once again and moved to the US seven years later. It was in Denver that Egon located him and amazingly Mesfin had brought over a treasured personal collection of his 7” singles and reel-to-reel tapes. The Derg regime had tried to burn all the original recordings but it was these priceless artefacts that would form the basis of Now-Again Records’ first Ayalèw Mesfin compilation in 2018, titled Hasabe (My Worries). The title track had actually appeared on one of Francis Falceto’s Éthiopiques volumes back in 2000 but Mesfin saw no money from this or other appearances on the compilation series that has been historically credited with bringing older Ethiopian music to a Western audience.
With Mesfin as an active and willing collaborator, last year Now-Again pressed another five LPs from his Kaifa heyday and after so many years of silence, they are the perfect monument to a legend of Ethiopian music. The records remind not only of the struggles Ayalèw Mesfin has faced over the course of his career, but also that obscure musical avenues are worth exploring.