Words by Chris Menist
It’s not often that one is greeted by such a strong debut, so effortlessly shot through with intelligence and creativity. It’s hard to conceive that it was only a few years ago that an inexperienced Samuel Yirga was auditioning at the Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa, tapping out rhythms with a coin to prove his musical ability. Guzo displays a startling maturity for someone who only began studying piano in his mid-teens. The album digs out key components of Ethiopian music and draws them alongside smart juxtapositions, such as the messenqo violin melody coupled with a Fender Rhodes electric piano on opener ‘Abet Abet’ or the kebero drumming interlocking with Latin piano licks on ‘Firma Ena Wereket’. Yirga’s innovations are perhaps most keenly felt on solo tracks like ‘Ye Bati Koyita’ and ‘Drop Me There’, which recall Keith Jarrett or Andrew Hill in their improvisation and quiet confidence. Themes develop and recede over these longer tracks, as the pianist deconstructs the traditional melodies. The album overall appears to be the product of much consideration, without resorting to contrivance. The cover of Rotary Connection’s ‘I Am The Black Gold of The Sun’ is a great choice, further heightened by the lush harmonies of The Creole Choir of Cuba that blend effortlessly into the psychedelic sheen.
Finally we have a project that successfully takes the tunes and arrangements of Ethiopia’s much-documented golden age and updates them into a modern setting, consolidating their originality and power in the process.