Ethiopian funk, C&W slam dunk
Amha Eshete, the owner of Ethiopian indie label Amha Records from 1969 through 1975, masterminded a sometimes bizarre, frequently arresting hybrid of Southern soul fervor and traditional North African declamations. Many of these sides, which make up the bulk of the Ethiopiques series, suggest an acid-fried Booker T. & the M.G.'s singing in Arabic. The series' newly issued eighth volume may be the most consistent so far, perhaps even surpassing the highly acclaimed third volume. True, many of the 21 cuts on __Ethiopiques 8: Swinging Addis 1969-1974 (Buda Musique/Allegro) ride rhythms jagged enough to unsettle James Brown — the rickety rhythm guitar on Ayalew Mesfin's "Hasabe," for instance, sounds like it's echoing around a rusted-out aluminum can being strummed by barbed wire — but compared to the more eccentric Ethiopiques 3, you might say these tracks were designed to cross over to a broader market.
Of course, no such market existed. The label itself was basically illegal — the government reserved all record-manufacturing rights for itself. Still, the snaking Vox solo and boisterous horns of Samuel Belay's "Aynotchesh Yerefu" could have scored the Ethiopian equivalent of Superfly. Bahta Gebre-Heywet's Stax-ish mid-tempo "Tessassategn Eko" and the slower "Gizie" sound like a great lost '60s soul nugget and its equally worthy B-side. And the thick, sweet languidity of Girma Beyene's highlife-flavored "Ene Negn Bay Manesh" and "Set Alamenem" might have become treasured housewives' choices in another country, in another time. Maybe that time is now.
-- MICHAELANGELO MATOS
Columbia/Legacy continues to mine gold with its American Milestones series. The third installation includes four significant albums from the country archives and covers a broad range of styles. Covering a 30-year span, the diversity of country music becomes apparent through the inclusion of an all-instrumental disc, the seminal debut of one of the greatest songwriters in the world, a collection of "Cosmopolitan Country" at its peak and a stunning work that proved artistry and commercialism are not separate.
The oldest of the lot is Joe Maphis' classic instrumental album Fire On The Strings, which was originally released in 1957. Maphis was one of the hottest pickers in Nashville, and his studio work can be found on numerous records. This reissue includes the original album plus seven bonus tracks from various sources. Covering the gamut from honky tonk to bluegrass, Maphis showcases his fine guitar work throughout the disc.
In 1970, an unknown songwriter from Texas released the eponymous Kristofferson and took the country music industry by storm. The former Rhodes scholar combined a gothic perception of life with a poetic vocabulary, and literally created (and legitimized) the concept of a "singer/songwriter" as a star. His voice may not be the best, but Kris Kristofferson has achieved legendary status, for both his writing and his acting. No less than four of the tracks from this collection have become major hits for other people. The inclusion of four previously unreleased tunes from the same era indicates that Kristofferson was as prolific as he was talented.
The late Charlie Rich was a virtual historian of Southern music, having started out on Sun records in the 1950s, then being one of the first white artists to successfully blend country and soul in the '60s. He is best known for his 1973 release Behind Closed Doors, which personified a changing paradigm in Music City. The record epitomized the new "Cosmo County," with heavy elements of pop added to the thematic staples that defined country music. With his smooth voice and emotional delivery, Rich reinvented himself with the incredible title tune and the poignant "The Most Beautiful Girl." While many purists criticized this particular direction in country music, it was a logical extension of Rich's talent.
Country music took another direction in the '80s, where a low undercurrent of progressive influences combined with a return to tradition, and the resulting product took the world by storm. Rodney Crowell was a respected songwriter with a few hits under his belt, but nobody could have anticipated the impact of his Diamonds & Dirt in 1988. The album was an artistic landmark in Crowell's catalog, and also produced an incredible hit count with five songs reaching the No. 1 position in the country charts. It stands today as a near-perfect example of the zeitgeist of the times, when country music was experiencing some generational growing pains and creativity was rewarded and honored.
The American Milestones series — a virtual living museum of country music legacy — has revitalized some of the most important works in the history of country music, and both the selections and elaboration given to each one are evidence of the pride and respect they have for the art. ?
?-- JAMES KELLY