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Either/Orchestra - Live in Addis

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Artist: Either/Orchestra

Album: Live in Addis

Label: Buda Musique

Review date: Nov. 20, 2005

Last month, amidst the flickering flurry of post-Katrina fallout, catastrophic earthquakes, Supreme Court skirmishes, and Hugo Chavez catcalls, a singular event resonated with the community of music watchers and seers, proselytizers and prophets. I'm speaking, of course, of the revelation that a weekly hip-hop party called "Kill Whitey" occurs in the hedonistic Plato's cave of Williamsburg; that a member of folk-fetish act CocoRosie is a regular attendant, calling the predominantly white environment "a safe environment to be freaky"; that there might something racially problematic or amiss here.

A feverishly dorky online debate proliferated, mutated and infected multiple outposts of we-take-ourselves-very-seriously music writing on the internet, as well as the excrement-smeared pages of the Village Voice.

It was around this time I received the 20th installment of Buda Musique's long-running Ethiopiques series, Either/Orchestra's Live in Addis. For those without the élan vital to act on that aching desire for authenticity in motion, Ethiopiques has provided the means for surveying from a distance, a compendium of one of the most genuinely vibrant and politically meaningful music cultures of the last half of the 20th century.

The Live in Addis concert was the first performance by a U.S. big band in Ethiopia since Duke Ellington in 1973 and marked the 20th anniversary of the Boston-based ensemble. Yes, Boston. Either/Orchestra is one of the first serious non-Ethiopian interpreters of Ethiopian music, as evidenced by the guest appearance of the venerable Mulatu Astatqe on percussion and vibes. Their slightly deviant standards are stylistically flamboyant but reverent – over two decades, they've harnessed the harmonic bombast and deft touch of their Ethiopiques predecessors.

But they've filtered it through the onerous lens of 'modern jazz.' On top of that, there's the burden of authenticity: according to the liner notes, their favorite extracurricular activity is saving Ethiopian music from "the ravages of technological idolatry, greed and the indifference of producers." In other words, everything is soft. The sinewy grooves of Tijuana-era Mingus that introduce "Muziqawi Silt" push the manic percussion to the edge of the stage. The recurring chimes – yes, that sort of chimes – turns a loose jam into an impromptu Sex and the City soundtrack. "Soul Tezeta" bears the brunt of this unwelcome intrusion, turning what was once an anxious, oddly-timed, dirge into staid balladry with predictable piano accompaniment and manipulative symphonic swells – an overly exuberant rendition of "White Christmas."

E/O are not outsiders and, to their credit, do not act the part. They are adroit players, incredibly well versed in this music – perhaps too much so. Live in Addis mostly lacks a sense of discovery; it is supplanted by playful academicism, adroitly timed pauses for saxophone solos – all in all, the sounds of an expert 'updating' of inimitable old standards that never suggest such a thing.

It's clear that E/O's appropriations derive from the world of fusion rather than the “Kill Whitey” school of lilting racial fetishization, but their music suggests the sort of awkward racial mindfuck last committed to celluloid in the unforgettably inscrutable Matrix: Reloaded cave rave scene: light-brown-skinned masses dancing in harmony to grievously bad techno straight from the Caucasus; buoyant dreadlocks swirling, sweat proliferating, bodies throbbing in unison – ecstasy in Babylon. Perhaps an offense not worth taking seriously, but distasteful regardless, with titillation coming at the expense of indigestion.

By Alexander Provan

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