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Asmara All Stars - Eritrea’s Got Soul

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Artist: Asmara All Stars

Album: Eritrea’s Got Soul

Label: Out Here

Review date: Jan. 14, 2011

There has been a fair amount of hype about this new album of East African music, much of it taken directly from the liner notes and various online interviews with the producer, Bruno Blum. The gist is that this music is new! Unprecedented! Special! The first music to come out of Eritrea since 30 years of civil war with Ethiopia ended! You’ll wait breathlessly at the door until news arrives that they are playing in your town!

But what does the music tell us?

Sometimes Simon Frith is wrong, that’s what it tells us: sometimes hybridity is neither new nor authentic. Blum (previously known for work with Serge Gainsbourg as well as The Wailers) clearly believes his own press. As the story on the notes goes, he played some performances in Eritrea and the government then asked him to stay as a music teacher. Instead, he arrogated to himself the role not just of producer but creator, a sort of French Ry Cooder if you will, who, failing to find a Buena Vista Social Club in Amara, went ahead and created one anyway. There is no Asmara All Stars, at least not in the way in which there is the African All Stars or the Fania All Stars or the All Star Game every July. So Blum coaxed 14 talented musicians in Asmara, some of them well known in Ethiopian jazz and pop circles, to make a record. And although they are clearly excellent musicians, the results are uninspired, at best pleasant listening and at worst frankly embarrassing.

The opening cut, “Amajo,” for example, is a perfectly fine piece of Ethiopian pop vocals set to a basic reggae beat and a nice rock guitar solo — well done, but not exciting. “Ykce Belni,” on the other hand, is straight Ethiopian jazz, such as might be found on any of the collections of ‘70s Ethiopian recordings by Mulatu Astatke. The third track, “Adunia,” sounds very much like anything by Nubian bandleader Ali Hassan Kuban, bookended with rap in Arabic and MC commentary in English, the latter not very well done.

And so it goes. Some of the beats are local to Eritrea, or at least to the ethnic groups populating that tiny Red Sea country, and there are local (or at least regional) instruments in use — oud, darabouka, krar — but with very few exceptions, it’s hard to hear them as anything other than atmospherics decorating the core of bass-guitar-drums-organ. The same goes for local scales and modes, as best exemplified by the last cut on the disc, “Bloom Brothers Mood,” which is basically bossa nova with an Ethiopian tinge.

The one standout track on the disc is Ibrahim Goret’s “Safir Hilet” with oud, darabouka, and guitar accompaniment, and no interference from Blum’s aesthetic (such as the electric bass he felt had to be in every other piece, or the ‘60s lounge organ in “Eritrean Girl”). In sum: Sometimes, good musicians do not play up to their potential. Asmara All Stars is one of those times.

By Richard Miller

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