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Ethio-groove on the World Stage: Music, Mobility, Mediation
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Ethio-groove on the World Stage:
Music, Mobility, Mediation

The Budos Band, a Staten Island, New York-based Afro-soul group, traveled to Boston for a performance at the Museum of Fine Arts in August 2007. The band's repertoire and second studio album, The Budos Band II, released on Daptone Records, feature several original compositions that blend their distinctive mix of Afrobeat, soul, and funk inspired by Ethiopian popular music from the 1960s and 1970s. Their music is characterized by 6/8 Afro-Cuban rhythms, heavy grooves, strong melodic bass lines, and harmonic support by a Farfisa organ.1 While these are features found in many styles and genres, what lends the Budos Band's music an unmistakable Ethiopian sound is the combination of these elements with the unique pentatonic scales-employed liberally in the melodies of their compositions and, especially, solos of organist Mike Deller-characteristic of most popular and folkloric Ethiopian music.2

However, on the Budos Band's website, Myspace page, and their new album's liner notes, there is no mention of any Ethiopian influence to their music. Rather, the website's description makes note of their debut album's "groundbreaking exploration of funk, afro-beat and soul music" and their new album's delivery of "themes at once resonant and ethereal over Herculean rhythms" ("Detailed Description," emphasis added). Indeed, it is the Budos Band's compositional and improvisation "themes" which seem to the attuned ear to draw heavily on Ethiopian music.

It is not my intention to indict the Budos Band, or any musical group, for not expressly indicating the sources of each of their musical influences-be they Ethiopian, Nigerian, or James Brownian. Rather, I am interested in what George Lipsitz has described as "transformations in our relationships to both physical places and discursive spaces" (3), which in the case of the Budos Band's recent foray into Ethiopian music, addresses several important issues in the discourse of global popular music, including ownership, authenticity, translation, hybridity, and amalgamation.

But often left out in this discourse are details of mobility and mediation, of agents and agency. In other words: how and why music travels to distant parts of the world. What forces are behind Ethiopian popular music's voyage through thousands of miles spanning some forty years, a voyage that eventually introduced this music into the mix of global pop? As this decade comes to a close, why are there increasingly more music ensembles, especially from outside Ethiopia, influenced by or performing covers of Ethiopian music? As Bob Young of the Boston Herald astutely observed in his preview of the Budos Band's concert at the MFA: "it's not a Buena Vista Social Club-like trend yet, but Ethiopian Afropop is starting to seep into our culture in the same infectious way Cuban music did a few years back" ("Budos Band" 36). [End Page 299]

This essay examines the recent phenomenon of Ethiopian popular music performance by non-Ethiopian music ensembles in America and in Europe-including the Budos Band, Either/Orchestra, and many others-and considers what factors, musical or otherwise, led to various stylistic ideas and developments during the process of the phenomenon's gestation.3 Each of the ensembles in question draws inspiration from particular elements of Ethiopian music in their own distinctive ways, but the common denominator is the Ethiopiques series, a twenty-three volume series of recordings that consists mostly of reissued Ethiopian music from the 1960s and 1970s.

I base my findings not only on theoretical works in global popular music and cultural studies, but also on close readings of Ethiopiques's liner notes, interviews, and blogs.4 The significance of the Ethiopiques series' role in presenting, documenting, and popularizing Ethiopian music from the 1960s to 1970s-a period series director and founder Francis Falceto has termed Ethiopia's "golden age"-warrants further study, and is a project that fits within a body of literature by scholars working on globalization, recording studios, and hybrid genres in popular music.5 For the purposes of this essay, I look exclusively at the reissued Ethiopiques volumes from the "golden age," as these have been the most...