Back in 2006, I received a commission from The Polycubist at Skor Records, to write a piece based upon a series of Amharic and English language spoken word recordings by the Los Angeles based Ethiopian reggae artist, Isaac Haile Selassie. The concept was to showcase a variety of interpretations of the spoken word. The Polycubist selected Jack Dangers, dubLoner (aka [a]pendics.shuffle aka Ken James Gibson), Gys and me, Ruoho Ruotsi, to be featured on the EP.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to work with the recording of Isaac Haile Selassie’s sonorous and emotive voice and chose to build my track from the Amharic language spoken word. Having grown up in West Africa and as a musician with experience living in a variety of cultural contexts, I find myself somewhat sensitive to the aesthetics of blendings of cultural-musical memes. For instance, the musicality of a sung verse by a Malian griot (like the one that backs Salif Keita) has a certain intrinsic beauty, in the articulation of the consonants, the flow of the vowels or simply the rich vocal texture. Therefore, the process of writing an accompanying melodic line or bass part to such a verse must not only consider tonal and rhythmical aesthetics, but must also function to amplify or reveal latent aspects of the original sung verse in a coherent fashion. This is crucial to show respect and sensitivity to the spirit of the source material, while bringing something new and engaging.
These were some of the thoughts that grazed in my mind as I listened through the Amharic spoken word recording the first couple of times, contemplating the delicate challenge of writing new music for these words. My first step, I decided, was to spend a couple of weeks “marinating” in Ethiopian music sung in Amharic to get an idea of some common musical contexts for the language. Additionally, I was curious to discover the timbres of the instruments common in folk and popular musics from the Horn of Africa, hoping perhaps for the possibility of weaving such an instrument’s textures into my piece.
After a deeply unsatisfying web search, I asked one of my Ethiopian-American friends, Teddy, where I could track down some CDs from his motherland. He referred me to his brother, who pointed me to a couple of Ethiopian craft stores in Oakland, that also carried selections of Ethiopian popular and folk CDs. A short BART and bike ride later, I found myself in a little craft shore, crammed to the hilt with carvings, prints, wall-hangings and Ethiopian knick-knacks of every colour, shape and smell! To my dismay, the “wall of music” was behind the counter! So for the next hour, with my most charming manners on display, I proceeded to make the very patient and not easily exasperated lady proprietor, play every CD she had available … I ended up buying about 8 CDs altogether, satisfied that I had reasonable coverage of contemporary Ethiopian and especially Amharic language music.
Of all the music acquired, a certain album emerged as the clear standout. It featured Alèmu Aga on the Bèguèna, playing to his contemplative spoken word. The last track of this CD featured an instrumental version with many sampledelic multi-minute cuts of sheer Bèguèna goodness. To give a little background, the Bèguèna is an Ethiopian 10-stringed instrument that resembles a large lyre. It has U-shaped leather thong buzzers that are placed between each string and the bridge. It is played by plucking the strings, which causes the buzzers to vibrate against the edge of the bridge producing a characteristic buzzing action that helps to create its unique sound. The Bèguèna dates back to the time of King David and has a revered role in Ethiopian society. It is used in large part for meditation and in religious and cultural ceremonies.
Finally, ready to start writing, I sampled sections of the final instrumental track on the Alèmu Aga CD. These sections, which were usually multiple-bar-length recurring melodic motives, were then passed through filterbanks -> envelopers -> delay units, where the essences of the buzz and string timbres that I found most interesting were emphasized and further sculpted. I then separated each passage into a series of shorter note-length sections that I mapped to my clavier keyboard. Next, I turned on my hard-disk recorder and spent a couple of hours playing and improvising with these short-short sections to try create some new melodic phrases and interesting “one-shots”. Afterwards, I waded through the recording and picked out the most compelling sections. These I inserted into my “ready-for-arrangement” folder.
Since the Bèguèna isn’t usually tuned to a Western diatonic scale, it was important to find compatible tonalities in which to play my synthesizers. So I did some listening and harmonic analysis of the best bits from above. Then, using the central tonality of the sampled and massaged material, I wrote some simple basslines in Reaktor to live in the space just above sub-bass, but below your standard bass guitar.
Now, with a series of bass and melodic passages that I was happy with, I loaded them up into Ableton Live, mapped them to my keyboard and improvised again, playing and mixing phrases to get some thoughts for the arrangement. While doing this, I used some factory-preset percussion (shekeres, etc) to give a basic sense of rhythmic structure. Once I had an idea of how the bass and melodic parts would work, I pulled in the raw, unprocessed recording of Isaac’s Amharic language spoken word and overlaid it on everything else. The phrasing didn’t quite match at first, so I split up the vocal into sections based on Isaac’s own phrasing and naturally longer pauses. This gave me about 8 or so sections, some as short as 15 seconds, others long up to 45 seconds long. Each vocal section now had its own pace and internal consistency. Now with these vocal sections as the foundation, I reworked my arrangement, matching the vocal, melodic and bass parts to live and develop together naturally.
Once I was happy with the vox, bass and melody, it was time to dive into the percussion. I own an African percussion sampler CD, that I bought 10 years ago around the time I acquired my first Yamaha hardware sampler. I wanted a clap-like sound, but something more organic than your standard drum machine clap or snare. So I searched for hands & feet clapping type sounds, loaded those up and sequenced them. Next, inspired by the thought of a large-waisted African auntie playing a shekere and grooving to these sounds, I fooled around with some shekere samples from the sampler until I was happy with how the results sat in the track’s empty spaces. I then mixed these into the background, using a combination of lower mix level and a bit of reverb as an insert to add to the spatial impression of distance from the listener. My initial percussion arrangements had a decidedly slow burning grooving nature, akin to a halfstep-dancehall-bastard-love-child. Initial feedback from the Isaac Selassie and The Polycubist leaned in a more directly danceable vein, so I bumped up the tempo and brought in the 4th kick.
For the final touches and to help bring the song’s structure into focus, I sequenced the interesting Bèguèna “one-shots” I’d initially created. I then added some snare drum dub-ification every 32 bars with careful attention to the length and textural qualities of the reverb tail. Next, I mixed Isaac’s vocal deeper into the surrounding music than I had originally, adding a healthy dose of send effects to my favourite reverbs, phasers and delays at key points. After all this sweetening, the breakdown about halfway through the track still felt rather anemic. This section needed something with a more robust transitional nature, so I mixed in some groovy reggae-style skanks passed through a LFO-synced resonant band-pass filter, to give a dash of tone color through the breakdown.
After completing the track, I rested my ears and brain for five days or so, before re-listening with a fresh perspective. I still liked everything and was a happily surprised in a few places. Further positive feedback from Isaac and The Polycubist cemented this as the final version.
That’s it! Thanks to Rayna for the opportunity to feature this song on her awesome blog and have me ramble about my processes.