Struggling to find any local food on the first night of a musical and cultural exchange to the medieval walled city of Harar in Ethiopia with the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner, producers Richard Russell and Rodaidh McDonald ended up in a US themed mini-restaurant called Fresh Touch. The duo were over with a group of musicians from the US and UK, learning Ethiopian musical scales, time signatures and complex rhythms through collaborations with the local musicians, dancers and vocalists they met. Making field recordings everywhere they went, from hotel rooms and mini-vans to temples and airport waiting lounges, Russell and McDonald cut up, processed and restructured the recordings into four tracks fusing traditional African rhythms and singing with experimental electronics, loops and sampling. Adopting the name Fresh Touch as their own, Russell and McDonald have just released the results as The Ethiopian EP.
AnOther exclusives presents the video for Harar Rhythm, a collaboration with Zinner, featuring psychedelically bleached archival footage of Ethiopia’s messianic Emperor Haile Selassie, traditionally garbed musicians and a timeless vision of the medieval walled city. Here Zinner, back in New York after performing an orchestral piece he wrote at the Sydney Opera House with 45 other musicians, shares his love of Ethiopiques and the experience of visiting the otherworldly heart of Africa.
What was your role in the production of Harar Rhythm?
It was a collaboration. Richard and Rodiadh sent me the raw beat, and I added vocal samples, melodeon, guitar and some synth. We emailed the track back and forth, working on each other's parts, and adding our own things. The samples were from these incredible women singers we met in Harar. Their style of vocal music and way of singing is dying out, so we all thought it was very important to help this get heard, in whatever way we could.
Is African music a big influence for you?
Absolutely, there is still so much more for me to hear and discover, but generally rhythm and the rhythms found in Africa, specifically Ethiopia and Nigeria, have been very inspiring.
"All the Ethiopian musicians we met were incredibly humble and insanely talented, while being gentle, friendly and curious. I don’t think you can walk away from an experience like that and not have it affect you in some way"
How did the musucal exchange come to Ethipia come aboiut in 2010 and who organised it?
I was invited by Africa Express, an organisation started by Damon Albarn bringing Western musicians and artists to different countries in Africa. I was really excited as I've been a fan of the Ethiopiques series [re-releases of Ethiopian and Eritrean music by Parisian label Buda Musique] for a long time. About 20 of us went down to Addis Ababa and Harar, basically seeing music, dance, and culture from early in the morning until (very) late at night.
What was it like working with the local musicians and recording in odd places?
We weren’t really recording, except for Rodaidh who was doing stuff on his laptop in airports and the hotel, but every night we would be hanging out or jamming at a bar or club with local musicians... it was incredible.
What did you learn from the Ethiopian musicians?
All the musicians we met were incredibly humble and insanely talented, while being gentle, friendly and curious. I learned about their scales, rhythms, instruments – as well as the climate from which that music arose – all very different to ours. I don’t think you can walk away from an experience like that and not have it affect you in some way.
How did it differ from the musical culture of the US?
The thing about Ethiopia, coming from America, is that it is completely different in absolutely every way you can imagine, which is mostly a wonderful thing. I've spent time in Indonesia and Japan, and found those places much easier to comprehend. Directly experiencing the music and the musicians we met was truly the optimal way to begin to understand and relate to what I was seeing.
Text by William Alderwick
Founder and former editor-in-chief of Under/current Magazine, William Alderwick is a London-based editor and writer.