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By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Monday, May 11, 2008.

Aster Aweke is the Ethiopian singer I most admire. I read about Gigi before I listened to her, but I could not imagine any singer from East Africa displacing Aster in my ear. When I heard Gigi’s debut release, I was like, ok, it’s cool but it didn’t move me like Aster did.

Gigi sounded too self-consciously fusion-oriented to me. The traditional Ethiopian aspects were muted. On the other hand, while Aster is clearly a modern singer with R&B inclinations (you might think of Aster as having the passion of Aretha Franklin), Aster’s music nevertheless reveled in Ethiopian traditions, including acoustic instrumentation, which was the exact opposite of what I heard on Gigi’s debut.


Also, although Gigi had a bunch of jazz musicians on her debut, most of the jazz elements were muted in favor of fusion. The most successful track is the last of the album, Adwa,” a feature with Pharoah Sanders that is both the most beautiful and totally unlike the other cuts.

As it turns out, not only was Aster a major inspiration for Gigi, but paradoxically Aster started trying to go pop while Gigi dug into her roots. Aster has released a couple of cheesy electronic albums. So horrible, I shudder. And then here comes Gigi’s Zion Roots. Produced by her husband, Bill Laswell, this album has a near-perfect Ethiopian acoustic sound—no excessive synth sweeps, no heavy-handed drum machines, no formulaic arrangements. Instead Gigi and Laswell assembled an international cast of musicians who coalesce with a handful of Ethiopian nationals into a perfectly-synched musical aggregation.

The core of the band is Bill Laswell on acoustic guitar (whereas he usually plays electric bass), Karsh Kale on tabla, Ayib Deng (from Senegal) on percussion, Tony Cedras on accordion and guitar, beautiful tenor saxophone from Moges Habte of Ethiopia, plus sensual and sensitive acoustic support on traditional instruments such as the kirar harp and the washint flute.

But as wonderful as the music is, as beautifully recorded as the audio is, it’s still Gigi’s gig and though it is not presented as a Gigi solo album, that is precisely what it is. Her vocal work is, to use a cliché, angelic—Ethiopian angelic.

Gigi told a writer for Pulse, "There are five different vocal modes in the Ethiopian style. You can write millions of songs in one of those modes. It is in the way you phrase; it can sound like a modern song. And it makes the words sound differently. You can use the Bati mode, for instance, in so many styles. But you know when somebody is singing a happy song, they are singing about life. You communicate the sound. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics of a song you understand the feeling; it is universal."

Gigi was born in 1974 in rural
. "I grew up singing in the Ethiopian Church, which is actually not allowed for women, but there was a priest at my home who taught me how to sing the songs. And I listen to a lot of West African music, South African music, hip hop, and funk, so you feel all that in the melodies. Even if it’s in Amharic, people can appreciate this music."

Gigi has dedicated her life to her music. When she was 19 she ran away from home, journeying to
Nairobi, Kenya where she started a trio. Beyond singing, she composes and arranges. What is distinctive about Zion Roots is that the music is both futuristic in its fusion elements and at the same time totally successful in its melding of diverse musicians to play music based on traditions that are foreign to some of them.


These roots are also a futuristic fruit which is traditional in its specificity of forward-looking sounds—a literal ‘world music’ mélange that has specific ethnic Ethiopian roots. Thus, as soon as you hear Zion Roots, you know it is Ethiopian, but you also know there are non-Ethiopian elements at work.

Although, there is not a note of reggae on the album, Zion Roots has the same feel that roots reggae has: elemental rhythm pulses, memorable melodies with innovative lead vocals that move from plaintive moans to exultant whoops, weaving a sonic flying carpet of trance-inducing music.

Zion Roots is akin to Rokia Traore’s recent work—African women singing of life, culture, the land, a specific type of love that is far broader than the emphasis (and some would say exploitation) of romantic love. Gigi offers us a cornucopia of sensual sounds while adroitly avoiding vulgar “hootchie mama” sexiness.

There is also a political content, not in a partisan way, not advocating a specific organization or theory, but rather drawing on the tradition of the artist as social critic. In
there are Azmari, who are what some music writers have called "angry folk singers who take aim at Ethiopian culture with savage tongue and cutting wit."


Gigi is aware of this tradition and it is this willingness to critique the culture she loves so deeply that makes the music so relevant, even if we don’t understand a word of it and even if the lyrics covertly infer the critique rather than overtly denounce any particular wrong.

Gigi has given us an astounding release that mesmerizes the listener. Zion Roots is a traditionally grounded album that points to the future. Music produced by an African woman. Give thanks.

"My father is a businessman, and is very hostile to the fact that I am a singer. I had to run away from home to follow my vocation. He believes that it is shameful to perform in public. Even if I became a big star, he wouldn’t change his mind."
— Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw

To listen to an eight-minute audio interview with Gigi, click here:



Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.


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