After struggling to establish himself, Abatte Barihun – a saxophonist who infuses Ethiopian music into jazz and blues – will perform at next week’s jazz festival in Eilat, and he’s even set up his own studio.
A few months ago, saxophonist Abatte Barihun watched a disconcerting program on the Ethiopian channel from his Bat Yam apartment – a documentary on the failed attempts of Israeli singers of Ethiopian descent to break into the pop market in their native land.
“That was a sad movie,” says Barihun. “Those singers took all their savings, traveled to Ethiopia, paid a lot of money to record their songs, issued the songs there – and in the end nothing happened. One of the singers recalled how he’d spent NIS 150,000. When I heard that I thought, ‘That much money?’ Perhaps, if there were a studio in Israel equipped to record Ethiopian music properly, they wouldn’t have had to travel at all.”
It was then that Barihun decided to build such a studio – not only for singers and musicians from Ethiopia, but for himself a well. Since the birth of his second son, Yisrael, about a year and a half ago, it’s been difficult for Barihun to practice in his small apartment. (Barihun’s firstborn, Nahum, remained in Ethiopia when Barihun came to Israel in 1999, and is now living in the United States with his mother, Barihun’s first wife ).
The studio, called Modes Ethiopia, is located near the new central bus station in Tel Aviv and also serves as a rehearsal space for Barihun. Technologically speaking, it is not an impressive studio; Barihun does not have the money for sophisticated equipment. But for starting vocalists of Ethiopian origin, who need instruction from an experienced musician like Barihun, it is enough.
The studio also serves members of the community who want to learn how to play the keyboard. One evening last week, a basic lesson was given at Modes Ethiopia: Three people in their late 20s sat playing the major scale over and over again, very slowly, stumbling many times along the way.
“Two of them have small children,” explained Barihun. “They’re planning to buy a keyboard to keep in their house and want to have some idea of how to play it.”
Barihun, who will perform next week at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, says he is pleased with the new studio and how everything there is progressing. He not only feels he is contributing to his community, but he can practice alone uninterrupted. He also admits that he’d rather earn a living from giving keyboard lessons than from playing keyboard gigs, something he suffered through for years in Israel. At Ethiopian music clubs, he says, they don’t need saxophonists – just keyboard players. The genre’s glorious tradition of wind instruments, of which Barihun is a product, disappeared once the synthesizer penetrated the market , an instrument he calls “the cancer of Ethiopian music.”
African roots of jazz and blues
Barihun, 39, was born and raised in Addis Ababa. On one side of his home was a school for classical music and on the other a military base, where a marching band would play. Barihun, who began playing the saxophone, found himself more attracted to the marches. At the age of 16 he enlisted in the army so he could study music and play in a military band, which he did for six years, performing throughout Ethiopia and also in many countries in the Eastern bloc.
He played with the army until one day the band’s bus was ambushed by rebel forces. For four hours, he relates, the rebels fired on the musicians. Some of the band members were killed; Barihun was wounded by two bullets.
From there, he joined the orchestra of the International Theater in Addis Ababa and also performed with a number of leading Ethiopian pop vocalists. In 1999, after he separated from his first wife and was missing family members who had immigrated to Israel in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon, he decided to come to this country as well. At the absorption center, the director asked him what he did. When Barihun replied that he was a saxophonist, the director reacted with astonishment.
“Saxophone?” she said. “Are there saxophones in Ethiopia?”
During his first years in Israel, Barihun had a difficult time finding work in the music industry, instead earning his living as a cleaner and a guard. In 2002, he met the pianist Yitzhak Yedid, from Jerusalem, and the two founded the duo Ras Deshen. I personally remember their performance at the 2003 Tel Aviv Jazz Festival – their first time playing on a prestigious stage – as one of the most exciting musical experiences of my life.
What Barihun and Yedid played that evening – a combination of free jazz and Ethiopian music, mixed with fragments of modern classical music – introduced me to a pure, unfamiliar and beautiful musical creation. And when Barihun sang “Behatito Kadus Kadus” (“You Alone are Holy Holy” ), an interpretation of a prayer the Ethiopian kessim (priests ) sing on the Jewish holidays, this added an additional dimension to the experience: A rare and moving demonstration of the Ethiopian roots of both jazz and the blues.
A moving encounter
Throughout the following years, Barihun began to establish himself on the local scene. Ras Deshen issued an album that won a great deal of praise, and he began playing with Yisrael Borochov as part of the East-West Ensemble and with the Afro-pop ensemble Kaluma. He also began combining Ethiopian music with piyyutim (Jewish hymns ) from the Middle Ages.
In 2006, Barihun returned to Addis Ababa for the first time, where he performed with Ras Deshen. More importantly, he also met with his son Nahum, whom he had not seen since 1999.
It was during that time that Barihun also finally got a saxophone of his own. His first five years in Israel he’d played on a saxophone obtained for him, in a circuitous way, by the director of the absorption center, as he could not afford to buy one of his own.
“Sometimes I’m afraid that, one day, someone will call and say I have to give it back,” he told Haaretz in 2004. Following that interview, he was contacted by a family who said they’d decided to buy him a saxophone.
Last week, in his small studio, Barihun played some of the pieces he’s been working on recently. For example, an excellent jazzy number that sounds almost like the classical hard bop of the 1960s, but with the Ethiopian nuance that is infused in everything he creates. He also played a deep and wonderful blues piece. Will he perform this music in Eilat?
“No,” he says. “I’ll do something else in Eilat. Lately I’ve been getting into music from here, from the Middle East, and I’ve been combining it with Ethiopian music and a bit of jazz. It’s natural, I’ve been here for 10 years now. I have a child who was born here; he’s an Israeli. He is called Yisrael. I can no longer move from Ethiopian music to free jazz without making a stop in the Middle East. I felt I needed to introduce this color into my music, and that’s what I will be playing in Eilat.”
Barihun will be accompanied next week by pianist David Adda, contrabassist Assaf Hakimi and drummer Alon Yoffe. Their performance that will open the second day of the Red Sea Jazz Festival.