Aster Aweke grew up in Addis Ababa, surrounded by traditional Ethiopian sounds, Euro-pop, disco and American soul music. She got her start singing with various traditional and “popular” groups, although Ethiopian pop music is heavily based on traditional styles. Her first cassettes, recorded by Ali Tango (one of the country’s best producers), were hits, but the repressive post-Selassie dictatorship sent Aweke into self-imposed exile by 1979. She settled in the African diplomatic community of Washington DC, intending to pursue a university degree but music took precedence. After a sold out run at Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club in London, Aweke was contacted by Iain Scott and Bunt Stafford Clark, producers of Anglo-Indian singer Najma, and recorded her Western debut for London’s Triple Earth label. Columbia picked Aweke’s album up for domestic release in ’90, touting her as an Ethiopian “soul singer,” probably overestimating her commercial appeal and misunderstanding her artistry and music.
The horn charts on Aster may lean westward, but the slightly off-center rhythms and Aweke’s soulful Amharic wail and ululating Arabic vocal style don’t sound like any kind of music Americans are familiar with. Aweke’s singing is impressive, but the linear construction of the tunes makes repeated listenings a must for most Westerners. “Tizita (Memories),” a traditional lament to lost love that’s backed by a solo oud is a low-key sizzler, while “Teyim (Sepia),” with its organ and bluesy guitar, is as close to American R&B as Aweke gets. The rest of the album is solidly Ethiopian, despite the Western instruments.
Kabu is slightly less African than Aweke’s debut, and heavy on midtempo grooves and ballads. “Yedi Gosh (My Guy)” opens the disc with a bit of Motown in its bouncy rhythm, but the album otherwise explores the band’s richly atmospheric playing. The synthesizer on “Kabu (Sacred Rock)” mimics a bass kalimba while Aweke’s vocals swoop and soar like a hummingbird; “Eyoha” is solidly funky; “Bitchengna (Loneliness)” is as bluesy and moody as anything Anita Baker has cut; “Tchewata (“Romance),” the token traditional track, is one of its standouts.