United Colours of Africa
Overview of the Black Jesus Experience
The jazz, funk hip hop infused Ethiopian style music of Melbourne based band Black Jesus Experience, takes the listener deep into the golden era of Ethiopian music and well beyond into the present moment.
Band leader and saxophone player, Peter Harper has always had a strong bond to Ethiopia with his father teaching music there during the height of the golden era (1963) and through playing soccer with the Ethiopian National soccer team in Melbourne.
Enushu and Peter run a highly successful Ethiopian restaurant in Melbourne, called African Horn. Black Jesus Experience have played there every week for the last seven years.
Peter says, “We have seen thousands of people come through. We have introduced them to the idea of multi culturalism and the Ethiopian culture, colour and flavour. And many people have gone onto to tour to Africa because of it and experience more colours and sounds and flavours…”
Trumpet player Ian Dixon says, “ We have people in the band from very diverse musical, artistic and creative backgrounds. The sound arises from (at the moment) eight different musical perspectives. We are very lucky to be in Melbourne. It has been quite a magnet for musicians for a long time in Australia. The standard of musicianship, the openness to new influences, the hunger and energy levels are very high. It is a great place to create things.”
Multi-culturalism is a proud part of Melbourne's history that the late inspirational prime-minister Gough Whitlan exemplified. The support of the Melbourne music scene is the foundation for this band of musicians to create a sound and performance that is enigmatic and unique.
What binds the urban multi culturalism of Melbourne and the ancient musicality and humanity of Ethiopia together is this loving sound and its' symbolic initiative for unity, togetherness and one-ness. Black Jesus Experience carries the metaphor of the Black Christ, which is a very healing ideology.
Following their tour they go to Ethiopia to make a record with the living legend, Ethiopian vibraphone player, professor, musical educator and very wise soul, Mulato Astatke.
Interview with Peter Harper and Ian Dixon Black Jesus Experience: December 2014 in Melbourne via Skype
Ian says “Paradox.”
Peter says, “I was living in Belgium. It is a Catholic City, the second largest in Europe. There is a glass statue of Mother Mary. Mary is holding a black baby. Every morning I say goodmorning to Black Jesus.”
Ian says, “It represents Paradox.”
What is the genre of your music?
Ian says, “Music genre is a handy way to point people in a direction or music stores to tell you which box to look in for the record you like. The way we look at it is we have people in the band from very diverse musical and artistic and creative backgrounds. The sound arises from (at the moment) eight different musical perspectives. The diversity of individuals, their backgrounds brings this out. The Ethiopian thread is very strong because of an interest amongst various members, because of Enushu, our singer. It is her homeland and she introduced us to the culture.”
Peter says, “Everybody came from Ethiopia and that has a big part to play as well.”
Does Enushu have a remarkable story?
Does exile play a part for Ethiopian musicians?
Peter says, “I don't know anything about that. Mulatu still lives in Ethiopia, he always has. Maybe running from Derg, there were problems with that. That might have had something to do with it, but most Ethiopians were not exiled. They live there. I don't really think about those things, I just think how much they love their country. And I understand why.”
Did the OAU play a role in Ethiopians loving their country?
Peter says, “I don't know, I think it is a beautiful country with a beautiful culture and beautiful people. That is why they love it. They don't give a shit about anything, they just love Ethiopia. And once you get there you will love it too.”
Ian says, “Being the location where the OAU is centred or started is to do with it not having been colonised, or only very briefly and quickly rejected, that makes for a very particular sense of identity in Ethiopia and when I have been to other African countries as a visitor you either sense a Eurocentricity by the fact that it has been colonised, but when I have been to Ethiopia there is none of that. There is no baggage with it. There is no difference or resentment. It is noticeable in Ethiopia. Australia has a chip on its shoulder very often because of its colonial history. You find pretty much none of that in Ethiopia.”
Peter says, “I agree with that totally. They have their own problems within their country of course like everywhere but they certainly have a feeling that that is their country, it is their home, their tradition, their culture and it is very strong.”
There is a mythology online that King David is a lyre player, is this relevant?
Ian says, “I don't know. Is he looking for a gig?”
Peter says, “We have all told a few corkies in our time. I would never have voted for him, even if he did play the lyre. We have quite a few liars working around here, one is leaving the country …”
Ian says, “Also Danny we have a very special relationship with him. He is a lovely guy. He is a good friend of the band. In my case he educated me a lot to Ethiopian music initially. He is quite a significant musician in Addis Adaba. He was the musical director for the national theatre for a long time. He still plays with us from time to time. Every Sunday we play at Peter and Enushu's placed ‘The Horn.' And there is a piano set up and any time Danny rolls up, he is invited onto stage. A little while ago we did a fantastic gig in the centre of Australia and Danny came up and did that, in the open spaces, out in the MaDonald Ranges, beautiful desert country, mountainous desert country. There are quite a few people independent of the band and also people who have been through Black Jesus Experience. It has stimulated their interest in Ethiopian music.
Peter says, “There is quite a large community here. There is more than 20 000 Ethiopians here. Well how many of them are Eritreans I am not sure exactly, maybe that figure is including some of the other East Africans, but there are quite a few. If you consider that there are more than 18, maybe 19 Ethiopian Restaurants that will give you an idea of how many. There are Ethiopian churches and communities and community centres and there is a whole suburb here that is packed full of Ethiopians.”
Is that unique to Melbourne?
Online they say Mulatu is the only vibraphone player in Ethiopia?
Peter says, “He may or may not be, it is quite possible, but he is certainly a unique musician. Back in the 70's and 80's there is a very big possibility that he was the only one. There are 90 million people there. Maybe someone else has got one tucked in his back room.”
Is there a space for education with what he is doing?
Peter says, “He is a general music educator. He teaches piano, he teaches percussion. He just teaches music. He's a professor, he is a very wise man. The government consult him about all sorts of things to do with culture. He's highly regarded on all aspects of Ethiopian culture. And he has his own school as well.”
Ian says, “He has a very developed talent for sharing his knowledge and a great desire for sharing his knowledge. We have done several tours with him here, in Europe and spent a lot of time with him. He's quite notable for playing with people who also have a public stature as well as a musical stature in that he is absolutely generous with his sense of creativity. He is not at all defensive. He is a joy to talk with, sharing what he listens to, talking about, showing you his theories of music. He is very proud about the Ethiopian contribution to the history of music. He is the most positive guy you could ever want to be around. He sees beauty in everything. He recognises beauty all the time. He is terrific. Often you work with stars and they can be very defensive. Mulatu is not like that. He is a real pleasure to know and become a friend of.”
Peter says, “And he respects his musicians very very highly.”
How are you documenting this journey?
Peter says, “We are doing it for a documentation of a history in the hope to reach more people. It is a documentation in itself.”
Ian says, “In the practical thing of coming up with historical objects, part of this tour, when we are in Ethiopia we will be doing works with Mulatu, a collaborative work and a very special once off concert in Addis Adaba and also doing recordings. We were working on setting up composition beds at the moment. Also documentation would be that we are having this conversation with you. Our talent is making music and yours may be as well, but it is also as a wordsmith. Another collaboration.”
Peter says, “We like to have a history and a desire to be inclusive and so in music creation we collaborate with other artists. There was a big festival here, a world music exposition and we did some recordings with a terrific South Africa artist, Bongeziwe Mabandla . People were blown out by him, they loved him.”
Ian says, “Beautiful singer, he came and joined us at Peters' place for our regular Sunday performance. We made music on the spot, it was terrific. And then we went into studio and have done some recordings. Hear he performs typically on his own with a guitar and singing with a beautiful delicate presence. There are musical collaborations that we do with him and other people and there is documentation. We have done tours where film makers have come along with us. We have run into various film makers or TV people on the way and now this is a collaboration now, where you can spread the word as someone who is very sensitive to the deeper meanings of music as well as the surface joy.”
Africa Day 25 th May is there an event in Addis?
Peter says, “I don't know if they have a national day there do they? Is national day throughout Africa?”
Ian says, “I am not sure what their celebrations are, but I think it is a day of note because I know Barney, a Nigerian friend of ours from Egypt 80, he particularly noted Africa Day celebrations. Vernon another Nigerian friend of mine in England, he was particularly taken by it. Contemporary artists in Ethiopia, the piano player Samuel Yirga is a very interesting artist with a great mix of keeping the history and new music.”
Peter says, “Look the scale is just five notes. The music goes a helova lot deeper than that. The sophistication is usually found more in the rhythm than in the five notes and usually in the embellishment of those five notes. The intonation, the embellishment and the rhythm and the form. The five notes are pretty simple. You just go ABCDE, any 5 is a 5 note pentatonic but really you need a helova lot more than just those five notes. That is very much the very very beginning, seriously that is the easy bit.”
Ian says, “The thing with Mulatu playing vibraphone which is a tempered instrument like piano is that Peter and I both play untampered instruments. Instruments which the tuning is … you name note sbut actually the nuance of that tuning is phenomenal. The traditional instruments that are played it is the same thing. Krar, Messengo, Washint which is like the flute. Messengo is almost like a single stringed violin, but with the body of a banjo.
Peter says, “The intonation is so completely different that so much so the fourth and fifth note you can hardly find it on a normal instrument.”
Ian says, “Where a piano would define a note. You say the name and the note and that is what you get but to us as un-tempered players, the piano is just constantly out of tune. At any one time you can manage one note in tune and the rest are approximations. One beautiful thing working with Enushu, who comes from that Ethiopian background, her tuning is entirely untampered. It is not where the piano is it is where un-tempered instruments, wind instruments like we play live.
Peter says, “Again the embellishments are just absolutely wonderful. If you study that you will get closer to the felling of it. And of course the polyrhythmic nature of everything is just an absolute joy. It is what we study to try and embody the time.”
Ian says, “Mysteries of time.”
Ian says, “Unfathomable nuance.”
Peter says, “Yeah, exactly it is like the difference between an Ethiopian restaurant and a Chinese restaurant. They are both fantastic, they are just different.”
Have you come across Getatchew?
Peter says, “He is a lovely tenor player. Completely different to any Western saxophone player that is for sure. Completely different vibrato, different sense of embellishment, very free time too. A big study, his time is quite floaty.”
Peter says, “We create a scene by playing every week at least once or twice and doing festivals and just doing it practically.”
Ian says, “We are very lucky to be in Melbourne. It has been quite a magnet for musicians for a long time in Australia. The standard of musicianship is very high so the openness to new influences and the hunger and energy levels are very high. It is a great place to create things.”
How will collaborations work?
Ian says, “The general purpose for us of the tour, and Pete made this very clear to me a couple of tours ago. The reason we do this is for our own inspiration. People can sit where they are and be comfortable and things go on. We like to put a bit of a burr under the saddle blanket, go out and be inspired by new things. We give when we perform and when we collaborate with people and new places it is stimulating and inspiring. We surf on the energy of the place. It is a great way to bring your own creativity to the fore, rather than struggling away in a void all the time.”
Peter says, “It is quite simple, the main reason why we are going to do anything is to inspire other people and obviously to go somewhere you are going to be inspired by that place and by the vibe. It will come out in the music. It is food. The biggest thing that has influenced our music is the multi culturalism of this place. Which is Melbourne. That is what has influenced or music more than anything.
Ian says, “It has been a very deliberate policy and direction that the culture is exemplified by somebody like Gough Whitlan the former prime-minister who recently died, he was very strong on it. And Melbourne is an example of it.”
Peter says, “Ethio bop is a name I coined for one of my songs. We are looking for a much broader word than that. When I have got it I will tell you what it is.”
Peter says, “Bigger than that.”
The Sound of Ethio-Jazz is heard with Raphael Anker of the Imperial Tiger Orchestra - Switzerland
The Imperial Tiger Orchestra is a collaboration where Swiss musicians are playing music from the golden age of Ethiopia, 1950'S - 1970's. I interviewed band originator and trumpet player Raphael Anker.
He said: “Basically I was asked at a club in Geneva to make something new. For long time I knew this music. I am not Ethiopian at all! I had a friend who travelled long time in Sudan and then in Yemen. He brought tapes from there and I listened to them. I put together a five piece band. Long time I listened to African music. We were invited to Addis for festival Du Musique Ethiopian. It is ruled by Francis Falcetto who makes the series Ethiopiques. There we discovered the wide variety of all the Ethiopian music. It is tricky as the majority of the songs we are playing are usually sung. I have always had the conviction that it is more interesting to have an instrument than a backing band and a singer.
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