The tour of Australian band Black Jesus Experience (BJX) to Southern Africa during Africa Month, May 2015, provided a launchpad for innovation and cross over inAfrican music. BJX have taken the sultry and evocative sounds of Ethio-jazz and bop music to a wider audience by combining the free flowing and funky compositions of Ethiopian jazz maestros’ such as Mulato Astetke with a tight brass section and hip hop.
When BJX went home to Melbourne, they left behind a nostalgia for jazz rap fusion with their first performances on the continent at the Orbit Jazz Bar in Johannesburg and Chairman Jazz Lounge in Durban. They left behind a strong Ethiopian influence in Swaziland with their recordings, workshops and performance on the Bushfire festival. And they left behind their lead rapper Zimbabwean born, Liam Monkhouse; aka Mr. Monk.
Mr. Monk embarked on a five month journey along the East Coast of Africa, work-shopping, documenting and experiencing the uniquely conscious style of African hip hop from Addis Adaba and Nairobi to Arusha, Dar es Salaam and Harari, to Cape Town.
“Hip Hop is huge. It is the soundtrack of the urban youth and the marginalized. There is a big underground movement everywhere I have been. People value conscious lyrics. There is a strong socio-political consciousness for the injustices in their lives and a big aspirational hunger. And there is a natural talent. I see the value of hip hop as this underground conversation and language that gives people this strong pride in self-expression. I see its power as a tool for self-empowerment, education, fun and community." Mr Monk
Mr. Monk was in Kenya for three weeks hosting workshops at the Goethe institute with some of the more established MC’s, singers, dancers and artists in Nairobi and visiting the suburbs to inspire the youth.
He said, “The Kenyan hip hop is cool and original. They are keeping it true to their own language and Swahili has a very rhythmic quality so it gels well with hip hop. The Swahili language is alive. There is an African culture to the place. Most of them are socially conscious, rapping about the poverty, disparity, economic inequality, corruption and greed.”
Dandora hip hop city is on the edge of Dandora, a very poor working class neighbourhood of Nairobi. The Dandora hip hop city was created by Juliani, one of the biggest successes of hip hop in Kenya, who is actively putting the fruits of these successes back into his community. In Dandora, Mr Monk hosted workshops and a cypher, where the rappers collaborated live on stage. In Zimmerman, another working class suburb of Nairobi, Mr. Monk joined up with Kaledzi, an artist, puppeteer, percussionist and rapper from Mombassa to make a film and song to bring insight to the neighbourhood. The title of the song they composed together is translated from the Swahili to mean, ‘It is what it is.’
Mr. Monk said, “These neighbourhoods that I visited are not on the tourist trail. What I learnt is that there is a strong sense of community in these places. There is some degree of poverty and a rural existence. There are all these fields and people growing their crops in the middle of apartment blocks. It is an interesting intersection of traditional ways and urban existence.”
Mr. Monk went to Tanzania, where he joined in on the Monday night jam sessions at a lodge in Zanzibar before making his way to Arusha, Northern Tanzania where he volunteered and provided workshops on writing and recording at the United African Alliance Community Centre. This education centre and orphanage is run by Mama C, spoken word artist, traditional instrumentalist and ex Black Panther.
Mr Monk said, “Creativity, music and art is a huge part of their curriculum. It is a natural part of their culture. Everyone was singing. We came up with a song about dreams. A positive song: about fulfilling their lives, self-betterment, having a home and being successful in their career.”
In Dar es Salaam Mr Monk found himself at a hip hop cypher with about seventy rappers from novice to professional sharing the platform in a good atmosphere of encouragement and community. This was a breakthrough experience.
He said, “It reminded me why I gravitated to hip hop as my vehicle for artistic impression initially. It was hugely inspiring. There is obviously enough street level support for artists to make a living. Hip hop is big.”
From Tanzania he travelled to his birth place Harari where he enjoyed wild life and catching up with his family. He kept the hip hop mission strong and performed with Black Fari a prominent graffiti artist and rapper, and Cynic an up and coming underground MC. These rappers told him about the “Afrikan Hip Hop caravan,” a Pan African organisation and collaborative network with host festivals and an artist collective for the hip hop community all over Africa.
One rapper on the Afrikan hip hop caravan is Zenzola from Cape Town. And that is where Mr. Monk is headed to complete his African tour. All his work, the songs, the friendships, the videos, the realisations and research will be compiled and released in a digital compilation album with a powerful vision for education and social upliftment.
Mr. Monk said, “One of my realisations from travelling and recording is the opportunity I have to promote and publicise African hip hop to a wider audience. There is a lot of talent but not necessarily the same level of promotion and exposure as other places. My project will expose underground African hip hop to a broad audience, especially Australia and will expose the underground hip hop network. There are a number of African artists in Australia and I think there is an opportunity to start a relationship between Australia and Africa with myself, an African.”
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 players from the Ethiopian National soccer team in Melbourne.
Lead singer Enushu is Ethiopian by birth and sings in the Ethiopian Amharic language, which adds the floating sound of the impenetrable highlands of the horn of Africa to the Black Jesus Experience. 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 on 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.
The music of Black Jesus Experience is not only typified by the delightful embellishments of the traditional Ethiopian music. The big brass sounds of saxophone and trumpet produce the constant and powerful refrains, keeping the musical focus before occasionally breaking into rolling solos that melt evocatively into the East African musical modes. Zimbabwean born hip hop artist Liam Monkhouse poises himself on top of the rhythm adding his versatile vexations at liberty, and lead singer Enushu, the only Ethiopian in this distinctly Ethiopian ensemble, presents the indescribable sound of this joyously abundant ensemble.
Ian Dixon described the outstanding elements of this music, poetically as the “unfathomable nuances,” and the “mysteries of time.” 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.