Reviewed By: Will Connors
Last weekend was the closing of the Ethiopian Music Festival, and two very different concerts were held in
On Friday night a free concert at the expat hangout The Coffee House featured the visiting French jazz band Les Tigres des Platanes. In front of an enthusiastic crowd, the quartet pumped out their own eclectic versions of Duke Ellington, Mulatu Astatke, and Medeski, Martin and Wood tunes.
The leader, a saxophonist, greeted the audience with a simple, "Hello, good evening – we are French!" This seemed to please everyone immeasurably, even the Ethiopians in attendance, who laughed and cheered heartily. Then the music began.
There was the saxophonist, who led his band mates through a series of original interpretations of classics both old and new. The drummer, head shaved, chewed continuously on a toothpick as he bobbed up and down while competently supplying the beats. Tucked into a corner was the trumpeter, who seemed to get ahead of himself and attempt solos beyond his reach. Standing stolidly by the wall was the bass tuba player. His steady play carried the band, which became evident when he took a break and left the other three to fend for themselves.
Through two energetic sets, Les Tigres des Platanes supplied a fervent, up-tempo show that revealed the group to be both musically skilled and adept at crowd maintenance.
The next night the Alliance Ethio-Française hosted a concert featuring Jonny Raga, the up-and-coming Ethiopian reggae artist. Les Tigres des Platanes performed again as the opening act, playing a much shorter and less lively set.
Three back-up singers ambled up to their microphones, and the sound was no better as they began to sing. When Raga took the stage, the crowd cheered feebly, clearly put off by the technical problems with the sound system.
Unlike the Coffee House, and most good performance spots for that matter, the
Not five minutes after the performance began, all of the speakers on the right side of the stage shorted out. This created a distorted and uneven sound for some, and no sound at all for others.
The sound inconsistencies weren't the only problems with the show. Two of the back-up singers acted as if they had better places to be, and the third was so nervous that I became uncomfortable just looking at him. He had the deer-in-the-headlights look dead on, and I don't think he changed positions once.
Jonny Raga (Yohannes Bekle) is short - very short. Even the smallish back-up singers, including one woman, towered over him. It did not help that the seats looked down on the stage. From the back rows, he looked comical, especially when he jumped around in an effort to hype the placid audience. From up close, the appearance of the singer was only slightly better. This would not have bogged down a more seasoned performer of small stature, e.g. Paul Simon, but Raga's height inevitably skewed the performance.
What music could be heard was not terrible, and two songs that have been getting some airplay on Addis radio were actually pretty catchy. Raga has a good voice; he hit a wide range of notes and sang capably in a number of styles. His band was sloppy, though, especially the rhythm guitarist, whose solos sounded more like cheesy 80s rock than modern reggae.
The set was only about six songs long; far too short a set for the headliners and culminating performers of a music festival. After closing the set with one of their two hits, they played an encore of…the exact same song. I'd never seen a band close their set and perform an encore three minutes later with the same song.
Raga and his band have a lot of work to do on their stage presence and performance skills before they become successful outside Addis.
Shuk and Tuss
A friend tells me that Raga is always at a local gym, not working out as much as working the crowd. He walks among the gym members and chats them up, often acting surprised and incensed when someone doesn't know who he is. A word of advice to Mr. Yohannes: acting indignant when people don't recognize you is not the best way to win over fans, and from the looks of your latest performance, you're going to need as many fans as you can get.