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Samuel Yirga: A Prodigy Reviving Ethiopian Jazz

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Samuel Yirga: A Prodigy Reviving Ethiopian Jazz

Music Reviews

Samuel Yirga: A Prodigy Reviving Ethiopian Jazz

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Twenty-something piano prodigy Samuel Yirga is too young to have experienced the early '70s jazz movement in his native Ethiopia, yet he's absorbed its music deeply and plenty more as well. Reviewer Banning Eyre says Yirga's debut album, "Guzo," or "Journey" revives and updates Ethiopian jazz.

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BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: Samuel Yirga's talent was recognized early, but music educators in Ethiopia placed roadblocks in his path. First, they told him his hands were too small to play piano. Later, he was thrown out of a prominent music school for experimenting too much.

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EYRE: Yirga fit in better in the anything-goes world music scene in England. At last, a place where his penchant to fuse jazz, Latin music, classical, pop and Ethiopian sounds made perfect sense.

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EYRE: On this track, a Fender Rhodes piano vamps while a traditional violin plays dark harmonies to conjure a delicious mood of foreboding. This sound instantly allies Yirga with Ethiopia's fabled musical past in the '70s, a time when indigenous folk musicians, brass bands and local funksters found common ground in the capital, Addis Ababa.

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EYRE: That's Samuel Yirga in a kind of retro soul-jazz collaboration with the Creole Choir of Cuba. Quirky, yes, but decidedly original.

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EYRE: Among the intriguing ensemble pieces on this CD are three solo piano compositions, and this is where we can really take the measure of a maverick young player.

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EYRE: Samuel Yirga throws a lot into the mix with this CD. He actually risks being overwhelmed by his influences, whether the unmistakable rhythms and modes of Ethiopia, or any of his other wide-ranging borrowings. Yirga has had to fight for his right to be himself. And in the end, the voice and vision of a distinctive composer shines through in this impressive debut.

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CORNISH: Banning Eyre is senior editor at AfroPop.org. He reviewed "Guzo" by Samuel Yirga.

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