Bole2Harlem: Hearing Ethiopia in New York In the '70s, Ethopia's capital, Addis Ababa, was awash in a hypnotic blend of Ethiopian rhythms, American jazz and European pop. When the ruler Haile Selassie died, so did the music scene. Now the Ethiopian sound is re-emerging — in New York.

Bole2Harlem: Hearing Ethiopia in New York

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


What's old is new again with the Ethiopian sound.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: In Ethiopia, the 1970s truly were a golden age of music. In the capital, Addis Ababa, you could hear a hypnotic blend of Ethiopian rhythms, American jazz and Euro-pop. And then politics changed. Emperor Haile Selassie died and so did that music.

It's reborn now, though, the Ethiopian sound again, in New York City. Producer Derek Rath has the story.

(Soundbite of music)

DEREK RATH: This is the cosmopolitan sound of 1970s Addis Ababa.

(Soundbite of music)

RATH: And this is the sound of the same Ethiopian cafe society 30 and 7,000 miles later.

(Soundbite of music)

RATH: Bole2Harlem is a group born in a musical meeting of the minds in a New York City restaurant called L'Orange Bleue, where African expatriates and others began swapping ideas in informal jam sessions. David Ashagre Schommer, a successful music producer, was there and saw the potential.

(Soundbite of song, "Bole2Harlem")

RATH. The infectious title song, "Bole2Harlem," explains both where the music comes from and where it's going. And Bole, the main airport in Addis Ababa, is the starting point.

Mr. DAVID SCHOMMER (Music Producer): There are these wonderful taxis which our cover sort of alludes to, where, you know, 12 people will pile into a taxi going in one direction on like a minibus and the guy will - on the outside are these little street poets and they'll sit there and they'll call out the destination where they're going, Bole, Bole, Bole (speaking foreign language). And then, you know, we sort of had this idea, what if we landed in Addis Ababa in one of our own taxis, and we're taking people to Harlem.

RATH: Schommer says Bole2Harlem taps two sources in creating its unique musical brew.

Mr. SCHOMMER: One is Ethiopia's, you know, rich musical culture and heritage. Another thing was the experience of living in Harlem and the different kinds of music that you come in contact, every day, living in Harlem - you know, great salsa, great meringue, great roots reggae, great hip-hop. There's gospel music spilling out of the churches, there's Islamic music...

(Soundbite of music)

RATH: (Unintelligible) sounds like Rastafarian reggae, but it's rhythms are from Bahia in Brazil. These diverse rhythms can be found in Ethiopian music, sung in the Amharic language.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People (Singers): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. SCHOMMER: Amharic music is in a 6/8 timeframe. Well, you go to the south, you have like Waletina(ph), and you have all these other beats, which are still very much 4/4. Like you go to the south, and you have this dunka dunk dung, dunka dunk dung, dunka dunk dung beat that we hear in Indian music, and we hear is, you know, brought over to hip-hop by Indian music, yet it's been in southern Ethiopia for a millennium.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. TIGIST SHIBABAW (Singer): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

RATH: The vocalist here is Tigist Shibabaw. She sings in the Abisha(ph) tradition, common to the horn of Africa. David Schommer hears her as a vital part of Bole2Harlem's sound.

Mr. SCHOMMER: I heard in Tigist's voice something really raw and guttural, and we got together and tried some stuff. And we had this common friend of ours, a really good friend of ours, Maki Serad(ph), and we said let's try and do this sort of Abisha MC kind of thing, and I think Tigist reflects, you know, sort of the sound of the golden age of Ethiopia, or that typically Abisha voice, and Maki reflects, you know, the new school of what's possible in terms of just evolution of like taking something and storytelling and just advancing it in that way.

(Soundbite of song, "Aya Bellow")

Ms. SHIBABAW: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

RATH: The songs from Bole2Harlem, like this one, "Aya Bellow," were recorded in between Schommer's regular production sessions.

Mr. SCHOMMER: As people would come through the studio on other things, I'd - what else are you working on? I'd just play it for them, and everyone who came through was compelled to just be like oh, let me play on that, man. Come on, come on. You know, it was the reverse of like having to call someone up and beg them to play on something. Like, I'm making something for myself. I have no money, but can you come play? Instead, it was like - please let me play. So it was just a really, really reassuring response to just music for music's sake.

(Soundbite of car starting)

Unidentified People: (Chanting) (Speaking foreign language)

RATH: Ethiopian music seems to be enjoying a Renaissance around the world. In an ironic coincidence, the same month that Bole2Harlem is released, the exiled Ethiopian dictator Mengistu, who silenced the golden age, was found guilty of genocide after a 12-year trial. Thankfully, the music never died. For NPR News, this is Derek Rath.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People (Singers): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

CHADWICK: Bole2Harlem is the title of the CD and the group. For more songs from the album, please go to our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People (Singers): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.