Passion for music
When some three years ago pop singer Zeritu Kebede was asked who was arranging her second album, she came up with unfamiliar name, Samuel Yirga. The interviewer seemed to have no idea who he was. Zeritu profusely described him as someone on his way to becoming a much sought-after person.True, Samuel is rightly considered as one of the rising stars in the new generation of Ethio-jazz musicians, not only in the home front but also overseas. A couple of weeks ago, he has released his debut solo recording, the four tracks EP ‘Hagere’ in England, where he made a solo appearance at the acclaimed venue WOMAD Charlton Park. His full album is coming out in September on Real World Records.
Samuel is also part of the UK-Ethiopian band Dub Colossus that has performed at WOMAD for the last three consecutive years. His piano playing celebrates the golden era of Ethiopian jazz, pop and traditional roots music which he explores in his unique personal style. His petite presence and boyish figure notwithstanding, he delivers a performance that the Financial Times described as jazzy improvisations that threatened to burst out of the set.
From London where he is currently staying, the pianist generously took time out to answer to my e-mailed questions. Here is a portrait made based on that interview.
Samuel’s musical journey was a process which was full of “ups and downs,” as he describes it. “I knew music was what I wanted to try to do. I didn’t believe for sure that I would be able to do it,” he says. He grew up in the vibrant university neighborhood Sidist Kilo area. He was able to enjoy music at home and he remembers spending hours lost in the rhythms booming from the radio. “When I came across something I liked, I wanted to find out as much as I could about it. I enjoyed telling friends what I felt about the songs I heard,” he recalls. Samuel found his first music teacher in his own neighborhood. Tesfaye Lemma who was at the time Addis’ foremost nurturer of theatrical and musical talent had been much of a help. “I learned so much from just watching and being around him,” he says. One thing that particularly stands out for Samuel was the day he led an 80-group children choir under Tesfaye’s direction. Samuel’s senior essay paper at the Addis Ababa’s Yared School of Music was on his mentor, for whom he obviously carried great admiration.
Samuel might never have become a pianist if he didn’t go out on a walk one morning. In an errand to a pharmacy, he met an an acquaintance who told him that Yared School of Music was holding auditions for new students. On the following day, he went to the school and took his place in line with the other prospective students. He was given oral and written examinations and for his surprise, of the 2,500 people who took the exam, Samuel came third. Days later, at the age of sixteen, Samuel enrolled at the school. Several years younger than any of the other students, he was given a chance to choose the instrument. His choice was the piano but there was a problem. The head of department told him that his hands were unusually small for a pianist. Samuel wasn’t ready to give up and he said he didn’t believe in small or big hands. “Music is about what’s inside,” he argued. Eventually, the school relented and let him study the instrument that he’d so longed to get his hands on.
At Yared, Samuel said he started everything from the scratch. “I took classical music course which at times was very difficult yet enlightening. It helped me to get to know the piano more than any of the other music did. It also helped me to acquire more technique and made me ever more committed.”
Samuel practiced for hours each day. He stayed late, letting his imagination run free. “I would go to school at 6.30am and at 11 pm I would go home. Usually I missed all my other studies and just played the piano on my own,” he says.
Already at first year, he started earning pocket money playing piano in bars and churches. “I recall playing six pages sonatas by heart, without a look at a paper.” He was only 16, which got many of the audience taken by surprise. His piano playing was joyful, and he experimented as he played. Although capable of generating a powerful sound, his phrasing was delicate and clear.
At Yared, Samuel studied with many highly regarded music instructors, including Ezra Abate, from who he absorbed many techniques “he not only taught me how to play the piano but he also made me see different means of expression which included theoretical aspect,” Samuel explains.
With growing confidence in second year, he directed music for the service at the International Evangelical Church in Addis. He was always glad to have people who would listen to his music that he believed in so passionately. Just after graduation, he began performing at Coffee House with his own group. Describing those times, he said, “After the performance, I would go home and think about the pieces I played. Which part did I play good or bad? I would stay up late contemplating new ideas and techniques,” he says.
These days, Samuel is less inclined to play in bars and nightclubs. “I don’t perform in clubs anymore. Playing in dance halls and bars is not always enticing. You often times entertain people who drinks a lot. It happens that they pour liquor on you,” he says. In the hands of a less-gifted musician, such comments might sound like the worst kind of posturing. But Samuel is slowly and surely building a catalogue of material to back his quite confidence. His precociousness isn’t about his success, but lies in the quality of his work, how fully he’s absorbed the lessons of his teachers and elders. Samuel’s choice of material—including tunes from the golden era of the 50s and 60s —combined with his knowledge of piano made his works promising. He also shows a thoroughly modern concept with some of his choices and stylistic preferences. “I take traditional music and turn it around,” he says. Talking about his inspiration, he says, “Some say ideas come to them when they are in some other engagements. For me, that is not the case. I don’t compose music while walking. If I have to, I have to sit down and work.”
Asked why there are few pianists in Ethiopia, Samuel said that for the many graduates out there, it is no easy to get started. “You might have the skill and training. But the thing is piano is a huge and expensive instrument. A recent graduate of Yared can’t afford to buy it. You could even work for ten years and still can’t afford to buy it. This is one of the reasons why many graduates find it hard to embark on the job. I was lucky for having to have a modest piano.” Samuel also says the Ethiopian music market tend to ignore the piano, favoring the accessible electric keyboard.
Although highly appreciated by those who had the opportunity to hear him playing, a barrier remained between his talent and broader recognition. He continued to play at social events and concerts such as the Alliance Ethio-Franicase’s Ethiopian Music Festival. Suddenly the situation was reversed.
In 2006, Samuel joined the Ethiopian collective, Dub Colossus, with a kaleidoscope of influences ranging from brass-backed Ethiopian dance songs to reggae classics, comprising female vocalist Tsedenia Gebremarkos, Azmari diva Mimi Zenebe, jazz saxphonist Feleke Hailu and Teremage Woretaw, a traditional folk singer. With the band, he made his first tour of Europe. When their first set, ‘A Town Called Addis’, was released back in 2008 it was hailed as an inventive fusion album, with its blend of contemporary and traditional Ethiopian styles, jazz and dub reggae. Since then, he has been exhibiting the class of his keyboard jazz at other WOMAD festivals such WOMAD Las Palmas, WOMAD Australia/New Zealand. “ Two years ago I played with Dub Colossus at UK’s Charlton Park and last year I was an invited guest. “ This year he played with Dub Colossus and gave his own solo performance. “This one was one of the best for me. I rubbed shoulder with artists such as Alpha Blondy, Asa, Booker T, and many more,” he says. “Performing with Dub Colossus is a great experience for me because it showed me the other side of creativity. The musicians are really great and I took many lessons from the producer Nick Page,” he added.
He still has other projects on the go. With Dub Colossus, there will shows in four different countries in Finland, Austria, London and Singapore on November and a solo concert in Germany too. He is also planning to have a show in the United States.
Samuel’s debut release, “Hagere” is a concise demonstration of his talent and playing- described as both ‘bold and sensitive, often improvised, always deeply impassioned.’ “It is a kind of Ethio-jazz but still with my style of playing. Some traditional element and pop are mixed in to it. But in all, I have my own flair. It will be like a menu of what I can do in the future,” he explains.
Asked to describe what it like was to play solo, Samuel said it was very challenging. “Every task falls on you. You’ve got to be brilliant and skillful. As solo pianist, you’ve got to accompany yourself and should create vibes around you and try to engage the audience. So it could be tough,” he said.
However, because of the price and copyright issue, he said the album will not be available in Ethiopia. “To sell one album with 270 birr in Addis will be impractical. But I’m planning to find a way to do concerts in Addis,” he says.
Samuel says the US- based Ethiopian pianist Elyas Negash is one of his favorites and called him ‘a great pianist’.
Samuel is relishing the tour and the prospect of artistic growth. His new recording is sure to do nothing but boost his standing.
To find out more about Samuel Yirga’s music and to hear samples, visit WOMAD’s website.
(photo couretsy Mario Di Bari)