Tenor saxophonist Getachew Mekurya, one of the greatest musicians in the long and proud history of Ethiopian music, passed away today.
Boston-based bandleader Russ Gershon, with whose Either/Orchestra Mekurya played in the 21st century, wrote on Facebook, "By playing Shellella, an Ethiopian vocal war chant, on his tenor sax, he arrived at a sound that had something in common with Albert Ayler independently, half a world away, and several years earlier."
By age fourteen, Mekurya was already a professional musician, playing saxophone and clarinet in the Municipal Band of Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia. At twenty, he was in the house band at the Haile Selassie I Theatre, and at thirty joined the prestigious Police Band.
In 1970 Mekurya recorded Negus of Ethiopian Sax, the album that eventually made him internationally famous after it was reissued on CD in 2003 in Buda Musique's series Éthiopiques (as volume 14). His ululating sound captivated many connoisseurs in the West, including Gershon (one of their concert collaborations is heard on volume 20 of Éthiopiques, Live in Addis) and The Ex, a Dutch band that came out of the punk scene to evolve an uncategorizable style; with them Mekurya recorded two CDs and a DVD. His career lasted sixty-eight years.
Ex-member Terrie Hessels wrote today, "Since 2004 he played regularly with The Ex. It was his choice after hearing us at one of our festivals. He recognized something in our music which reminded him of the early groups he was in, like the Fetan Band (Speed Band). He loved playing with us and for us it was also an incredible experience. He was always totally himself, full-on intense and dedicated."
Here he is in action below!
RIP, Mekurya. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Last year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released in August by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure).