Inspiration
In May 2014, I went on an epic field recording trip through the heartland of Ethiopia with a team of non-academics led by Quino Piñero and Jonathan Banes. The goal was to get 1) lots of footage for the beautiful film Roaring Abyss directed by Quino, and 2) high quality audio for a groovy compilation released by Jonathan called Out of Addis. Needless to say, many strange, beautiful and horrifying things happened on this trip, which you can read about in depth if you scroll down this blog a bit. There was one very specific moment in all this that triggered the beginning of my song “Sell You My Soul”: I was in a storage godjo (hut) setting up microphones and gear to prepare the terrain for a recording session in the remote northern mountains of the Wollo region when a a young dude began pressing me to buy one of his two sisters (who couldn’t have been more than 11 and 14 years old). They were behind his back looking at me shaking their heads, silently imploring me not to buy them. At first I thought this was a joke, but it kept going for 10 minutes or so and became quite disturbing. He made perverted hand gestures, saying the girls would be really “good” in a couple of years. He finally got the message that I wasn’t interested and moved on. You can read all about that exceedingly bizarre day here.

I think this little moment represented the breaking of the levees in my mind about what mankind appeared prepared to do to get ahead. I had been in Africa for a full year by this point, and I suppose that that experience just unraveled all my head-in-the-sand naiveté and willful ignorance that I had keenly tried to preserve up until then. There had been some other experiences: a road trip to Wenchi crater a few hours outside Addis that went completely awry, with young, agressive, unemployed men desperate to fleece us for every last birr the minute they saw we were broken down and desperate; people (including some we had met) being callously tossed in prison for voicing even mild forms of dissent or for being (falsely) accused of wrongdoing; the witnessing of rampant prostitution, which had apparently skyrocketed over the previous several years; etc etc.

But in the end, this was merely the African piece of the horror puzzle. The song is more of a general overview of soul-vending (see lyrics below). I think I have been starting to become very uneasy in this modern world with the idea of putting all aspects of my self out there. So, while of course I was shocked at this guy trying to sell me his sister, it became a giant metaphor for what we are all doing – putting all aspects of our public and private lives on “sale” to get more attention, more likes, more success, and, in the end, more money. This is all the more daunting when your work involves having a strong online presence, as it seems increasingly expected that you share everything. Ok, so politicians, media “personalities”, actors, models all do this, so why not musicians? But it does makes me particularly sad to see artists broadcasting to the public at large their latest offspring, their partners, and other sordid details of their personal lives (including “leaked” sex tapes). It’s probably a classic case of sink-or-swim, and that my luddite self should just jump on the bandwagon of social media-induced oversharing, but sending this information out to people I don’t know makes my stomach turn. How can one really have a private life if even that is given away to the public? I know that google, apple, facebook, uber and others already have all this info in their databases, but does that mean everyone else also gets to have it?
We all know that babies, pets, rumors/gossip, fake news, and leaked private footage will get you exponentially more attention than anything else you do. So is the calculation that by making the private public and thereby constructing a virtual sense of “community” around you, the public will buy you in all your commodified incarnations? Whoopdidoo. I refuse to do this and so I’ll never “make it”. I don’t really care either, but the further we head into the future, the more I want to head into the woods. For now though I’ll swim, but hopefully more on my own terms.

Clip
With my friend, filmmaker Israel Seoane, and the additional help of cameraman Yoni Robbins, we hastily made a music video here in Paris featuring the actor Florent Dorin as a sort of Mephistopheles producer guy who buys the souls of each musician and molds the band to his liking. The irony of course being that we sold our souls and yet are singing this song to an empty concert hall..
The film was shot in multiple locations around Paris, with the main last scene at the New Morning, a premier venue in north-central Paris (thanks to Tom Woods for hooking that up!).

Lyrics
Sell you my soul for a bottle of homemade gin
Sell you my sister with a toothless craven grin
Sell you my future if right now it guarantees I win
I’ve deflated my ego, auctioned off my psyche
There’s a blowout discount on all that is me

Sell you my wife at the drop of a Stetson hat
Sell you my iddy biddy little kid for my chance at bat
Sell you the shirt off my best bud’s back
Used to say there are some things money can’t buy
Doesn’t mean that I can’t give it my very best try

Sell you my socks to get a pair of shiny gator skin shoes
Sell you my body and pretend I don’t approve
Used to sell the uptown jazz and now I sell the lowdown blues
I’ll give you my troubles, my sins, my weakness for free
And you’ll come buying everything else off me

Sell you my soul.

The recording process
I sent a demo of this to Jean-Etienne and Geoffroy at Tonehouse Studio and they immediately thought “analog”. So after touring and performing the song a bit with the band, we piled into the studio and recorded a few takes live on to a Studer tape machine. I’m on guitar/vocals, Ben Body plays upright bass, David Chalumeau is on harmonica, Patrick Gigon is on drums, Daniel Mizrahi is on lead guitar. We then picked the best version and went back and re-recorded the guitars, the vocals, and the harmonica to get the sounds we wanted. Later my brother overdubbed Rhodes keys, and members of the Gospel Travelers in Annapolis, Maryland recorded some gritty backing vocals at the end.


Picayune Baliverne. The title comes from two words I like a lot that could roughly translate as “Insignificant Nonsense”. I thought this was an amusing way to kick things off.
Here are the actual definitions.
Picayune: 1. adjective informal petty; worthless. 2. noun a small coin of little value, especially a 5-cent piece. 3. informal an insignificant person or thing. ORIGIN
early 19th century: from French picaillon, denoting a Piedmontese copper coin, also used to mean ‘cash,’ from Provençal picaioun, of unknown ultimate origin.

Baliverne: 1.− Fam. (gén. au plur.). Propos ou écrits futiles et souvent erronés. 2. Idées, croyances, coutumes, institutions, etc., sans grand fondement ou considérées comme telles. 3. Plus rarement. Action, comportement, occupation puérils ou stupides et sans grand intérêt.ÉTYMOL. ET HIST. − 1464 (Maistre Pierre Pathelin, éd. Richard T. Holbrook, 810 : Hé! quelz bailleurs de balivernes sont ce cy?). Orig. obsc.; peut-être déverbal de baliverner*, malgré un écart chronol. (Guir. Étymol., p. 13). Le rapprochement avec le prov. mod. baiuverno « étincelle », proposé par Schuchardt dans Z. rom. Philol., t. 28, p. 144, est peu vraisemblable, ce mot paraissant d’autre part récent et lui-même d’étymol. obsc. (v. REW3, 3226).

The title could be construed as a melding of Oscar Wilde’s “all art is useless” theme and Jonathan Franzen’s Richard Katz character who talks about how writing songs is like being in the “chiclet-manufacturing business“. But read into it how you like – there are no lyrics, and the song lasts less than 2 minutes. Perhaps I just liked the way the words roll off the tongue 🙂

The music was spawned while working on a bunch of instrumental music for Fabrice Macaux’s documentary on the UN bombing in Iraq in 2003, La Diplomatie du silence. A comical junkyard western ditty in 5/4 that channels Ennio Morricone and Tom Waits, it clearly was the odd man out vis-à-vis the rest of the music for the documentary. So I plucked it from that context and thrust it at the top of Backroad Carnival as a little introductory piece to set the scene for the oncoming madness.
It all flowed out of me fairly quickly – I recorded the guitars, bass, piano and banjo all in my little glasshouse studio in Addis Ababa last year over the course of a day. We then gave it a treatment at Tonehouse Studio, adding some dirty percussion/drums and shouts, and perfecting the mix before it made the cut and joined the rest of the Backroad Carnival team.

The next series of posts will dig into my new album, Backroad Carnival. I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get into the nitty gritty to a) explain how the musical ideas took shape, b) unpack some of the themes raised in the lyrics, c) recount some of the stories/anecdotes that spawned some of the tunes, d) describe the recording/technical process, and e) discuss the choice of artwork.

I’ll begin things with the artwork:

I first met photographer and graphic designer Philipp Schütz in Addis Ababa during a concert I did with my friend Kaëthe Hostetter. We performed during a fundraising event for Philipp’s photobook on the Simien Mountains and to draw awareness to the recently completed Limalimo Lodge, perched on the edge of the Simien escarpment. Impressed by Philipp’s amazing photography, he seemed like the perfect candidate to take pictures of me for my new album.
We settled on the old, defunct doors of the Wafa Theatre located at the Churchill roundabout on the southern edge of the Piazza neighborhood of Addis. You could walk right by and nearly miss them. But given the theatrical nature of the album, it was an obvious choice – rusted out doors, wooden “curtains”, a krar shooting off in one direction, people dancing on a bass clef in another, and at the center of it all the ancient sock and buskin masks, symbols of comedy and tragedy: .
Motivated as we were to get the “perfect” image, we did two very early morning photoshoots in order to avoid the crowds and too much attention to the weird ferenjis and their camera equipment. We paid off the guard of the theater (which is still in use, the main entrance is now on the side) to keep an eye on my car and to ward off a lot of the street kids who, while totally unthreatening, might have been a little too interested in the camera equipment!
Philipp took a lot of pictures, and in the end we opted for the above image. There were some other priceless images though, including this one of me with the street kids.

Unfortunately, Philipp had a hard drive failure and lost a bunch of other cool images before getting the chance to back it up. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that a good portion of the photos were salvaged, that no one stole anything off of us during the shoot, and most importantly that the authorities didn’t show up to give us a hard time (another benefit of waking up early).

 

Having terribly neglected this blog for a while, I’m back. This hereby marks the end of my Ethiopia-based posts (of which there have been far too few due to poor internet in country and life getting in the way!). As a last, bittersweet nod to my former life in Addis, here are a few clips featuring the most recent Ethiopian project I’ve been grateful to be a part of, Damakasé. I’m doing my best to get this band going in Europe, North America and elsewhere!

hqdefaultThe death of the great Ethiopian box (acoustic) guitarist/singer Mesfin Abebe spurred me to revive this blog. A couple of years ago I had developed a project to interview and record Mesfin (and other box guitarists) that never saw the light due to personal and professional reasons. Now it will unfortunately never see the light, so instead here are a few video clips of the great musician.
I believe Mesfin was an Amhara christian who spent a lot of time in the predominantly muslim city of Harar and originally learned the oud before picking up the guitar. His idiosyncratic guitar style featured tricky attacks of single-note pentatonic lines that sound very much like an oud player playing guitar. A bass player mimicking the guitar an octave lower frequently accompanied him in tasteful synchronicity. Mesfin’s high pitched voice provided a beautiful lilting counterpoint to the driving music.
I’m kicking myself for not having made time to interview Mesfin before he passed. I guess I can still try and meet with Abitew Kebede, the Oromo singer/guitarist turned evangelical preacher in Silver Spring, Maryland, if he is willing to talk about the old days (not a guarantee!).

One of my favorites, which I have tried to learn (not easy considering my dismal Amharic):

Mesfin incorporated elements of the blues in to his music. Check out this minor pentatonic instrumental jam:

And these killer, driving, desert blues-like tunes:

If any of you out there want more, I can send you mp3s of his great music, and if you speak Amharic, here’s a special report on his life:

http://www.diretube.com/special-report-about-ethiopian-box-guitarist-mesfin-abebe_3bd386383.html

IMG_2410Ouch. Due to other projects and general negligence on my end, it’s taken me over 2 months to tackle the final episode in this mini-series. Let’s hope things improve from here.

May 20, 2014
Unbeknownst to me, this was to be my final full day on the recording trip. I hadn’t yet booked my return ticket as I needed to get to an Ethiopian Airlines ticket office. I would end up doing this the next day, purchasing the last available ticket on the night flight back to Addis.
We woke up in our pension in Abi Abdi, packed up and aimed our sights on Mekele, the biggest city in Tigray, but not before stopping for a drink at a little park containing a beautiful enclosed garden full of lush, dense vegetation, a little pond and a waterfall. Little did we know that this would be the serene moment necessary to prepare us for what was to come.
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We had barely started climbing up the main road to Mekele before it became quickly apparent that we would be in for a wait. Three giant tow trucks were attempting to extract a Chinese dump truck that had fallen into the ravine. Since this was the only direct road to Mekele, we decided to wait it out and watch it all unfurl. Due to a lethal combination of bad machinery, a bit of incompetence here and there, and generally difficult conditions, this whole procedure IMG_2407lasted about an hour and a half. Nuhamin and I had time to go for a hike up the mountain to get a good glimpse of both the attempted clean-up and the stunning views of the Tigray countryside.
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The workers were finally able to get the truck stabilized on the side of the road, allowing us to get a move on. As we got within about an hour of Mekele, we arrived in an unassuming town called Hagere Selam where a quick roadside inquiry led to some rapid-fire negotiation and a recording at the bahal derash with 20-odd young energetic Tigrayans. As we set up in a round cement godjo it began to rain, creating a mucky but atmospheric vibe.
IMG_2401About an hour later, just as it was getting dark, the dancers and musicians showed up in full regalia and put on a vibrant performance. It truly was a fantastic way to conclude the musical portion of my trip.

After breakdown, we drove a slightly hair-raising 1.5 hrs through the mountains to Mekele and crashed at Dallas Hotel in the skeevy bus station district.
The next day consisted of me getting my plane ticket, going with the guys to the local university to see about recording musicians there, and then heading to the airport, tired but exhilarated from 10 days of madness. What a journey!

IMG_2343Exhausted from the previous day’s work, we lazily drank coffee and ate inqulal firfir before packing the vehicle and driving to Sekota to try and find Quino’s phone, which he had forgotten at the ful place. Perhaps due to the generally languid state of the group, the drive back was even more nerve-racking than the first leg. We clearly hadn’t tied things down as well as we should have, as my backup went flying at one point. Fortunately, it didn’t go over the cliff. We, however, had a very close call about an hour later as we climbed up the mountain to get back to Sekota. Mesmerized by a stunning view, Jonathan almost didn’t take the turn (one of the tires started to dip into the ravine). After we all screamed, he quickly steered away from the abyss back onto safe purchase. For the next hour or so we were all white-knuckled and on edge.
IMG_2353Nevertheless, we made it back to Sekota, had a ful, found Quino’s phone, and managed to cool our jets. We then continued up the road, aiming for Mekele, Tigray. The journey was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Staggeringly huge red cliffs, long plateaus and deep valleys that resemble the IMG_2371Arizona mesas gave way to massive expanses of crimson desert, with cactus, giant fig and baobab trees IMG_2358emblazoning the rugged landscape. At one point, a windstorm swept across the valley we were driving through, kicking up immense billows of red sand. In the background, dark, ominous storm clouds sent paroxysms of violent slanted rain in our direction. Yet as quickly as it came, it disappeared again.
Around early evening we landed in the newly developed town of Abi Abdi, where we decided to hole up in a little pension outside of town, have a meal nearby check out the local music scene (which turned out to be pretty much non-existent). A modern, predominantly muslim quarry town, it is clearly flourishing thanks to the construction boom in the country. We ended the night with a beer in some dimly lit bar with deafening ethiopop blasting out of gigantic speakers, and ambled back to the pension to hit the hay.

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Sol y Sombra Recordings
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