I was a good student in college (measured by grades, anyway), and a good worker (at least by measure of promotions and the fact that I found a way to circumvent the university’s limit of maximum work hours by a full-time student), yet I wasn’t above skipping the occasional class or work shift. I recall one morning when I stayed in. It was one of those beautiful, almost bitter-cold, gray days in the autumn, and it was warm inside with the cat on my lap. I was sitting on the couch, facing directly toward the turntable where a new favorite record was spinning. I sat all morning and played it over and over again, ignoring school and work. I’m sure there were many reasons why, but what I recall is simply that the mood, the atmosphere, and the music were too perfect, too powerful, for me to move.
I love almost all of the arts, and have dabbled in many of them, but music has always held a certain vitality and transcendent quality for me. About two months ago I was on a flight from Amsterdam to Khartoum. I fiddled around with the new on-board entertainment system embedded in the seat back in front of me. In such cases I typically just browse through, not finding anything of great interest, but in this case I locked on to something fascinating. For the remainder of the flight, drifting in and out of naps, window-gazing, meals, and semi-consciousness, I listened to the recording over and over. It had a clarity, purity, and mood that had eluded me for the last year or so at least; it reminded me of grey, rainy Europe, or perhaps a busy American city in the rain, looked upon by an idle observer (I) from a room somewhere on an upper floor. Two pianists (one a personal favorite, the other an personal unknown) wove multiple patterns and worked up fascinating rhythms, alternately tight-knit and airy, floating in and out, from jazz to classical to modern minimalist themes. Tantalizing and tart, complex yet direct, layered yet full of space, it was the perfect music for the moment, floating above the world in unknown space. It was a great escape from two cultures and two worlds; from the sadness of the seemingly untreatable problems with my mother’s health that I was leaving behind, from the stupidity of the seemingly intractable issues in my volunteer job that I was flying towards. It fit better with Amsterdam than Khartoum, and even less well with the two cities abbreviated with D.M. (Des Moines and Debre Markos). But it fit best right there, detached from the ground, up in the atmosphere, away from any fixed location.
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Since living in Ethiopia I’ve been nourishing myself for the most part on a diet of music from the hard drive I brought along: jazz favorites such as Shipp, Iyer, Mahanthappa, Parker and Klein; “world music” selections ranging from Gypsy brass band to West African snap, reggae from Midnite and Burning Spear. I’ve listened to a fair bit of Ethiopian music, but most of that I was familiar with and/or acquired back home (Mulatu, Gigi). I’ve also managed to collect a small sample of local music since I’ve been here, and some of that had some staying power. Most of the contemporary popular music isn’t engaging; some of it is downright annoying. When I hear something I like, it’s usually atmospheric/jazz-influenced or “oldies music” – attractive popular music from the 1970s or so. In these cases I always ask the proprietor of the shop or restaurant or cafe, ask them for the name of the artist. They can never provide it. There are no copyright laws here, and music files are traded around freely; some apparently stream from unaccountable sources. The mp3 files have artist names like “artist,” track names such as “instrument” and album names like “title,” if there are any labels at all. An internet shop owner in Assela was nice enough to copy for me, at no charge, hundreds of tracks he referred to as Ethiopian “classical” music. Once I had them on my own computer, I labeled most of them “Ethio-Muzak,” for that was a more accurate description for me. It featured lots of synthesizers and computerized drum beats in the background, with this foundation typically slathered over by either Kenny G-style sax or even more cheesy, synthesized keyboard riffs. Some of it was quite fetching though, and one album was so tasty that I played it frequently over the next six months, until I wore it out (during this time I also heard it frequently in cafes around the country). All in all it was much better than some of the other stuff I’ve heard. Some particularly brutal stuff was playing all through lunch one day when I sat with friends at August in Addis, savoring pizza and juice (it was seriously like well-designed punishment; you could not get away from those incessantly cheesy synthesizer riffs, layered so densely that there was no space to breathe or think).
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When 8-tracks came along, I readily accepted them. The same was true with cassettes and CDs (never mind that nothing could match the warm allure of spinning vinyl). This was not true with the arrival of the MP3. I still preferred to root around in the dwindling record shops. When that proved too difficult I ordered CDs online. The first time I paid for a download was when the disc in question was on a French label and was completely impossible to acquire in CD format (I’d managed to get the previous one only through a back-channel, over-the-counter at a coffee shop way down in Lowertown in St. Paul, but that’s another story). That was one of only a handful of paid downloads I ever ventured (and curiously those files have disappeared from my hard drive – shrug).
Why bring this up now? Because living in Ethiopia has cured me of my download issues. When I signed up for this gig I thought I would be living in a mud hut somewhere far from civilization, with no electricity or running water. I never dreamed that I would be able to take a tuk-tuk to a university, where I could, thanks to a very helpful friend and fellow volunteer, open my laptop to a 30 MB per second internet connection. That makes the whole mp3 download idea seem brilliant, quite possibly the best thing since sliced bread (which, as an aside, is very difficult to find here). That opens up a whole world of music, culture, mood. That means that I finally broke my tradition: I paid ten US dollars for that music I had heard on that KLM flight a while back. Was it worth every penny? Yes, all one thousand of them. Only one thing could be better, music-wise. But that’s an experiment that’s still in the works.