Oliver, the first logical question… How do a bunch of French musicians plus one Maltese guy get involved in playing Ethiopian music from the nineteen sixties and seventies?
Oliver Degabriele (Bass): "The whole story of Akalé Wubé started about eight years ago, when Paul (Bouclier, red.), our trumpet player, and Etienne (de la Sayette, red.), our saxophonist, both discovered this fascinating music from nineteen sixties and seventies Ethiopia. Etienne then got Loïc (Réchard, guitar, red.) involved and Paul got in touch with David (Georgelet, drums, red.). I still remember getting a call from David telling me they were putting together a project focusing on Ethiopian music, but at first I thought he was joking as I had not even a clue that this music even existed. He then sent me one of the Ethiopiques compilations and for the longest time that whole series was our only source of inspiration. One thing binding us all together was that we all shared a love for nineteen sixties and seventies music. That's also the main reason why in our sound we try to stick as close as possible to the vibe from the so-called golden age of Ethiopian music. We also extend that to our recordings as we record all of our music live (with all musicians present in the studio at the same time, red.). Slowly but surely we also started introducing authentic instruments like the krar and the washint and thus broadening the pallet of our sound."
For the name of the band, you guys drew inspiration from a song by Getatchew Mekurya. From all these artists featured on the Ethiopiques collection, was he the one that stood out?
Oliver Degabrielle: "No, not really… In fact we just went for that name because it sounded good. (laughs) We were just hanging out in an Ethiopian restaurant in Paris one day and decided we should finally give the project a name. So we went through the whole Ethiopiques catalogue and 'Akalé Wubé' immediately stood out. In the beginning we didn't even know the significance of the words, but when we eventually discovered what it meant, we were even more convinced it was that right name for our band. Of course Getatchew has played a major role in the development of Ethiopian music, but at that time we were still more influenced by Mulatu Astatke's work, partly because most of his music is instrumental in nature and since we never had a vocalist it kind of made sense."
The fact there's no vocalist in Akalé Wubé, was that a conscious choice or through force of circumstances?
Oliver Degabrielle: "A bit of both actually… We're all jazz musicians and in all honesty it never really crossed our minds to go in search of a singer. So we decided to keep it instrumental and in the beginning mostly focused on playing Ethio-jazz. The songs we stumbled upon that had vocals, we simply rearranged to instrumental versions. In 2010 we got the chance to travel to Ethiopia and there we discovered a lot of new music and did some collaborations with local singers and musicians. In all honesty I should add that we collaborated with Karim Chaya, an Algerian singer, for a short time; the result was certainly not bad, but it sounded more like fusion than authentic Ethiopian music. Basically we're still an instrumental band, but we always allow a space for guests: on 'Sost', our third album, there was Genet (Asefa, red.) and now we just did an entire album with Girma Beyene."
How did that connection with Girma Beyene come about?
Oliver Degabrielle: "We of course already knew his music from the Ethiopiques series, but we had no idea if he was still active and where he was living these days. Francis Falceto, the producer behind the Ethiopiques series, had been following us quite closely for some time and knew we were always open to collaborations. It turned out that Girma had relocated to the US when the Derg took power in Ethiopia in the early nineteen seventies and had stopped all his musical activities. A few years ago he moved back to Ethiopia and hinted at Francis he wouldn't mind recording again. Francis immediately thought of us and of course this was an opportunity we couldn't pass up, so we flew Girma over to Paris just to play one concert together to see if it would work or not. We rehearsed for about a week, which got very emotional now and again, because the music brought back many memories about things he'd forgotten about for many many years. He told us many of his songs were in fact love songs dedicated to his late wife. The subsequent show was sold out and was a great success, so we felt the story shouldn't end there. We reinvited him to do some studio sessions with us, and those sessions now make up the 'Mistakes On Purpose' album. Francis Falceto was the artistic director of the project, so was very much involved in the whole recording process, and he apparently was so impressed with what he heard, he proposed to release the album as part of the Ethiopiques series."
In a way you guys have come full circle.
Oliver Degabrielle: "Exactly! Eight years ago we discovered this music through Ethiopiques and now volume 30 is our very own album! We're extremely honored to be a part of it."
These days, paradoxically enough, Ethiopians really only get the chance to hear this kind of music being played live when a foreign band comes to perform in their country.
Oliver Degabrielle: "I actually wondered about that myself as well, but I have to say I kind of get it… Firstly, during the Mengistu era, the country was under curfew for the longest time, so the whole music scene withered away, and these days it's as if Ethiopians only want look forward; for them the past is the past and they want to do new things even if to us it sounds like cheap synthesizer music. That being said they still get very moved when they hear this music. When we were playing in Addis, I got tears in my eyes when I noticed the people in the crowd singing the words to the songs we were playing instrumentally."
How exactly do you guys pick the songs you want to give the Akalé Wubé touch?
Oliver Degabrielle: "There's not really a bandleader in Akalé Wubé, which is actually one of the things I love about this band. We all have our different roles; I'm the one who deals with communication, Facebook and those kinds of thing for example. In terms of our music, we get together and jam and in the beginning there was usually a long process of trial and error. Meanwhile we've been playing together for so long though, that we kind of feel what will work and what won't. There's a huge repertoire of Ethiopian music from that era available and it's our mission to revive at least a part of it through our reinterpretations. That being said, each of our albums also contains some of our own compositions and that's something we'd like to continue doing in the future as well, as playing these beautiful old songs and giving them our own touch is just as satisfying as composing new material ourselves."