If you’ve never listened to ethio-jazz, a genre very popular in the bars and hotels of Addis Ababa during the 1960s and ’70s, Arat Kilo’s new album Nouvelle Fleur could be the perfect introduction. The Parisian band, whose name comes from a famous monument in the Ethiopian capital, brought into their third studio album several collaborations with singers and musicians from around the world. Previously they also teamed up with Malian singer Rokia Traoré and Canadian rapper Socalled.
Many influences flow within these 48 minutes of music, in which past and present meet, and the sounds of different cultures mix seamlessly with each other. The substance of their music is fundamentally rooted in ethio-jazz and the sounds of East (and sometimes West) Africa, which are then combined with other genres such as hip-hop, classic jazz, afrobeat or dub.
“Lancinant”, the first track of the album, is one of the most remarkable examples of these matches, in which the verses of Bronx-based rapper Mike Ladd meet the stunning voice of female Ethiopian singer Nardos Tesfaw. This is not the only track with hip hop influences – “Résister”, sung by Algerian rapper Rocé, is a nice blend of old school French hip hop and jazz.
Afrobeat is also a prominent influence, as heard on the song “Madala”, in collaboration with striking Malian singer Mamani Keita, and “Siddist”.
Track number five, “Zär”, is unlike anything else you will hear in this album. This melancholic and introspective composition for piano is rather contrasting with the rest of the band’s work – it almost feels like it belongs to a different body of work, and although this piece has a stronger character than other songs on the album, it feels quite out of place within the whole.
Surely Arat Kilo draws much inspiration from the heritage of classic jazz – “Ambush in Cairo” vaguely reminds of Duke Ellington’s masterpiece “Caravan”, with hints of Africa and Middle-East, evoking the atmosphere of the busy streets of Addis Ababa on a warm summer night.
“Ambush in Cairo” is not the only song that’s quite reminiscent of the past; ‘Mestefeker”, track number seven, sounds like a romantic soul tune coming straight from the 1960s, in itself, it wouldn’t be very memorable, but with Bruck Tesfaye’s beautiful and evocative singing, it reaches new heights.
Nouvelle Fleur is a blend of exotic hybrids. Each has its own personality and unique nuances, but the fil rouge that should hold everything together is somehow unclear. The album sounds more like a collection of good tracks that work best as single pieces rather than a compact work that is coherent form start to finish.
Nevertheless, the album does not lack originality and it’s surely a pleasant listening experience, for the times when we need a bit of Africa to brighten our day.