GIGI / “Ethiopia”


“My father is a businessman, and is very hostile to the fact that I am a singer. I had to run away from home to follow my vocation. He believes that it is shameful to perform in public. Even if I became a big star, he wouldn’t change his mind.”
— Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw

Aster Aweke is the Ethiopian singer I most admire. I read about Gigi before I heard her, but I could not imagine any singer from East Africa displacing Aster in my ear. When I heard Gigi’s debut release, I was like, ok, it’s cool but it didn’t move me like Aster did.

Gigi sounded too self-consciously fusion-oriented to me. The traditional Ethiopian aspects were muted. On the other hand, while Aster is clearly a modern singer with R&B inclinations (you might think of Aster as having the passion of Aretha Franklin), Aster’s music nevertheless reveled in Ethiopian traditions, including acoustic instrumentation, which was the exact opposite of what I heard on Gigi’s debut. Also, although Gigi had a bunch of jazz musicians on her debut, most of the jazz elements were muted in favor of fusion. The most successful track is the last of the album, “Adwa,” a feature with Pharoah Sanders that is both the most beautiful and totally unlike the other cuts.

As it turns out, not only was Aster a major inspiration for Gigi, but paradoxically Aster started trying to go pop while Gigi dug into her roots. Aster has released a couple of cheesy electronic albums. So horrible, I shudder. And then here comes Gigi’s Zion Roots. Produced by her husband, Bill Laswell, this album has a near-perfect Ethiopian acoustic sound—no excessive synth sweeps, no heavy-handed drum machines, no formulaic arrangements. Instead Gigi and Laswell assembled an international cast of musicians who coalesce with a handful of Ethiopian nationals into a perfectly-synched musical aggregation.

The core of the band is Bill Laswell on acoustic guitar (whereas he usually plays electric bass), Karsh Kale on tabla, Ayib Deng (from Senegal) on percussion, Tony Cedras on accordion and guitar, beautiful tenor saxophone from Moges Habte of Ethiopia, plus sensual and sensitive acoustic support on traditional instruments such as the kirar harp and the washint flute.

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But as wonderful as the music is, as beautifully recorded as the audio is, it’s still Gigi’s gig and though it is not presented as a Gigi solo album, that is precisely what it is. Her vocal work is, to use a cliché, angelic—Ethiopian angelic.

Gigi told a writer for Pulse, “There are five different vocal modes in the Ethiopian style. You can write millions of songs in one of those modes. It is in the way you phrase; it can sound like a modern song. And it makes the words sound differently. You can use the Bati mode, for instance, in so many styles. But you know when somebody is singing a happy song, they are singing about life. You communicate the sound. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics of a song you understand the feeling; it is universal.”

Gigi was born in 1974 in rural Ethiopia. “I grew up singing in the Ethiopian Church, which is actually not allowed for women, but there was a priest at my home who taught me how to sing the songs. And I listen to a lot of West African music, South African music, hip hop, and funk, so you feel all that in the melodies. Even if it’s in Amharic, people can appreciate this music.”

Gigi has dedicated her life to her music. When she was 19 she ran away from home, journeying to Nairobi, Kenya where she started a trio. Beyond singing, she composes and arranges. What is distinctive about Zion Roots is that the music is both futuristic in its fusion elements and at the same time totally successful in its melding of diverse musicians to play music based on traditions that are foreign to some of them. These roots are also a futuristic fruit which is traditional in its specificity of forward-looking sounds—a literal ‘world music’ mélange that has specific ethnic Ethiopian roots. Thus, as soon as you hear Zion Roots, you know it is Ethiopian, but you also know there are non-Ethiopian elements at work.

Although there is not a note of reggae on the album, Zion Roots has the same feel that roots reggae has: elemental rhythm pulses, memorable melodies with innovative lead vocals that move from plaintive moans to exultant whoops, weaving a sonic flying carpet of trance-inducing music.

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Zion Roots is akin to Rokia Traore’s recent work—African women singing of life, culture, the land, a specific type of love that is far broader than the emphasis (and some would say exploitation) of romantic love. Gigi offers us a cornucopia of sensual sounds while adroitly avoiding vulgar “hootchie mama” sexiness.

There is also a political content, not in a partisan way, not advocating a specific organization or theory, but rather drawing on the tradition of the artist as social critic. In Ethiopia there are Azmari, who are what some music writers have called “angry folk singers who take aim at Ethiopian culture with savage tongue and cutting wit.” Gigi is aware of this tradition and it is this willingness to critique the culture she loves so deeply that makes the music so relevant, even if we don’t understand a word of it and even if the lyrics covertly infer the critique rather than overtly denounce any particular wrong.

Gigi has gifted us with an astounding release that mesmerizes the listener. Zion Roots is a traditionally grounded album that points to the future. Music produced by an African woman. Give thanks.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

To listen to an eight-minute audio interview with Gigi, click here:
http://www.mondomix.com/en/itws.php?artist_id=393&reportage_id=578

 

          A great, great album        

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I agree with everything you said about Zion Roots, in fact, it’s one of my favorite albums, but I also like Gigi’s more electronic albums, Gigi and Illuminated Audio. The song structure of most of the music from Gigi is similar to that of the Zion Roots project, but the instrumentation is very different. The tracks sound like a hip, electronic interpretation of Ethiopian sounds. It’s difficult though to actually think of Gigi as an ‘Ethiopian’ album. It sounds far too Western for that. Illuminated Audio is even less traditional-sounding than Gigi. Many of the songs use Gigi’s vocals almost as though her voice were a synthesizer. Gigi’s vocals sweep into and out of the mix without regard for verse or chorus—in fact, it’s difficult to even call the pieces ‘songs’ as such. Given all that, it’s strange that the Zion Roots project is billed to “Abyssinia Infinite featuring Ejigayehu ‘Gigi’ Shibabaw,” with Gigi’s name set beneath and much smaller than Abyssinia Infinite’s while Gigi and Illuminated Audio were marketed and distributed as solo albums by Gigi. Every song on the Zion Roots album is a ‘song’ song, featuring Gigi’s vocals way out front—Gigi also wrote or co-wrote most of the music. Why Zion Roots wasn’t marketed as a new Gigi album is a mystery. Maybe it was a contractual obligation that limited the marketing push, but whatever the reason was, it’s really a shame. Zion Roots is a great, great album that has been almost completely overlooked.

—Mtume ya Salaam 

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 25th, 2005 at 12:02 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


35 Responses to “GIGI / “Ethiopia””

drfeelgoed Says:
September 26th, 2005 at 2:16 am

I only knew her first ‘electronic’ album, so this one is a very nice surprise. Especially since Bill Laswell (didn’t know he’s her husband by the way) managed to ‘behave’. I’ve got a lot of his albums, but occasionally as a producer he goes way overboard. Anyway, excellent track.

Mtume says:                                                      

Gigi was actually Gigi’s second solo album. Her solo debut was One Ethiopia and it is much more ‘world music’-sounding than her later material. The album isn’t great beginning-to-end, but if you go to emusic.com or itunes.com or one of the other a la carte download sites, look for the title track, "One Ethiopia," and another track named "Without." Those are both really good.


Stephanie Renee Says:
September 26th, 2005 at 9:30 am

I have NO idea what she was singing about, but Adwa just made me cry and my heart ache. Such a mournful, hauntingly beautiful sound! Thank you, as always, for introducing me to music that makes me glad to be alive and able to experience it.

Mtume says:                                                     

Stephanie,

"Adwa" is "a remembrance of an epic battle against European colonizers." The liner notes of the Gigi CD give you the song lyrics in Amharic and English as well as footnotes and explanations of the themes. So click over to your favorite site and buy it!

Mtume.


degsew mengstu Says:
November 16th, 2005 at 3:39 am

how are you Gigi? how do you fill in ethiopia?


Mark W. Says:
January 4th, 2006 at 5:07 pm

Gigi,

Any plans to tour and pass through Minnesota?


king tesfa Says:
January 24th, 2006 at 11:34 pm

whaz up babe, nice to be an ethiopian indeed


Afkarish Says:
May 5th, 2006 at 9:20 pm

Hi Gigi: Do you have a plan to come to Ethiopia by any chance? We miss you and we wanna see you.


amina Says:
May 16th, 2006 at 8:36 pm

ethoipia


Yasmin Says:
June 3rd, 2006 at 3:13 pm

hey gigi waz up ur my favorite singer i was born in usa but i will soon move to ethiopia im somalian but tell me what is ethiopia like


Nazrawit dimore Says:
June 8th, 2006 at 7:27 am

Hey waz up gigi nice hair you got there


sblove99 Says:
September 13th, 2006 at 2:08 pm

Someone please translate gold and wax for me or direct me to where the lyrics are… I love GIGI !!!


splanky Says:
September 16th, 2006 at 11:45 am

I too am totally in love with Gigi’s voice. I am
trying to get everything she’s recorded though
I think I’ll pass on Illuminated Audio; it’s just
her husband electronic masturbations over her
vocals…


solomon Says:
October 2nd, 2006 at 11:24 am

hw can i say about gigi i starting love by her first album me and my girl we loved dat album so much. u know what i know somethin about gigi. she is de bast ethiopian singr we ever have, she got her own stayle of music and voice. if i have a word to her i can say it right know but i don’t have any word to describe my feeling about her and music im just LOVE GIGI not only me my girl, my friends. all ethio ppl we loves u gigi so much.


Davina Says:
October 29th, 2006 at 2:22 am

teniystillin,Amlak fikir gigi

I am a female reggae sing jayI live in the uk,just wondering what the possibility of us doing a collaboration together ,you are sincerely blessed….keep up the work don’t listen to what the critics say you are blessed by the ALL MIGHTY JAH …..KING OF KINGS/

FIKIR

KINDEST REGARDS

DAVINA


Deo Filho Says:
November 3rd, 2006 at 5:58 pm

Gigi have a diferent stayle of music and voice.I don’t have any word to describe.About her and music I`m just LOVED.She have a angel voice.God bless you.The Brazil ,need to know you too. About GOLD & WAX is simply the best.


Hiowt Says:
December 3rd, 2006 at 4:50 am

I love Gigis new album Gold and Wax brilliant brilliant album worth the £15.00 I paid in HMV

S blove
gigi is singing about love and her country goI will transelate once I have finished listening
anten aminye HULU DANE!
means I trust you every one is cured

that is a tune


splanky Says:
December 6th, 2006 at 9:50 am

Okay, now I just bought One Ethiopia online and now I’m told Gigi had an album recorded even before that. Anybody know for sure cause I want everything she’s ever done.


bedilu kassa Says:
April 1st, 2007 at 10:40 am

how are you gigi iam bk from addis can you shwo as yor consert in addis at the new miliniyam


Andenet Says:
May 13th, 2007 at 2:06 pm

You have said it before and saying it again it is one love on Nation Power To Ethiopia and Gigi
The bomb we love You one of the few ethiopian singers who dont talk crap
she is the bomb yo cuz she have a point in her music we all should give our respect 2 Gigi we love You


kiki Says:
July 13th, 2007 at 12:54 pm

i lovve this album.
she is the hottest ever yeah!!!
i want more albums!!
someone tell me if she has morrree bec i cant fine any! :(


kiki Says:
July 13th, 2007 at 12:56 pm

ethiopia:)


Samir Says:
October 15th, 2007 at 7:08 pm

Selam Giji this is samir Majis Brother i remember hearing you sing before you came to the states and now am a big fan love your music.


ALEM Says:
December 8th, 2007 at 2:22 pm

I LOVE YOU GIRL KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK


miky Says:
December 19th, 2007 at 11:56 pm

hi gigi I loveyou so much and i like your music you are such wounderfullsinger keep up I wanna see you world gramy award!


April F Says:
February 3rd, 2008 at 6:36 pm

Ms. GiG i…everybody says I look like you!!! I am from the United States! I love you!!! God bless you!


Splanky Says:
March 1st, 2008 at 9:26 am

It’s time for a new album by Gigi, I think. She is too good to have a “Sade” act pulled. Yes, there are tons of nice voices out of Ethiopia but Gigi
has no equal.


Abebe Says:
October 18th, 2008 at 6:14 pm

I don’t know, When I hear music I always think about her voice and stricking flow ,…….. But I am bit sad, angry, surprising and.. why she is so silent. She could have done a lot for ethiopia, specially by this time.


hannah Says:
October 29th, 2008 at 6:53 pm

I dont like her


nana Says:
February 12th, 2009 at 4:17 pm

i use to Listen to gigi when i was in ethiopia.
love her music!


amete brhan Says:
August 25th, 2009 at 10:46 pm

I love gigis songs


Natalie Says:
November 5th, 2009 at 9:26 pm

___”"heyyZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
GiGi…!!!!!!!!!!!!!u r the COOLesT”"ethio..!!singeR..”!”!”:)with ur Gud..FeLLa..song!”!”!”
i love ur MusiC…!!
im France”’
i live…in>Paris…..
uuuuuuuuuuu were here..!”!!”:)


Tesfaye Says:
March 1st, 2010 at 11:34 am

Hi Giji
I guess you will see this web message. I have seen some old message. I’m regular listner of your inspiring music. I have no word. Could you reply in my mail? I have a great love to your MUsic

With kind regards


Hazel Says:
June 6th, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Hey! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 3gs!
Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward
to all your posts! Keep up the superb work!


Website/Blog Says:
August 8th, 2015 at 1:32 am

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Ronna Says:
August 25th, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Good post! We will be linking to this great post on our
site. Keep up the great writing.


mieraf girum Says:
February 3rd, 2016 at 4:57 am

she is history by herself. i’m glad she born. I’m glad she is ethiopian. I’m glad i know her. It will not be the same without her. I wana tell her that” you do whatever you can do in life. Just be happy now. feel it.


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