Blue-in-Green:RADIO

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Nadav Peled (Anbessa Orchestra): "Golden Moments" [Interview]


Following the release of Anbessa Orchestra's inspirational - and dancefloor powerhouse single 'Tch'elema' in 2019 - the Brooklyn-based collective return with new single 'Werik'i', once again delivering on their unique take on Ethiopian-inspired culture and grooves.

As much as the seven-piece that comprise the Anbessa Orchestra have become associated with the aforementioned take on 60s and 70s Ethiopian styles and compositions, their efforts are also as much a celebration of the all important positivity and good vibes that any prospective flag waver of the funk could hope to aspire to.

While 'Tch'elema' aimed to inject hope into the world around us, 'Werik'i' strives to succeed that by injecting unadulterated joy.  Translating to "gold" in Amharic, the five minute flute-led gem that is 'Werik'i' dances in nostalgia while consecrating those cherished times and memories within each of our own lives, working in beautiful contrast to this single's predecessor.

With bandleader and guitarist, Nadav Peled at the helm, the Orchestra is comprised of Eyal Vilner on flute, Wayne Tucker on trumpet, Eden Bareket on baritone saxophone, Dor Heled on keys, Ran Livneh on bass and Eran Fink on drums and congas - all masterful musicians who play fantastically together and are committed to pushing forward and breaking down musical barriers while enthusiastically carrying the torch for the genre's forefathers that came before them.

We opened this review with the words "inspirational" and it's an incredibly apt description of everything about Anbessa Orchestra - whether it's their approach to making music, the message they hope to spread or through their fierce live performances - everything they do acts as inspiration for those their music reaches and it's a wonderfully rare thing.

Blue-in-Green:RADIO is thrilled to have secured time with bandleader Nadav Peled to discuss the group's music as well as their passion for Ethiopian compositions.


How did members of the band initially come together to form Anbessa Orchestra?
After I moved back to NY in 2012 I really wanted to do something that deals with the Ethiopian music I fell in love with so it took some time to materialize but when I had an idea coming together I just called some of my best friends who are also incredible musicians.  Most of the guys I knew from Israel and or got together kind of on the NY scene.

How has Ethiopian music and culture factored into the music you make?
We started out playing mostly covers of 60's/70's tunes from Ethiopia.  Stuff by Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahoun Gessesse, etc. and slowly, as we all grew familiar with the style, created our own music.  We incorporate the scales that are for the most part very unique to Ethiopia and in recent years I'm trying to study a music of a certain region and then go with that inspiration and maybe write a tune with some elements of that.  Whether it be the Gurage beat (like our tune 'Gurage' on the second record) or, for example, the Krar (Ethiopian 5 string harp) like guitar playing style.  In the tune 'Gize' from 'Negestat', for example, the horns are playing an adaptation of a Krar part from a song called 'Gizie Biyasayegnem' which creates a very interesting, thrusting sound.

Which artists have had the biggest impact on shaping your music?
I keep discovering new things whether it's actually from Ethiopia or other places in east Africa and the world.  But I'd say that with Anbessa the main inspirations would be Mahmoud Ahmed, Hailu Mergia, Tilahoun Gessesse, Mulatu Astatke (of course!), Budos Band and Charles Bradley.  Even though the last ones are from the US, I can still feel their influence on our music.

How does the creative process of writing and producing music work for you?
It's a bit of a difficult question to answer but I'll try... Basically there are many ways a tune can manifest itself.  There are a lot of moments where a melody or bass line or a groove kinda pop in your head and I try to document them.  Whether it's with an instrument, if one is handy, or a lot of times just singing the idea into the phone and creating a voice memo.  I'd go back to them periodically and try to develop them, sometimes they're cool but not really working with what we're doing with Anbessa so it might get used on other projects.
Sometimes it's a matter of me delving into a specific element of music from Ethiopia, for example, a specific scale, or the sound of the Krar and how it would translate to the guitar which leads to the writing of tunes (examples for that would be 'Yeleleu Hager Lidj' and 'Tch'elema' which were me studying the Antchi Hoye scale on the guitar but also learning about its social context - being used on happy occasions while having a seemingly "harsh" sound).  Another tune that came out of this kind of study is 'Get'err' which means "village" in Amharic.  I was working on getting the guitar to sound like a Krar which made a more traditional sound so the connotation of a village came up to me and created this kind of picture and story in my head that I could communicate with sound.
Production wise, we aim to do everything all analog.  We record to tape and mostly mix to tape as well though the last couple of tunes, seeing they only came out in digital form, were mixed with the help of the computer and sent back to tape.  I love the sound of old school records and it's not necessarily a desire to be "old school" ourselves.  I just feel that this music sounds so much better like that and also the tracking process gains a lot from doing it to tape.  The playing is more concise and we get more complete takes rather than cutting and pasting stuff around.

Congratulations on the excellent new single 'Werik'i': can you tell us a little about what inspired the song?
Thanks so much!  And I'm very happy you dig it!  This tune is one of the ones that came about from me just playing around with the guitar.  It's got a somewhat unusual harmonic structure where it's a 3 bar cycle as opposed to something more even (which is pretty common in Ethiopian music though) and I just heard a flute in my mind over it.  I came up with the melody and tried to find a line for the other horns to compliment it and the line that I wrote felt very comforting to me.  It kind of made me look back at good moments in my life and the notion of being able to give or receive love fully without any filters or guards.  I called it 'Werik'i', the Amharic word for "Gold", because these are like golden moments in your life.  I'm also very happy with how the artwork for that came out.  I feel like Bella Wattles, the artist who worked on it really captured the vibe of the tune.

Between the last two singles (with 'Tch'elema' being a song about hope and 'Werik'i' being a song about joy) there's a strong sense of optimism that floats through your music: can you discuss Anbessa's music as a vehicle for such positive messages?
Well, for every artist, their work is about self expression.  'T'chelema', for example, is a hard-hitting tune because we're mad at how things are right now but the subtext of the particular Ethiopian scale we're using is of happy occasions so we see that bright future ahead.  We always thrive to have our music as an expression of good and love.  I know it sounds corny but we do.  Some of it has more of a social meaning and relevance like the aforementioned 'Tch'elema' and 'Yelele Hager Lidj' ("child of no country") that speaks of the current refugee crisis but even the ones that don't have a clear agenda are just there to hopefully make the listener feel better.  I always want the people coming to our show to come out with a sense of extreme joy and just feel great.  When I'm down, I know music can pick me up and I'd hope that our music does that to other people as well.  It's all an expression of love.

How did you come to collaborate with Billy Aukstik for the last two singles?
Billy is a dear friend to us and, on top of being our engineer and studio of choice owner, he also plays trumpet with us quite a lot.  He first subbed with us on a New Year's eve gig we did in Brooklyn and he just crushed it and since then he's been on the road with us a bunch and also in the US band for Gili Yalo who's another dear friend and amazing Ethiopian/Israeli artist.  Billy is an incredible musician and just a great person.  I feel very lucky I got to work with him.  I had wanted to check out his studio in Brooklyn (Hive Mind) for a while after I met him and had the chance to do so when we did a project for United Airlines called "Rhapsody Remastered".  They have the rights to Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' and contacted four artists around the world to create their own spin on the tune.  We got to work at Billy's studio and I really liked recording there and the sound of the room.  He also really understands the sound I'm striving for.

The band has also become heralded for its live shows: how does the music translate from the studio to the stage?
There's one thing I always tell the guys before a gig "HIT IT HARD!".  I want people to dance and feel the groove of everything we do.  Doesn't matter if we were on the road for 10 hours during one of the worst snowstorms heading from NY to DC (true story!), when we get to the venue we put our suits on and hit it.  The audience feels it and then returns that energy to us and vice versa.  If there's 20 people in the audience or 6000 we'll still give it our all every time.  Sounds kinda like something a TV football coach would say but some things are a cliche' for a reason.

Who would be a dream collaborator for the Anbessa Orchestra to either record or perform with?
First one that comes to mind is the great Mahmoud Ahmed.  I can't express how much I love his music and admire his creation over the years.  I missed a couple of opportunities to play with him in Israel so I hope there will soon come a day we'll collaborate with him.  Mulatu would obviously be amazing to work with too.  It'd be great to do something with our Brooklyn brethren, the legendary Antibalas.  I think also two relatively big bands like that could be amazing live.  I have always fantasized about Talib Kweli rapping over some of our grooves.

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