In search of the rock n’ roll lifestyle…
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17.15pm – Friday afternoon at the Barbican and the concrete corridors of one of London’s premier music venues are largely empty. There are still several hours until the evening’s concert and an air of meticulous industry prevails. Sound engineers, PR people and Barbican staff are scurrying around making final preparations. In the foyer outside the auditorium, an almighty bassline reverberates off the walls as support act Dub Colossus run through their final soundcheck.In the main hall, the stars of the show are warming up. Mulatu Astatqé, Mahmoud

Ahmed, Gétatchèw Mèkurya and Alèmayèhu Eshèté may not be household names but their music has resonated with a broad church. Dressed impeccably in dinner jackets and snappy suits, they put the swing into Ethiopian music during the 60s and 70s, fusing Amharic lyrics and homegrown pentatonic scales with Western funk and soul. When Haile Selassie’s rule was toppled by a Communist coup, musical creativity was stamped out and their sound was lost, seemingly forever. That is, until rediscovered by Frenchman Francis Falceto who waded through reels of old recordings and republished their discs. Musicians who had been quietly performing at home, or teaching overseas, were suddenly cast into the spotlight once more.
On stage Mahmoud Ahmed is clicking into the microphone for the sound engineer. In his late 60s, his hair is whiter and the belt buckle looser than in the widely circulated black and white photos – but he still has the presence of a star. Skulking around the side of the stage is Eshèté – the kid of the bunch at 58 – hands firmly in pockets. His quiffed shock of black hair makes him look like a cross between Elvis and Little Richard, and there’s a cheeky twinkle in his eye when he gets on stage to belt out a series of James Brown yelps. They are joined by Astatqé – ever the debonair gentleman in a cream suit and red neckerchief; and Either/Orchestra, a group of jazz musicians from Massachusetts who are the big band for the tour; plus saxophonist Mèkurya, born in 1935, who doesn’t speak a word of English. Communication may not always be easy, but there’s a common musical understanding.

19.10 – In the café before the concert, there’s a visible sign of relief on tour manager Jason Walsh’s face. It’s been tough getting all 14 musicians over from Ethiopia and the US. Visa issues, plus rumours of inner feuding between Ethiopian band members, haven’t helped. But everyone has managed to make it over for the two-day mini tour starting at the Barbican and culminating headlining Glastonbury’s JazzWorld stage on Saturday night. It’s the first time all of the musicians have played together. The Barbican concert is a massive success. The acoustics give a warmth and intensity to the music. The gig is a sell-out and a ripple of applause sweeps the hall as Either/Orchestra, with Astatqé on vibraphone, open with ‘Yèkermo Sèw’ , featured in the recent Jim Jarmusch film starring Bill Murray, Broken Flowers.The stage lighting throws up deep oranges, blues and purples that form patterns on the glinting brass of the saxophones. Astatqé’s performance is followed by Eshèté, who air kicks and shimmies his way about the stage. Next up is Mèkurya who walks through the crowd, playing his sax whilst tracked by a spotlight. He’s dressed in an impressive, multicoloured cape and headgear, wiggling his shoulders with the music. Mahmoud Ahmed finishes things off before a finale featuring all the musicians. When the gig ends, the crowd implores the musicians to play on.

12.01 – Turning up at the hotel lobby for the Glastonbury trip the next day, the atmosphere is sombre. The night before, the musicians had been drinking and mingling backstage before heading out to an Ethiopian restaurant. Many are looking slightly worse for wear. When we board the tour bus, Mèkurya and Astatqé quickly head to the back and nod off. Expecting a double- decker juggernaut replete with tinted windows, our ride turns out to be a little blue minibus. Not exactly rock’n’roll.
Ahmed sits with a stern look on his face for much of the journey, chatting sporadically into his mobile phone – but when coaxed into conversation, he breaks into the toothiest of grins. Falceto is on board looking smooth in retro sunglasses and a pin-stripe jacket. Eshèté is flicking through The Guardian and turns to the centre spread – a massive photo of the Glastonbury crowd. Falceto takes the paper to show Ahmed. “This is the place?” Ahmed asks, taking in breath sharply. “Ha ha ha!”
16.58 – Nearing the festival, the weather is a mixture of sun and cloud. Despite apocalyptic stories about last year’s mudfest – and an email hastily sent the day before warning about the particularities of British summertime – few band members are wellie- equipped. Tension is momentarily halted by a photo call at Stonehenge. As we near the stone circle, Ahmed shouts “I’ve seen the movie!” No one is quite sure what he means.
At Glasto and parked up next to Shakin’ Steven’s tour bus, the ground underfoot looks solid. Godfrey Louis, Either alto sax player, is taking no chances despite the balmy weather, plastic bagging his trainers. Dropped off backstage by a fleet of Land Rangers, there are still several hours to go until the gig just after 11pm. Either/Orchestra rehearse; Mèkurya decides it’s a good time to have another nap; Eshèté, who’d talked the talk earlier about wanting to see other bands, decides he doesn’t want to move anywhere, wrapping himself in a fleece and chain-drinking cups of tea. I’m desperate to lure the Ethiopian musicians outside to explore the festival: what would they make of the electro-pop of Holy Fuck or the retro sounds of Duffy? Would human beatboxer Shlomo blow their minds? I manage to get Ahmed and Astatqé as far as the JazzWorld stage for a performance by Joan Armatrading. She goes down a storm, Astatqé marvelling at the “beautiful music” and Ahmed saying little but moving his head and clapping away furiously. Emboldened by this receptiveness, I entice Ahmed to walk further. Nearing the Pyramid stage, we are assaulted by a phalanx of revellers moving in the opposite direction and he decides he wants to get back to the safe haven of backstage.
22.40 – There’s a lot of sitting about and waiting. The Ethiopians are looking, well, a little bored and tired. What’s incredible, though, is the transformation when they take to the JazzWorld stage. Performing is still a drug that takes years off them. Despite the hype, the crowd is a little disappointing. The music may be a little too jazzy and chilled-out for a closing act. A faithful crowd stick around for Mahmoud Ahmed who closes the show. Dressed in sparkling white and pulling out his best shoulder-shaking moves, he’s in a league of his own. He gets the audience whipped up: ululating, jumping up and down and clapping his hands together. Heading offstage, he’s beaming.
01.22 – Job done and the musicians are relieved, cracking open beers and slapping each other on the backs. But it’s time to move onto the next performance and there’s no hanging about at the festival. It’s a completely different experience to spending three days as a punter immersed in the music. Some of the Either/Orchestra are heading straight to Heathrow for flights back to the US. And so we set off back to London around 2am after a delay apparently caused by Jay-Z insisting no other vehicles circulate while he heads out after his Pyramid performance. Perhaps he’s scared of a West Country drive-by?
It’s been a full-on couple of days. Onboard the bus, I grab a few words with Either bandleader Russ Gershon in-between boozing with his band. He’s in reflective mood but still clearly buzzing. Glastonbury – “one big-ass rock festival” – has been a challenge but he’s enjoyed bonding with the Ethiopian musicians. “We’ve found out this weekend that we get on very well,” he laughs. “It’s been a three-day, intensive experience. I love it!”