Getachew Mekuria and the Ex
A Web-Exclusive Interview
Dutch punk outfit the Ex has been a globally aware and politically minded musical force of nature since the late 1970s, but since the late í80s the band has fervently and organically intertwined that awareness into its musicmaking process. The band has explored folk music from Hungary, Turkey, the Congo, Eritrea, and Vietnam, and has recorded and toured with countless musical collaborators, from Sonic Youthís Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore and Dutch improviser/composer Ab Baars to vocalist Han Buhrs and a remarkably rich body of work with the late American cellist Tom Cora. More recently, a long-running interest in the music of Ethiopia, and especially saxophonist Getachew Mukuria, resulted in two tours of the East African country, the band extending an invitation to Mukuria to play at its 25th anniversary celebrations in 2004, and eventually í06ís gorgeous Moa Anbessa recording of Mukuria tunes backed by the Ex plus a horn section.
This month, that group visits America for the first time, and City Paper spoke with the Ex guitarist Andy Moor by phone from his home in Amsterdam about the upcoming string of dates, which brings the big band to the Ottobar Aug. 14.
City Paper: How did you first discover Ethiopian music? Through the Ethiopiques series? I ask only because such music was often hard to come by in the States before compilations and labels such as Crammed Discs made such music more readily available.
Andy Moor: We were actually into the music long before the Ethiopiques series. Iíve been listening to African music for 20 years, but maybe about 15 years or 17 years ago I heard this record called Ere Mela Mela by Mahmoud Ahmed--itís also in the Ethiopiques series now, itís No. 7, but originally it was released as just an LP called Ere Mela, and that was the first record of that stuff that I heard. And then another one called Ethiopique Groove, which is also on that series now. It was actually put out by the same guy [Francis Falceto] who put out the Ethiopiques series, it was just released earlier. It was before he came up with this idea to do a series, he just put out two LPs through this Crammed Discs label.
So thatís how we first discovered it and really, really liked it when we heard that. And then we used to go to restaurants in Amsterdam because thereís about 10 here, Ethiopian restaurants. And we used to hear all these old, wobbly cassettes that they were playing, and there were all this stuff we didnít know, so we were always asking the owner of the restaurant what it was. And they would say some unpronounceable name that we never remembered. It actually took a long time before the names actually stuck in our head and we got a bit of an idea of what it was all about. And then we discovered Getachew when we went to Ethiopia and we found a cassette of his music. It was a copy of a copy of a copy, but it really stood out. It was instrumental and it was quite unusual, because most of the pop music is always with vocals are so important to the music in Ethiopian life. Ethiopian people still ask us, ďWhy are you interested in this music when you donít understand what the words are about?Ē And we explain to them that we love the music and weíre also musicians so weíre really listening to it in a slightly different way.
But from that we discovered who he was, and we decided when we our 25th anniversary, which was in 2004, that we would invite Getachew to play at the anniversary and play with the ICP. [Instant Composerís Pool] So that happened, Francis Falceto, the guy who puts out the Ethiopiques series, he got us in contact with Getachew, and he came over and he played with the ICP. And then we went on tour together in this bus.
CP: The entire big band?
AM: Yeah. We did this crazy French tour of a week with about 35 musicians, and Getachew was one of them. And each night he played a solo, and at that time we werenít playing with him. We were out playing our Ex set but we had one song in our set, which is actually called ďGetachew,Ē and we invited him each night to come onstage to join us, because it was one of his songs that we were doing a version of. And I think he really, really enjoyed that one song every night playing with us. And it was him that suggested, after that, he said, ďI want you,Ē--he called us, ďthe Ex band,Ē--and he said, ďI want the Ex band to play my music.Ē So the great thing was that it was his idea, not ours. And then he sent us a CD with 10, just the melody on a saxophone, and we just went into the rehearsal room and tried to figure out how to put arrangements on them. And then he came over and we rehearsed together and played a few gigs and recorded. Itís great for him to be so open about that because he was really not used to our kind of music.
CP: So you didnít record in Ethiopia?
AM: No, we recorded in Amsterdam, but we prepared quite a lot before hand. We listened to the CDs, ícause quite a bit of the songs are on the CD, [Ethiopiques] No. 14, and we sort of figured out--we did a mixture of trying to sort of not copy but get a similar idea to what is on his CD but also our own sound and also our own ideas. And he was very open. Whenever we came up with a new idea for one of his songs, he was totally into it.
CP: How was it playing in Ethiopia when you went over there?
AM: Well, the first time we toured there was four or five years ago, and at that point we knew who Getatchew was but we had never met him. He was just this kind of legendary figure to us. So we didnít really know him and we didnít meet him on that trip either. But we did a kind of mixture of our songs and some Ethiopian songs, but we didnít play with Ethiopian musicians on that tour. That was more us playing our own stuff to Ethiopian people. We did two tours like that, one time doing a circle in the north and one a circle in the south.
CP: How did audiences respond to the shows?
AM: A mixture of amusement, really excited, kind of, and I think very happy that we choose--this weird Dutch band--choose to come all the way over and also play some Ethiopian songs. It was like a celebration in a way, it felt a bit like a spectacle also. For them it must have been quite bizarre, but there was something quite real about it. And they way we played, I think they sensed our energy and enthusiasm--we really, really liked this music. We werenít just doing it as a kind of show or something. For us it was really, kind of, you know . . .
AM: Exactly. And we mixed it with our songs. And they actually really, really liked our songs. We were wondering a bit how they would react to our songs. We thought, Letís choose the sort of more melodic songs in our set. But we did a few of the crazy ones, and the crazy songs were the ones they loved the most. They really went for the kind of energetic, rhythmic--I think they just liked the power and the energy of it. I guess the music was so bizarre for them anyway. But maybe not. Maybe they . . . I donít know. Itís very hard to imagine how Ex music, that has evolved over 25 years at that point, how theyíre going to respond to it. Because they havenít had any history of punk ever get in there. I think theyíve had a bit of hip-hop, a bit of R&B, a bit of soul, and in the í60s they had the whole James Brown thing and all that stuff, but I donít think they ever heard a punky guitar band like that. So I think for them it was a new kind of sound but with a similar energy, a recognizable energy anyway.
CP: I imagine you werenít playing in rock clubs anyway.
AM: No. We werenít really playing in clubs at all. We were playing in public spaces more like. On the stairs of a theater we played. And, basically, on a giant podium in a big outdoor square, which is right next to a sort of service station, but where about three or four thousand people came. And then we played in a giant old cow barn, and then in a police community hall. [laughs] It was very odd, mostly not really set up at all for gigs. And actually we had a little sort of generator to power the amps and the PA--we brought our own PA and everything. It was really set up on the day when we arrived into town. We would have to go and meet the chief of police of the town and make a deal with them. Weíd say, ĎWeíd like to play here. Can you suggest a place?í And they would suggest a place. Thatís how we ended up in the police community hall once, because that was what the chief of police of that town offered. And sometimes they would ask for $50 for us playing, and other times they didnít ask anything. And then we would drive around advertising the gig just with a megaphone and sticking posters up on the day of the show.
CP: Now thatís DIY.
AM: [laughs] Yeah. And the thing is, we didnít charge any money for it. There was no point asking any money for this. We got a bit of help from the Dutch government, they helped fund it a bit. But basically, it would have been crazy to try and charge an admission. It would have been ridiculous.
CP: I read, I think inMoa Anbessaís liner notes, that you also had cassette copies of the album made because CDs arenít what people listen to in Ethiopia.
AM: Yes, in Ethiopia music is still mostly sold on cassette. So we just made 10,000 cassettes and pretty much sort of left them there and left it up to them a bit to see how it goes. But basically, if you want to buy music there, you go around to shops, and there are CDs for sale, but theyíre a little bit too expensive. People still canít really afford to buy them and CD players. And all the taxi drivers have cassette machines, so actually what we did was we went to the main taxi stand in the piazza and we just gave loads of the taxi drivers cassettes. So basically they drive around the whole city playing our cassettes, itís a really nice.
CP: Do you still find copies of copies of cassettes in public markets there? Iíve still seen that--or CDR bootlegging--in places Iíve been to recently.
AM: When we were first there it was extreme. You had copies of sort of 10th generation, and they were beginning to sound pretty bad. All the cassette shops arenít allowed to do that anymore. There are some copyright laws there, but it happens still. But basically, thereís 10,000 original cassettes there [of the album], and God knows how many copies. Thereís nothing we can do about that, and thatís the whole point. Thatís fine, thatís the way music gets spread there.
CP: Do you have any idea of how itís been received in Ethiopia, what people think of it?
AM: Well, the thing is most of the songs that we played are very old songs by Getachew, and half of them arenít even his songs, they come from traditional Ethiopian songs. Theyíre either a war song or a certain scale that he plays. It would be the equivalent of an Ethiopian band coming over and playing really, really old blues numbers. People know most of the songs anyway. This is another version, and that happens a lot in Ethiopia. A lot of the singers and the pop stars they sing a new version of an old tune. That tradition is still really strong there. And thereís some great tunes there.
CP: You joined the band in the early 1990s, correct?
CP: That seems to be the time when--now, Iíve since become familiar with the bandís entire output, but I really didnít start being that familiar with the Ex at all until the late 1980s--but it seems like over the í90s the band really started broadening its ideas and sound through collaborations and exploring the music of other cultures.
AM: I think the Ex was always into playing with guests and other musicians, theyíd always done that, and I think it just became wider and wider. As our access to different kinds of music from all over the world became easier and easier, we got exposed to much more music. And when I joined I was really into East European music and African music. I always had a lot of those records. So the great thing when I first joined [the band], the moment I joined also Tom Cora joined, and he was also into that sort of stuff. So it was a perfect chance to explore these areas.
It wasnít so much that we had a strategy with that. I think it was more--again, when anyone has an idea and they throw it into the pot, we try in the rehearsal room and it either works or it doesnít work. And when it works it ends up in a gig, and even in the gig we can try it a few times and we can lose it because it doesnít get better. So that just grew from a very early stage.
CP: I was going to ask about access because, although there has always been a great deal of music from other cultures on LP, the availability of it now seems so much more vast, and I didnít know if being in Europe has given you and the band better access to explore such music through travel or just proximity to so many different cultures. How did you first start getting into such music?
AM: I felt like I heard a lot of rock music and I kind of knew it. It wasnít so easy to hear new stuff that I liked anymore. I remember at university I was studying anthropology and I suddenly was given access to the music library and hundreds of records of traditional music from all over the world, and I suddenly felt, ĎMy god.í First of all, I didnít realize that people were actually recording music from all over the world--I didnít know that existed. And then when I started listening to it, some of it was bizarre music. And I guess I donít have one specific style of music that Iím interested in, and suddenly there was this whole area of music that I never heard. And thatís continued--itís endless. In a way, now, especially, we have such incredible access to music. You canít say that youíve heard it all or that you canít find any music out there that you like. Thatís ridiculous, itís impossible. I think Iíll never have enough time in my life to hear all the great music out there. Of course, a lot of itís awful, also, so you sort of choose the stuff that you like.
But I think keeping that sort of openness, of looking out for stuff all over, is part of it and probably part of what keeps the Ex fresh. Weíre not just a bunch of people sitting at home listening to punk records. We never listen to punk records anymore. Occasionally Iíll listen to an old Fall song or a Birthday Party song, because some of them are really amazing. But most of the music is either new stuff that is just coming out that Iím checking out or electronic music and dubstep or dub African music. All that stuff can go back into the band when we play without it having to sound like that. Itís more like influences that trickle in.
CP: Plus, itís rather humbling and cool to realize thereís so much music out there that you havenít heard or responded to before at all.
AM: Exactly. And with each area you can touch the surface or go really, really deep into it. And to go really deep, you need time. You need to listen to it again and again. Itís not something that you can just study. Youíve actually got to listen to the stuff and get to know it, and that takes your lifetime for one style or even one country of music. So, in a way, itís endless. Itís great, it can be a bit overwhelming as well, but itís also fantastic. Weíve been listening to Ethiopian music for a long time, and this project is in that area, but at the moment weíre planning a new project with a new bunch of musicians and we donít know what weíre going to do. And thatís so great. Every time we go to the rehearsal room, itís a bit of a mystery and a bit of an experiment, because we have no idea how weíre going to sound like the next time.
CP: That has to be a great feeling to share with bandmates.
AM: It is. You feel like youíre in a new band each time you make a new set.
CP: So is this the first time the Ex has brought this project to the States?
AM: With this group, yes. And itís the first time Getachew has ever been in the States. And the great thing is weíre playing in Washington, where thereís a massive Ethiopian population. And we heard in Baltimore thereís quite a big Ethiopian population, so weíre hoping some of those people come. We went to Washington and we went to restaurants and put up leaflets and stuff, but we have no idea whether the people will actually go for it because itís in a rock club and stuff. Itís hard to say. But that would be great if Ethiopians came. For some Ethiopians itís old music, to the young kids, but when we told people about it they were really excited. Some people thought Getachew wasnít even alive anymore, so to hear that he was alive and playing in their city, that was really good news.
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