The mighty Amsterdam punk band the Ex have built a career busting down barriers. From the very beginning, nearly three decades ago, they eschewed power chords for textural heft and primal beats, and as they grew musically, started working with musicians well outside the punk world, from some of Holland’s best jazz players to avant-garde cellist Tom Cora to Kurdish singer and saz player Brader Muziki. Even when the collaborations seem incompatible on the surface, they ultimately work because the Ex find room for others within their own system.
A few years ago guitarist Terrie Ex started releasing some fine albums of African music on his Terp label, including the first record by Congo’s Konono No. 1, the Malian kora player Djibril Diabate, and an astonishing double-CD (packaged in an extravagant book) by the Eritrean krar player and singer Tsehaytu Beraki. On the Beraki CD as well as last year’s eponymous disc by Ethiopian vocalist Mohammed “Jimmy” Mohammed, various members of the Ex and their associates—drummers Han Bennink and Michael Vatcher and bassist Massimo Zu—made cameos, blending in and strengthening rather than forcing their wills on traditional sounds. The entire band is featured on the recent Moa Anbessa, playing behind Getetchew Merkuria, a brilliant Ethiopian saxophonist they discovered through Negus of Ethiopian Sax, a set of music from 1972 released as volume 14 of the invaluable Ethiopiques series.
Merkuria, who’s now 70, was invited to play in Amsterdam by the band back in 2004 for their 25th anniversary celebration. It was the first time he’d ever traveled to Europe. He played a few gigs with Misha Mengelberg’s superb ICP Orchestra, one of the greatest jazz groups on the planet, and then joined the Ex on their own European tour. The experience was so great they decided to make an album together, and last April they cut Moa Anbessa, bringing in some great jazz players—including trombonist Joost Buis, keyboardist Cor Fuhler, and French clarinetist Xavier Charles—to flesh out the arrangements, which the band built around melodies Merkuria had demoed on his sax.
Because the Ex have always played loosey-goosey with conventional tonality, Merkuria is free to stick to the pentatonic scales used in Ethiopia, and his haunting microtones never collide with the band’s fierce rhythmic attack. The Ethiopian classic “Musicawi Silt”—originally recorded as “Muzicawi Silt” by the Wallias Band, and included on Ethiopiques 13, Ethiopian Groove—receives a particularly powerful reading, with a loose, sideways funk groove propelled by nasty scratch patterns (a la Andy Gill of Gang of Four) sculpted by guitarists Andy and Terrie. Ex vocalist GW Sok adds original lyrics to a few songs, delivering them in his usual hectoring style, but he never really gets in the way.
The CD includes a gorgeous 36-page booklet packed with stunning photos from Merkuria’s own collection and there’s a very in-depth interview with the saxophonist covering everything from his beginnings as a teenage musician to his pride in collaborating with the Ex.