• Victor Jeffreys II
  • Girma Yifrashewa

When most folks think of Ethiopian music they hear the slithering soul-funk sounds created by artists like Mahmoud Ahmed or Tilahun Gessesse—killer singers who delivered Amharic-language jams with raspy finesse and earthy grunts—and the so-called Ethio-jazz of the keyboardist and vibist Mulatu Astatke. All of their work employs a pinched pentatonic scale, giving the music its otherworldly quality to western ears. The young pianist Girma Yifrashewa is on to something totally different, following the path laid out by the Ethiopian nun and fellow pianist Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Gebrou, who developed a distinctive sound and repertoire that borrowed its touch from European classical music and its rolling energy from the blues while retaining a distinctly native melodic feel. Yifrashewa’s repertoire includes works by Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, and Mozart, but it’s his own compositions that are truly riveting.

On his first US release, Love & Peace (Unseen Worlds), Yifrashewa comes off as a fluid hybrid of Erik Satie, Vince Guaraldi, and Matthew Shipp at his most restrained. The performances are tonally rich and subdued, with Yifrashewa’s folksy melodies given alternating emphasis—grandiloquent and hushed. Today’s 12 O’Clock Track is “Sememen,” (according to the album’s liner notes the title translates as “half asleep, half awake, half dead, half alive”), a piece where the Ethiopian melodic sensibility rings loud and clear.