Samuel Yirga

The Samuel Yirga Quartet

The Comedy Theatre, Thursday 7 June, 2012

I heard a piece of music on the car radio a few weeks ago that made my ears twitch. It was a work for solo piano, which sounded unlike anything I’d heard before. There was something unusual about the insistent melody that I couldn’t place, or categorize. It sounded a bit like jazz, but with a hint something faintly exotic, and dreamy. It was, simultaneously, contemplative, melancholy and oddly uplifting. I only caught the musician’s first name, Samuel, and the fact that he was Ethiopian, and due to perform at the Melbourne Jazz Festival.

When I got home, I typed these bare facts into Google, and discovered that I’d been listening to a young man named Samuel Yirga play a tune entitled ‘Ye Bati Koyita’. I don’t usually like buying compressed MP3’s from iTunes, but I immediately gave the Apple Corporation a few measly sheckles so I could hear Yirga’s sublime music without the distraction of traffic noises. I was even more impressed on second listen, and hopped on-line once more to secure tickets for Yirga’s Melbourne concert at the Comedy Theatre.

Yirga, at the ripe old age of 25, has an interesting back story, too. Born in Addis Abada he soaked up the sounds of Ethiojazz, and American pop music, along with the folk traditions of his native land. Initially, Yirga’s parents discouraged the young boy’s musical ambitions, so he didn’t start playing piano until he was 16! He may have started late, but made up for lost time by practicing like a demon — the guy obviously knows the way to Carnegie Hall!

Yirga’s quartet were preceded by The Black Jesus Experience, a local outfit that set the scene with an infectious blend of Ethiojazz, and rap, a potent combination, indeed. There is so much good music in Melbourne, and the standard of musicianship is, as The Black Jesus Experience proved, world class. As good as these guys were, I couldn’t wait for Yirga to take the stage, and summon magic from the ivories.

Yirga is no one trick pony — his solo piano work is compelling, but he is also the master of groove and funk as he demonstrated with the aid of his band — a crack ensemble comprising of electric bass, drums and saxophone. These musicians are finely attuned to their colleagues, and capable of weaving complex rhythms and melodies around each other without sounding overly busy and cluttered. There is no question that each musician is a virtuoso in their own right, but at no point did any of them appear as though they were flaunting their talent at the expense of the music. If this is jazz, it’s most definitely shit I like — atmospheric, and infectiously groovy, with highly accessible elements of popular music (like deep reggae beats, and funk riffs).

The drummer, Nathaniel Zewde, was especially impressive. He hardly broke a sweat, beating the skins and copper like a demon, but with an elegant economy of movement that was as graceful as it was propulsive. The saxophonist, Feleke Woldemariam, was formerly, Yirga’s music teacher, and the older gentleman exuded a sense of unimpeachable cool reminiscent of the iconic John Coltrane.

Yirga was undoubtedly the star of the show, and the audience warmed to his modest, and slightly earnest stage patter, which conveyed a sense of humor and a seriousness of purpose, for Yirga sees himself as an ambassador for his country, a role he fulfills with distinction. Check out Yirga’s full length debut album, Guzo, if you want to hear an eclectic blend of global influences played with real soul, and don’t miss him if he visits your town.

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