Shortly after 9 p.m. on Saturday, Nadav Peled and the rest of Anbessa Orchestra took to the stage at the State House and, with little ado, leapt headlong into a set and a half of blazing Ethiopian-inspired tunes. Over the course of a dozen-odd selections ranging from reverent covers to deftly arranged originals, the Brooklyn-based group managed to transform a crowd of 30 or so swaying bodies into an undulating mass more than double that size over the course of their performance.
The sounds of the ”Golden Age” of Ethiopian music have been slowly worming their way through discerning ears since the music’s heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when a group of adventurous musicians in Addis Ababa began cross-pollinating local scales and rhythms with Western instrumentation, combining tribal traditions with the bounce and punch of James Brown, Miles Davis and anything else that swirled into their sonic stew. With an increased profile following inclusion on the soundtrack of the 2005 Jim Jarmusch indie comedy Broken Flowers (the culmination of years of sad-sacky Bill Murray films), musicians like Mulatu Astatke, vocalists like Mahmoud Ahmed, and many of their contemporaries have appreciated a bolstered profile playing to increasingly enthusiastic Western audiences.
There were no big-name octogenarians looming over the crowd and no cross-armed, chin-strokers looking on Saturday night, however, when Brooklyn Ethio-loyalists Anbessa Orchestra brought their irresistibly kinetic aural assemblies to the stage at State House, performing for a swaying, awestruck crowd of locals to make a free-flowing party.
That was just fine by Israeli-born bandleader Nadav Peled. “Ethio Funk is mostly what I call it nowadays, less Ethio Jazz. I don’t mind when people call us that, but we don’t want it to be jazz as in strictly listening music. We want it to be listening music, but we want it to be partying music, too,” he said.
The State House provided an ideal environment for this party. The newest venue in New Haven lacks the price point of larger venues and offers a little more elbow room than some of its smaller ones. Tickets were reasonable at $10 a head, and the well-curated addition of DJ Sir Roundsound spinning a smorgasbord of international miscellanea served as an ideal ice-breaking warmup for the assembling crowd.
During Anbessa Orchestra’s set, the ecstatic gyrations of the crowd met Peled’s acrobatic fretwork in midair, while serpentine horn lines slithered into every polyrhythmic crevice the rhythm section offered. By the time the lights came up and the DJ resumed, the band had been so tight for so long there seemed to be no air left in them, and the audience slumped out into the adjacent parking lot, drenched in sweat and awash in dizzied joy.
“Looking at the crowds coming into our shows,” Peled remarked, “some of them don’t even know anything about Ethiopian music. Some of them are like Ethiopiques freaks,” referring to the long running series of compilations that have further helped popularize much of Ethiopia’s musical history.
“Luckily, a lot of the time it seems to appeal to a lot of people,” he added. It’s hard to blame someone for erring on the side of modesty.