Although Tsehaytu Beraki is well known in Ethiopia, her modest recorded output (a dozen sides released on 7-inch records in the 1970s) and her long political exile in Amsterdam have prevented her from building an international reputation. Selam, a generous two-disc set, more than makes up for that. The 17 tracks were recorded over three years. Most feature Beraki solo, singing and playing the harplike krar. There’s a sweet, intimate pulse to her performances, and while the lyrics (translated in an accompanying hardbound book, with nearly 100 pages of photos, interviews and history) are largely political, the songs themselves never sound strident.
Over the course of the sessions, Beraki asked a few people to sit in—the bassist and drummer from The Ex, legendary Dutch drummer Han Bennink and American expat percussionist Michael Vachter—but despite the guests’ jazz and rock backgrounds, here they are faithful to Beraki’s spirit. Terrie Ex also organized a group of Ethiopian children to sing on a few tracks, creating a nice familial feel to the tracks, many of which Beraki wrote for the release.
Where Beraki’s recordings have an earthy, sing-song feel, the two Diabate family discs are pure beauty, highlighting the ringing tones of another African lute, the kora. Toumani Diabaté is probably the best-known proponent of the Malian instrument. Soun Soun features Toumani’s nephew Djibril on kora and two other members of Toumani’s griot family: Fassery Diabaté on balafon and Mahamadou Kamissoko on ngoni. The acoustic strings and xylophone-like percussion sing through six traditional, upbeat, almost pop instrumental tracks. A more formal feel pervades Djibril Diabaté’s solo kora recording Hawa. The disc comes off as a recital, a spotlight for the beauty of the instrument and the mastery of the musician. His uncle, no doubt, is proud.