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World Music Features

Gigi

By Derek Beres
Published March 9, 2007

Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw has become America’s most prominent representative of Ethiopian roots music. Since the beginning of her career, she’s been evolving the numerous and varied styles of her birthplace, which includes a broad cornucopia of Christian, Muslim and tribal influences.
ETHIOPIA

Imprisoned by King Minos of Crete for helping slay the Minotaur, Daedalus needed an escape. He created a pair of waxen wings for himself and his son, Icarus, as Minos could not control the air. He warned Icarus not to fly too high, as the sun would melt the wax. Exhilarated by freedom, Icarus ascended to great heights until, of course, the sun melted the wax, and he fell to his death. This famous myth reminds us of our relationship with the divine: our actions are forever attuned, yet necessarily tragic.

Gigi laughs when confronted with this interpretation of the title of her latest release, Gold & Wax (Palm). It turns out that the phrase—more traditionally expressed as “wax and gold” in her native Ethiopia—is a poetic form that serves as a double entendre for artists to express socially- and spiritually-oriented sentiments. The form was made popular by the likes of lyricist Neway Debebe, while Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw has become America’s most prominent representative of Ethiopian roots music.

Not that her music is explicitly folk. Since the beginning of her career, she’s been evolving the numerous and varied styles of her birthplace, which includes a broad cornucopia of Christian, Muslim and tribal influences. She released two independent records, Tsehay and One Ethiopia, before leaving Kenya for Oakland, California. Her musical questing caused her to bounce around for a while, finally settling into New York City, a deal with Palm Pictures and, most importantly, a relationship with bassist/producer Bill Laswell, who would become her musical director.

Listening to Gigi, her Palm debut, which the New York Times cited as the “best obscure album of 2001,” you’re transported to a future culture where the biblical language of Amharic is fueled by deep dubby bass, Indian percussion and blazing horns. This trinity of influences (Africa, India and America) shapes all of her recordings, a cosmopolitan blend of style and substance within one lucid journey. Front and center, though, Gigi’s silken voice draws you in.

“I’m just a singer,” a self-effacing Gigi says. “I write songs when inspiration comes and whatever makes it makes it out there. I didn’t have any clear musical view in terms of production when I started. When I came to Palm they gave me their Bob Marley ambient record [Dreams Of Freedom], and there was something in the rhythms and percussion that really affected me.”

Laswell, who created that soundscape of Rasta classics, returned to the mixing board in 2003 for Illuminated Audio (Palm), a deconstruction of Gigi’s previous release. Like the Marley outing, this is an introspective exploration, guided by long patches of bass and percussion, with vocals chopped and floating on a river of liquid sound. That same year, the duo teamed up with a talented crew of African musicians to create Zion Roots (Network), a throwback tribute to the heyday of Ethiopian jazz released under the moniker Abyssinia Infinite. Like the incredible Ethiopiques series, Zion Roots offers tribute to a glorious past just being discovered internationally.

From the opening strains of “Semena-Wrock” (the Amharic translation of the album title), a jazz-inspired, kit drum-led uptempo number, Gigi returns to old form on Gold & Wax. Surrounded by punchy saxophones, prominent drums and Laswell’s signature low-end, the meeting ground of the trinity is reclaimed. On the second track, another side of Gigi emerges. Backed by a tasteful landscape of drum ’n’ bass and echoey, resonant guitars, “Anten” recalls her work with Laswell’s South Asian supergroup Tabla Beat Science, which features classical masters Zakir Hussain and Sultan Khan.

The Tabla Beat family is featured throughout Gold & Wax. Khan provides his inimitable sarangi and vocal work on “Hulu-Dane.” Listening to how effortlessly West African ly