[ETHIOPIAN FUNK] They don't look like revivalists of the groove-heavy sound of vintage Ethiopian funk and soul. To the outside observer, the three slightly geeky, buttoned-down white dudes sitting around a table at Sengatera on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on a wet January evening would most likely be trading tips on software upgrades or relaying parenting woes.
Instead, Tim Cook, Ted Hille and John Teagle, the core members of Tezeta Band, one of Portland's best-kept secrets, are dropping names like Mulatu Astatke and Alemayehu Eshete and trying desperately to put into words what the music is like.
"When you meet someone who's never heard any of this stuff, you think, 'How do you explain this?'" says Hille, Tezeta's saxophone player. "Well, it's Ethiopian, but it's not world music...there are elements of Motown and James Brown in there...it's American and un-American at the same time...it's hypnotic and sweet and seductive. I can't put my finger on what makes it so personal. It almost feels like you grew up with it."
Hille's last sentence strikes at the core of what makes the sound of Ethiopian popular music so engaging. It's a rich, complex sound that stirs together soul, funk and jazz from the U.S. and Europe; Arabic melodies that have survived in the region for centuries; and the African rhythms that leaked from regions surrounding the land-locked country. On their own, the pieces don't seem like they'd fit. But when put together by the right hands, it sounds like they've been enmeshed for centuries.
"I was over at a friend's house, and she put on this tape of this music for me," says Cook, the band's keyboardist. "Immediately, I was like, 'What is this?!' It was the most incredible stuff I'd ever heard. I begged her to make me a copy, and when my wife and I were repainting the house we bought, we just listened to that on repeat for days."
The tape featured the first volumes of The Ethiopiques, a peerless series of compilations of both the "golden years" of Ethiopian pop in the '60s and '70s and modern versions of the same. For many, like director Jim Jarmusch, who featured some tracks by Astatke in his 2005 film Broken Flowers, it was their entree into this hypnotic world of sound.
It also served as a wellspring of inspiration for Cook. He and four other members of Tezeta Band (Hille, trombonist Curt Bieker, trumpet player Josh Prewitt, and drummer Talbott Guthrie) spent six years backing up rapper Pete Miser in the Five Fingers of Funk. When that band split up in 1998, Cook concentrated on running a construction company and stopped playing music for a decade.
But after that first hit of the Ethiopian sound, Cook needed more and more. "I would go to Merkato, the Ethiopian market on Northeast Russell, every two months and buy a new CD from them. And this became so infectious that I sat down and started playing all the time, trying to figure these songs out."
Soon thereafter, Cook had spread the music around to anyone who would listen, including his old Five Fingers bandmates, eliciting a similar epiphanic reaction. Soon enough, they were huddling around a stereo, working out the parts. "It's ironic all of those bands were listening to old Motown records and emulating what they heard," says Hille, "and now here's this group of Americans trying to do the same thing to their songs."
Their sets these days are now made up almost entirely of instrumental covers of some of their favorite Ethiopian songs, capturing the raw energy of the source material and surprising plenty of émigrés from the African nation, like Sengatera owner Yonnas Yilma. "I went with another friend from Ethiopia to see them play for the first time," Yilma says. "And we were saying, 'What?! What am I hearing?!'"
Yilma has since become the band's biggest benefactor, allowing them to take the stage at his restaurant once a month, and providing them with the biggest thrill of their still-young career: opening for two rare Portland appearances by legendary Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed.
Ahmed fell quickly in love with Tezeta Band ("Tezeta"—properly pronounced Tiz-ee-tah—roughly translates to "longing" or "nostalgia," and is a catch-all phrase for slow Ethiopian songs that speak to those feelings), even inviting it to play a few songs with him during both of his shows here. But, remembers Cook, their pale skin tone did take him by surprise.
"When he got picked up in Seattle to come down here, Yonnas played him our CD, but didn't tell him anything about what we looked like. So, when I came here to meet him, he was told, 'Tim is in the band opening up for you,' and he went, 'How can this be?'"