Born: 1941 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Sounds like: The most heartfelt, amazing love letter imaginable in a language you probably don’t understand.
For fans of: Aster Aweke, Mulatu Astatke, The Either/Orchestra, Budos Band, James Brown, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, the Skatalites.
Latest release: The romantic and funky Jeguol Naw Betwa, a 1978 LP reissued last year by Portland’s own Mississippi Records.
Why you care: Because opportunities to see luminaries of Ethiopian music are few and far between, and Mahmoud Ahmed is one in a handful of all-time greats. Beginning his career in the Ethiopian underground music scene in the ’60s but coming to prominence in the ’70s with the state-sanctioned Imperial Body Guard Band, the singer has remained a star in his home country—and among folks of Ethiopian descent living around the world—for decades. It’s easy to hear why, even if you don’t speak a lick of Arabic: Ahmed is an otherworldly singer whose slippery voice works minor miracles when it’s not moving mountains, and over the years he’s surrounded himself with funky, jazzy bands that could give the JBs a run for their money. Much of Ahmed’s work has been re-released in the Ethiopiques CD series (Ahmed’s early-’70s work with the IBGB was most recently collected in 2010 as the series’ 26th volume). But even when Ahmed is singing over contemporary Ethiopian music’s prerequisite cheesy keyboards—see his recent two-volume best-of collection, Tizita—his voice is haunting and technically masterful.
SEE IT: Mahmoud Ahmed plays YU Contemporary, 800 SE 10th Ave., on Saturday, May 5, with Tezeta Band. 9 pm. $30. All ages.