It may be more commonly known as the City of Light, but if there’s one other thing Paris is famous for it has to be music, jazz music in particular. This probably explains why so many musicians pertaining to this genre – French or otherwise – move there, basing themselves inside its various arrondissements, absorbing the charm and artistic inspiration that permeates every street and corner of this most alluring of European capitals. And being something of a fluid genre, jazz can open the door to many other musical endeavours, such as the one undertaken by Parisian band Akalé Wubé.
Essentially five musicians, namely Frenchmen Etienne de la Sayette (sax, flutes), Paul Bouclier (trumpet, percussion, krar), Loïc Réchard (guitar), David Georgelet (drums) and Maltese bass player Oliver Degabriele, Akalé Wubé has – since forming in 2009 – delved deep into the Ethiopian music goldmine that this African country produced in the 1960s and 1970s. To date the band has played over 200 concerts around Europe, North Africa and in Ethiopia, working on several collaborations and developing its own brand of inspired jazz-funk with an Ethiopian flavour.
With two acclaimed albums to its name and some notable appearances (including a support slot for Dr John last year and another for Femi Kuti coming up next month), Akalé Wubé has been rapidly gaining in popularity, bridging elements of world music with those of jazz and other genres to produce a particular hybrid that is brimming with energy.Degabriele tells us what it’s all about ahead of the band’s first-ever performance in Malta on Saturday.
Akalé Wubé will be performing at The Garden Party at Marsa Sports Club on Friday. The event will also feature British band Lester Clayton and French singer-songwriter Freschard. Doors open at 7.30pm. Tickets are available online at www.maltaticket.com. For more information, look up the event page on Facebook.
As the story goes, back in 2009, the five of you got together on a wild project. What was it about Ethiopian music that particularly attracted you?
When David first called me and told me we’d be playing Ethiopian music, I thought they were having me on, as I had no idea what Ethiopian music was about at the time. What followed was a complete immersion into the Ethiopiques, a collection of Ethio-jazz and other traditional Ethiopian music, compiled by Francis Falceto. This was essentially the spark behind this project.
So the original idea wasn’t really about putting together a band?
In the beginning, we just played Ethiopian standards from the 1960s and 1970s, recreating the sound, interpretation and groove of the music, with no particular effort to give it any modern twist. The original aspiration for the band was just to have fun playing the music we’d heard on the Ethiopiques compilations, without any pretension to make the style our own or anything of the sort.That’s all we did for months, and we loved it. We got to really understand the essence of the music, where it was coming from and where it could go.Once we got comfortable with that, we started experimenting with our own ideas and arrangements, venturing into other genres and trying out other instruments.
So how does the name Akalé Wubé tie in with the whole concept?
The name was chosen at an Ethiopian restaurant in Paris, after a few months of playing and a couple of gigs. Akalé Wubé is the name of a song by well-known Ethiopian saxophone player Getatchew Mekurya, and is a poetic way of saying ‘a beautiful soul’.
Clearly, the Ethiopiques recordings played an important part in bringing Akalé Wubé to life…
Yes they did, and I dare say that all bands playing this music at the moment have been inspired at some point by this fantastic collection of music, which covers a wide spectrum of Ethiopian music. The original aspiration for the band was just to have fun playing the music we’d heard on Ethiopiques. What was most attractive to us initially was Ethio-jazz, the music pioneered by Mulatu Astatke, which was an incredible mix of funk, jazz, reggae, psychedelic rock and Afrobeat, all tied in with the ever charming sounds of the 1960s and 1970s recordings.We are all huge fans of music from that period too, so it was another pleasant challenge for us to keep that same sound in our interpretation. Both our albums were recorded live for this same reason.
Reviewer Matthew Forss wrote that Akalé Wubé has reinvented the Ethiopian Golden Era, which I suppose puts you under some pressure to live up to expectations…
I don’t think we’ve reinvented it, but we have put a lot of energy in understanding it. I think it is what helped us keep a clear direction of what the band should be about. Fusion in music is a tricky thing, and most fusions fail because there isn’t enough thought in what is being mixed with what. We have tried to stay as close as possible to the essence of this music, without throwing in contemporary musical notions or instruments just for the sake of it. Then again, playing this music in 2013 is in itself a sort of rebirth and the music is strong enough to speak for itself, possibly with more effect than it had back then, without the need to be reinvented.
Your two albums feature “revisited standards, unearthed rarities and original compositions”. How differently do you approach an original as opposed to interpreting a standard?
It’s very difficult to work on original music and we only managed to do that after having covered Ethio-jazz standards for over a year. Ours is a collective approach, and an idea for a song sometimes ends up as an arrangement for a standard or vice-versa. There’s no set approach as to how we work. We do play a lot, both rehearsals and gigs, which permits us to try a lot of different things. Some stick, some don’t.Of course, we all have different tastes and ideas, and this collective way of working is most rewarding when the final result sounds like Akalé Wubé. I’m not sure how to explain it, but the constant element is a respect for the soul of the music and its essence, and I think that comes through in our music.Lost music from a bygone era being played live again
In a short time, Akalé Wubé has gone from newcomers to a band of repute with an impressive track record, playing some notable gigs and even touring in Ethiopia, among many places…
We have an amazing opportunity of playing once a month at a great venue in Paris, which permits us to work with different guest musicians. This process, involving several collaborations, has inspired a lot of ideas for our music, and there have been some fantastic moments where the guest musicians really get into the spirit of the music as much as we do. I think our most memorable performance was in Ethiopia. We went there in 2010 not really knowing what to expect. The idea was to play concerts, meet musicians and get a feel of what Addis Ababa is all about. During our first performance there we noticed that people were singing the words to songs that we’d been playing instrumentally for years. It was an incredibly moving moment for us all and made our visit totally worth it. We were also touched by some Ethiopians who spoke to us and wrote us letters saying how emotional it was for them to hear this lost music from a bygone era being played live again.
The band has played abroad many times, but this Friday’s concert is probably more special to you…
Of course, I’m very proud of what we’re doing as a band and it is always a huge pleasure to play at home, in front of a Maltese audience. I’m also interested to see how people will react to the music and hope that a lot of them will get curious and listen to more of it at home.
This article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (07 April 2013)