Ethiopia’s capital Addis Abeba is full — of people, of cars, and of neighborhoods as big as cities themselves. Night time offers a rest from the noise and congestion, as well as an unhurried pace that fits the sprawling city of more than 3 million well. On a recent Friday evening, a former residence that functions as a restaurant by day had transitioned into a bar. Umbrellas hung in the air over a large backyard, where Endeguena Mulu, the electronic producer known as Ethiopian Records, had launched into a DJ set. His setlist included songs by Jai Paul and Mikael Seifu, and was distinct from the playlists of electro-pop remixes and current afropop hits that dominate nightlife in the city.
As a musician, Mulu is self-taught. His entry into production came in high school, when his parents got a computer, onto which he installed the music software Tuareg. He tinkered with it daily, with the enthusiasm and commitment of a gamer. Music classes at a local arts academy taught him how to produce quality work with limited means and resources. Over the past few years, Mulu has turned that knowledge into three EPs, released through the small Washington, D.C. label 1432 R, and various mixes posted on SoundCloud. He intentionally labels his sounds as “Ethiopiyawi electronic,” or "Ethiopian electronic"; it’s a measure taken to prevent any mislabeling or the detachment of his work from the name of the place where he lives and finds his inspiration.
I caught up with Mulu a week after his DJ set, and we talked about his early years, the challenges presented by his commitment to living and creating in Addis Abeba, and his love of azmaris, the underappreciated folk musicians of Ethiopia.
Can you relate the sounds you’re drawn to now to the sounds of your childhood?
Every year I reinvent myself musically. Otherwise, I get bored. At some point I got stuck mixing traditional music with hip-hop and reggae then it got really boring.
What do you define as "traditional"?
It can be the chikchikta time signature, the 6/8 eskista beat. Guragigna [music from the Gurage region of Ethiopia], too. At some point, I got introduced to this CD with a bahel [cultural] collection. The band was an old band in the Ethiopian National Theater.
What did finding the CD change for you?
It just opened something. Like, Why don’t I try to use this? And I also found an Asnakech Worku CD. I thought, What if I try to put the krar [stringed lyre from Eritrea and Ethiopia] in?
You know, when you’re a kid, especially when you’re brought up in an environment where you’re taught in a Western way, the whole traditional thing seems so far away. You don’t feel like it’s your heritage. Especially when you’re surrounded by books written by French people and you’re always watching Disney movies, your whole set of references leans towards that [Western] way. Books saved me, though. My dad used to make me read Ethiopian books like, “At some point you’re going to forget how even to speak Amharic if you keep going this way.”
Those sounds were parts of our lives on TV and the radio. But you separate them as two different worlds you know? As a kid, you think this is cool and this is for family gatherings.
Yeah, there’s a sort of cultural segregation for youth.
Whatever is foreign attracts you more. When you’re listening to Amharic or Oromigna or Tigrigna songs all day on the radio and parents are playing it, you’re like, “Ah, old people!” When you go to school, there’s hip-hop. And hip-hop is cool but I’m starting to realize how divided it was. And we didn’t do it on purpose. We were conditioned, you know? Maybe if we were conditioned another way, better things would happen.
You went to an international school, Lycée Guebre Mariam. What was the experience of being exposed to different cultures from all over Africa and beyond?
That part is pretty cool. But that’s the thing: when you look at Lycée, the students are from all over the place, the teachers are from all over the place but the teaching is not. And that’s how it is all over the world. Take the school as a metaphor, people from all over coming to get knowledge and only getting a fraction of it. At the end of the day, your frame of mind is shaped by a single culture. And when you’re from another culture and that happens to you, there’s only one word to describe it: I feel like I’m colonized. When I realized it, when I look back at it, [I ask myself], Wait, why didn’t we have classes where we could learn languages from West Africa or even Ethiopia? I want to learn Oromigna and Tigrigna. In a school like Lycée, where there’s a higher standard [of education], if we don’t get that, there’s a problem.
Do you feel a responsibility in your music to represent what wasn’t present in your education?
I’m feeling it now and it’s making it hard to produce. It’s too much pressure. When you start realizing things like that, you ask, What should I do? Should I keep doing what I do? Is what I’m doing [following] the current of things?
How do you want your music to fit into the notion of the world being commanded by a single culture?
I want to be able to see more musicians from all over the world being listened to. I don’t want a musician to have to go to London or New York to be listened to by the world. Even publications and record labels that claim to be international, they don’t claim to be American or English. They say, “We go all over the world.” If you’re going all over the world, you have a responsibility to listen to the world, not just have the world listen to what you put out. What would make you international is working with musicians from not only cities but also the countryside.
How does resisting the idea that you have to move to London or New York to be listened to by the world impact your career?
For example, I can’t tour as I want, practically speaking. If I move to Europe, I’d tour like crazy because venues won’t have to pay that much for my plane fare or whatever. Even equipment. I can’t get the equipment I need here. There is old equipment being used in huge studios here. The new stuff from the digital age isn’t that available. If I moved there, I’d be able to buy it like I buy my shirt. But here, I have to look for a company that imports it and pay at least double. It’s a lot.
“I don’t want a musician to have to go to London or New York to be listened to by the world.”
Do you think these current accessibility challenges will change for you and for other musicians in Addis Abeba?
For me, the way it’s going to change is I’m probably going to travel a bit. Get some new air. Refresh things in my life personally. But otherwise, for Addis, it has to. When you look at the film industry here right now, it’s growing. When an industry grows, the demands for the tools of that industry [grow]. There are going to be people importing [equipment] and making it more available. But I don’t think most businessmen here understand that there is a demand for music tools and technology. For music, even as a kid, your parents don’t see it as a viable professional option. And they’re kinda right, because it’s tough. But it should be a viable option.
You’re good friends with Mikael Seifu, another Ethiopian electronic producer. What does the creative community look like in Addis?
We grew up together and I think we started making music simultaneously. Most young musicians in Addis don’t have a chance to grow. I know how hard it is for me so I can imagine how it is for others who don’t have the means. I don’t think it’s a fair environment for musicians. People don’t look at musicians in a respectful way. Even people who own venues don’t respect musicians enough to pay. There are no mécènes [patrons]. There aren’t people who encourage artists. Not just financially but even by showing up, just showing up and giving musicians a chance.
Who is the audience you want to reach?
The audience I want to reach, they’re the people who go to azmari bets [intimate music venues where traditional musicians perform]. The French would call it la souche: it’s the people that work during the day, taxi drivers, weyala [taxi fare collectors and conductors]. [At some shows,] the people I want to reach are the waiters. If you look at the audience, it’s foreigners. It’s cool to do one event per month like that, but you can’t do it every week. I feel like if I’m not able to reach that audience, I’ll feel phony. That’s where culture comes from and if it comes through me and it’s not able to resonate back there, I feel like what I’m doing is for nothing. I want to reach young middle class Ethiopians but I think I’ve already reached that crowd enough. It’s harder to reach la souche.
Where do you gather sounds you sample for your music? Do you go to azmari bets?
I don’t do that because I feel like it’s cheating them. They’re artists. The first time I recorded an azmari was when I was working on the soundtrack for the movie Enena Bete. The guys were really cool and gave me total freedom and I wanted to use azmari sounds and they paid for it. We called azmaris to a random house and we recorded them as session musicians. Before that, I had friends who sing or play instruments who’d come through and just help me out.
What are some of your favorite Ethiopiyawi sounds?
In instruments, the masinko [single-stringed bowed lute] is my favorite of all time. I would use it in all my tracks even in the background, I would resample it and make it a bass sound. You go into any region of Ethiopia and it’s there and everyone uses it differently.
The kebero [drum] is my favorite.
I like the kebero that they have at azmari bets. It’s a three-set drum, I think, most of the time. They don’t need microphones or amplifying instruments at all. It’s so powerful. Azmaris are my favorite in general.
Why is that?
Have you ever been at an azmari bet at 3 in the morning? Their energy? They don’t even drink or do substances or anything but their energy is amazing. I’d go home from a DJ set and pop by for 10 mins and get reenergized and go home. One time I went at 5 in the morning, and there was maybe two people but they were so energetic. Dancing, jumping, everything. And they don’t get paid that much. I mean, I complain about pay but I shouldn’t. You can feel that they do it because they love it. I know they’re not paid that much and I know they do it almost every night. You can’t put that amount of energy into it unless you love it.