I have Bill Murray to thank for my love of Ethiopian music. Despite being a fan of music from other parts of Africa, I had never heard Ethiopian music until it was prominently featured in the soundtrack of the Jim Jarmusch film starring Murray, Broken Flowers. I loved what I heard and tracked down a few of the CDs in the wonderful Ethiopiques series of albums. I still have a lot to discover, but Ethiopia strikes me as a country that’s especially rich in music, a sort of crossroads where Arabic and Middle Eastern modal influences converge with other African music as well as European jazz, rock and classical music.
I mention all of this as a way of introducing the extraordinary Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya (or perhaps that should be spelled Mekuria… the sources out there are about evenly split on the spelling, but the Ethiopqiues collection of his old recordings spells it with a “y,” so that’s what I’m going with). Getting a chance to see Mekurya in concert would be amazing enough, but he was in Chicago this week as part of an unusual collaboration with the Dutch punk-rock band The Ex. In 2006, the two made an album together, Mon Abessa, which is now getting distribution in the U.S. through Chicago’s Touch & Go Records. I played a track from it recently when I was a guest on “Radio M.”
The Ex & Mekurya played Sunday night at Logan Square Auditorium then put on a free show around noon Monday at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, part of a series of “Audible Architecture” concerts organized by the city with help from Pitchfork Media and various nightclubs, such as the Empty Bottle. I haven’t been able to attend any of these shows until now (even having the flexible life of a freelance writer doesn’t mean I don’t have to work), but I’m so glad I was able to make it to this one. It was a perfect day, and the music was perfect, too. With the Chicago skyline there at my side and a terrific band right in front of me in the middle of the day on a Monday, I found myself thinking: Why isn’t life always like this?
The Ex have been around forever (well, since 1979 or so), and they tend to play edgy art punk, so they seem like an unlikely backup band for Mekurya. But those snake-charming sax melodies sounded all the more powerful combined with the rugged grooves and shrapnel-spewing guitar solos of The Ex. These Dutch punks showed that they know how to swing. Mekurya was a marvel, too, taking one solo without the band and one song backed just by the Ex’s drummer, Kat Ex. She also contributed some mellifluous vocals to two of the songs. (Kat has an album coming out Sept. 23 with Jon Langford under the name KatJon Band, and they’re playing at this year’s Hideout Block Party.)
A male Ethiopian dancer came out onto the stage at various points, wearing three different costumes and breaking out into some gymnastic moves that were simply incredible to behold. At one point, an elderly gentleman in the crowd (an Ethiopian immigrant, perhaps?) walked with a cane up to the area in front of the stage and danced a little bit, too. Near the end, the guest dancer whipped out a big ceremonial knife and engaged in a mock fight with the lead singer of the Ex, G.W. Sok. Now there’s something you don’t see at a concert every day.