Mahmoud Ahmed is one of the greatest singers of Ethiopia — it may be no exaggeration to call him “one of the greatest singers in the world,” as the World Music Festival Chicago’s website asserted. Several albums in Buda Musique’s endlessly wonderful “Ethiopiques” series feature his songs, especially the recordings he made in the 1970s, when Ethiopia’s music flourished, using a scale reminiscent of Middle Eastern music, hypnotic circular rhythms and arrangements that borrowed from Western jazz and pop — making for an intoxicating, sometimes surreal mix of styles.
Ahmed gave his first public performance ever in Chicago on Sunday, Sept. 13, as part of World Music Festival Chicago, and it was a joyous occasion. The spry 71-year-old occasionally hopped and twirled as he performed on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion’s stage at Millennium Park, but what was most remarkable were the strange twists and turns his voice took. The crowd included many Chicagoans from Ethiopia and Africa, who sang along with Ahmed, danced with big smiles on their faces and waved Ethiopian flags. As much as I was enjoying the music, imagine what it was like for these immigrants to see a superstar from their homeland.
The Moroccan artist Aziz Sahmaoui opened Sunday’s concert, playing with his group University of Gnawa — singing with an alluring voice as the band wove together intricate, rhythmic layers of music. A couple of the other musicians took turns on vocals, wowing the audience with their own stirring and powerful voices.