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Asmara All Stars bring Eritrea out of isolation

By Daniel Brown

In October 2010, the German label Out Here released a 13-track album that defied pigeonholes, government suspicion and bureaucracy. World Tracks brings you a two-part special from the official launch in Asmara of Eritrea’s Got Soul, a collaboration between French musician Bruno Blum and the Eritrean authorities.

“Eritreans only kneel on two occasions: when they pray and when they shoot.” This old Horn of Africa proverb reflects a defiant population which has known little but war and penury for half a century. Since Haile Selassie shut down Eritrea’s parliament in 1961, the country has been striving to assert an original heritage, different to its neighbours Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti.

“Eritrea, more than almost any country I know,” wrote John Pilger in his book Heroes, “demonstrated the most incredible self-reliance for year after year, as its people struggled for their independence.”

Daniel Brown

“Stubborn, magnificent, soldiering on,” adds Michela Wrong in her 2005 work I didn’t do it for you: How the world used and abused a small African nation, “like the winding railway between Massawa and Asmara, restored since independence.”

This sense of isolated pride is reflected in the music of the Asmara All Stars.

French blues guitarist, songwriter, producer, music author, painter and cartoonist Bruno Blum was invited in 2006 by the official Eritrean Cultural Affairs Office to create a modern yet traditional sound from a country that has faced a cultural and economic blockade for the past decade.

The outside world knows little about the musical heritage of these five million people. Eritrea’s international production boils down to three releases, give or take a few: a Rags Production featuring the nation’s best exiled musicians, the Ethiopiques N°5 devoted to artists from both sides of the border in the 1970-1975 era; and the works of Abraham Afewerki, whose career was cut short in a drowning accident in October 2006.

Blum first came into contact with Eritrean music three months before that tragedy when he was invited to perform reggae at the local Alliance Française. The singer then persuaded the Cultural Affairs Office to unite the country’s best talents and promote them for a western audience.

Daniel Brown

The album is made up of what he calls “a spirited, tradition-charged electric music”, blending eight of Eritrea’s nine languages. The exercise turned out to be anything but straightforward.

“Eritrea is completely different from anything I’ve experienced in the world,” says Blum in his home in northeast Paris. In his spacious duplex, artefacts from the five continents surround his instruments and remarkable record collection; tableaux in psychedelic colours stare out from the corners of the living room. “Kingston was like Mad Max in a shanty town, Lagos was like an overcrowded Manhattan at 6pm. On the other hand, Asmara is like a quiet town in southern Italy in the early ‘60s. People are polite, educated and trying to recover from the massive trauma of war.”

Perhaps, but the entire population still remains on war footing, even when it comes to music. Blum collaborated with the government on condition they allowed him free rein in the album’s musical direction.

Auditions began in October 2008. The likes of saxophonist Tekle Negassi, pianist Noah Hailemolokot and guitarists Solomon Amanuel and Edwardo Giorgio were recruited. Blum also insisted on inviting outsiders like Tigre superstar Ibrahim Goret and singers Sara Teklesenbet and Yosef Tsehaye. Unlike most of the others, they are not civil servants who are regularly asked to play for the army.

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