Ethiopian Piano Prodigy in Oz – Interview
AfricanOz spoke with remarkable Ethiopian music ‘prodigy’ Samuel Yirga performing at Melbourne International Jazz Festival, and in Sydney and Perth in June.
For a man who didn’t play an instrument until 16 years of age, 25 year old Ethiopian musician Samuel Yirga is more than just a great pianist and composer, he’s already the ‘stuff of legends’.
With a mood-stirring freshness and outstanding agility, Samuel’s compositions are even more remarkable when you find he’s only been playing the piano for just over five years.
“I don’t believe in luck the first time,” says Samuel from his home inEthiopia, “because luck is something that people take as ‘a chance’, – that’s a weakness for me.”
“(At music school) when everyone was going to eat lunch, or drink tea, or taking their collective classes, I was in my class practicing my piano because I was excited and I had dreams to be famous in the world, being a pianist. I started practicing 12 hours a day because I was so happy.”
Samuel had wanted to play music from an early age, but his family discouraged his interest, preferring him to focus on academic studies.
Samuel fed his passion through listening to a variety of music including: RnB, Ethiopian traditional and modern songs. He says these, along with performers like Herbie Hancock and Ethiopian pianist Elias Negash later played an influence in his work – but he emphasises, “Everything is my interpretation and expression… I never transcribed anything, I just listened to their music.”
At the age of 16, (still having never learnt an instrument). Samuel heard about an audition atEthiopia’s Yared School of Music. He went along, tapping out rhythms with a coin on a piano top. He not only passed the audition but came third out of the hundreds auditioning.
Samuel says, “Since that time, I started getting to know what is inside me, what is my favourite kind of music, all of those things came to me once I started playing piano and music in general.”
Despite his obvious gift for music, and willingness to work hard to perfect his craft, he still faced many obstacles at the music school, most frustrating of which (for Samuel) was the School’s strict requirement that students play only classical music.
“They told me not to play jazz or Ethiopian music or any other music except classical,” says Samuel, “But my decision was to play my own compositions, to experiment with Ethiopian music, and that was not the right thing by the law of the school.”
By the time the music school had told Samuel not to come back, he was already playing funk and Ethiojazz with bands at clubs aroundAddis Ababa. He went onto play with Addis funk band, Nubian Arc and is a member of the UK/Ethiopian collective, Dub Colossus, performing at major world music festivals and venues.
For Samuel it has been an exciting time, both for his own music and Ethiopian music in general:
“I think this is a revolutionary time for Ethiopian music,” he says.
With a worldwide interest in Ethiopian jazz greats like Mulatu Astatke and Tilahun Gessesse emerging in recent years, Ethiopians are starting to understand the importance of their music in the world.
Despite prevailing attitudes like those of his music school: “(Now in Ethiopia) The people are putting better value on music, getting an awareness about how big it is, and how important music is for Ethiopia. People are getting the news through internet, radio and TV. There’s internet, MP3, DVD – it’s supportive to help grow music and the arts.’’
“When you see (Ethiopia’s capital)Addis Ababa, everything is changing and growing. Building is not my point about growth, but attitudes and mind, awareness is the main thing, more than the buildings and roads.”
Internationally too, Samuel feels Ethiopian music is promoting and supporting the country in a positive way – although he’s disappointed when people “always talk about famine and drought”, but not “the good things that are going on here.”
Although Samuel now travels widely outside Africa, he remains strongly affectionate for his homeland,Ethiopia.
While he is on the road, “There are many things I miss. My friends, my family… I don’t drink or smoke – I drink tea or coffee. When I want to drink coffee I want to be with my friends, talking about music and life. I miss Ethiopian food. The culture, the songs coming out of the church every morning, and from the mosques. There are many great things aboutEthiopia.”
You can hear some of the ‘many great things aboutEthiopia’ at work in Samuel’s music – not the least of which is the country’s ‘great diversity’.
Samuel says, “Experimenting is not a bad thing. It is very good forEthiopia, because we are supposed to work on Ethiopian music and every kind of music, because we have a diverse culture.”
This is where his debut album ‘Guzo’ has so many flavours:
“‘Guzo’ is ‘journey’ in Amharic (Ethiopian language) and it’s my journey,” says, Samuel. “I have piano, Ethio jazz, traditional fuzed with modern and pop, there are many inspirations.
“It’s a menu to show what I have and what I can do in the future,” he says.
For a taste of Samuel’s incredible talents, see www.samuelyirga.com and don’t miss his Australian performances with the Samuel Yirga Quartet in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne in June, see http://www.melbournejazz.com/v2012/webpages/event.php?cID=36 (Melbourne) and http://www.broadsheet.com.au/sydney/events/event/samuel-yirga-quartet-18-05-2011