Electronic musicians have long mined old-world sounds to contrast with their crisp beats, but Mikael Seifu’s music transports the listener all the way back to 1,000 BC. On the one hand, he’s Ethiopia’s answer to Flying Lotus, LA’s maker of futuristic, cosmic jazz-laced bass. On the other, he draws on his homeland’s ancient folk traditions. If a free-thinking techno DJ made tunes for the courts of Old Testament kings, the result would sound a fair bit like Seifu.
Like most 28-year-olds, Seifu is a child of the digital age. He grew up with rap downloaded from Napster and, alongside fellow producer Endeguena Mulu, began making tracks on his parents’ PC. After going to America to study, his musical voice emerged. A final-year class on the music industry was taught by avant-garde trumpeter Ben Neill, who opened Seifu’s ears to both radical German composer Stockhausen and enigmatic British garage producer Burial.
Returning home, Seifu decided to experiment with his newfound appreciation of dance music and the Ethiopian folk he heard in drinking halls. His new EP Zelalem samples the lilting instruments believed by Ethiopian Christians to have been given to man by God 3,000 years ago. One such instrument, the krar (somewhere between a harp, a banjo and the stringed things depicted on Greek vases), weaves around the skittering drums of second track The Solipsist; and on How To Save A Life, a cello-like masinko plays in harmony with vast whooshes of synths.
To make the tracks, Seifu recorded street musicians, or azmaris, who have spent their lives mastering these instruments. They are usually taught father-to-son, in a line which goes back, legend has it, to the court of the Queen of Sheba, who ruled Ethiopia a millennium before the birth of Christ. “I wasn’t trained [like that], and I don’t have that technical background,” says Seifu. “[Yet] I want to go back into history and look at the centuries of musical ebb and flow here. I want to fortify [what they do] and close the gaps.”
Seifu and Mulu call their sound Ethiopiyawi. The community surrounding it is small but flourishing, with folk tunes played next to R&B in clubs.
Seifu himself has just got back from playing Berlin’s techno mecca Berghain, and sees a difference between his home’s electronic enthusiasm and abroad: “There’s not a defined sense of how you do electronic music here, which enables it to flourish unrestricted,” he says. “In the west, you have categorisation, but here, it’s is informal, improvised, impromptu, inconsistent and impossible to institutionalise.” The result isn’t another version of African music put through a western electronic mangle; it’s in awe of age-old traditions, not beholden to them. Bring on the next 3,000 years.
Zelalem is out on Friday 4 March via RVNG