premiere: dexter story’s ethiopian dreamscapes of la

January 31, 2019
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For much of his two-decades-long career, Dexter Story has been one of those cats that Los Angeles music people knew better than audiences. Though a multi-instrumentalist and bandleader of some renown and experience (Dexter’s worked with Madlib, Kelis, Sa-Ra, and Kamasi Washington, among many many others), his stints as a label talent scout and as the live booker at Santa Monica’s great Temple Bar were equally important in showing off the diversity of his excellent ear and taste.

Since beginning to record under his own name in 2012, Story has favored a kind of pan-African jazz/funk sound, drawing upon both the great LA music community and his ethnographic studies for inspiration and musical muscle. And the one sound that he’s taken to more than others, is the music of Ethiopia.

Story’s third album Bahir continues this fascination and love affair — the warmth of its tonalities and the insistence of its rhythms, but also the depth of its stories. “Sharuba Song,” the first drop from Bahir, is a contemporary love song with traditional themes: sharuba refers to the braided hair worn by the mid-19th century Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II, which became a nationwide symbol of a man’s warrior strength and political power. Performed by Hamelmal Abate, one of the reigning queens of Ethiopian popular music, it is a wonderful introduction to both Story’s exquisite album and the sound he chases. We asked Dexter to tell us about his fascination with that sound, and how he’s been pursuing it.

You first began to explore Ethiopian music on our last album, Wondem. On Bahir, you dove even deeper into the Ethio-jazz sound. Talk a little bit about your fascination with and attraction to it, and where it fits into your musical world in Los Angeles.

African music is home. It is just who I am. I feel it down in my soul the same way I feel old school Dr. Watts Baptist singing, or Muddy Waters live, Cannonball’s “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, or Laura Mvula. I belong in the group that never tires listening to the ancestors and elders — Fela, Salif Keita, King Sunny Ade, Tilahun Gessesse, Bezunesh Bekele, Asnaketch Worku, Youssou N’Dour, Hugh Masekela, Tuku (RIP), Mahmoud Ahmed. I’ve had my ears pointed at the continent for decades, so to speak, since I heard Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” in 6th grade. Ethiopia entered my spirit seven years ago, at a gig at The Fowler Museum in LA. It chose me and now I’m starting to have the same connection to other ethnic and clan music in the Horn. And LA’s beautiful scene provides so much inspiration to just be me. One of my heroes Randy Weston said it best: “I have a deep and sincere interest in African music.” he wrote, “and I am anxious to connect myself as closely as possible with the artistic history and development of that continent. I feel that by learning more about African music I will further my own development as a composer.” Sums it up.

Talk a little bit about the process of making Bahir. Did you make it here, in Ethiopia, both? What were the challenges in making it?

It wasn’t easy. Bahir came together while I was in UCLA’s African Studies graduate program. In fact, I’m finishing the MA thesis this quarter. The album had a few initial titles but Bahir stuck because it conveys a body of water, an expansive feminine element, and it translates in Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic and Somali. The title track was written and produced with Endeguena Mulu is also one of my favorite collaborations. I started out trying to make the album a neat little follow-up to Wondem but it has now taken on a life of its own. My friend and co-producer Carlos Niño pushed me to live and work with it until he and I were completely happy. I’m flawed and humbled by the process. I recorded the album all over Los Angeles, and collaborated with musicians based in Africa and Europe.

Who is Hamelmal Abate? She seems a major character in contemporary Ethiopian music. Was it important for you to work with her? How did it come about?

I first heard Hamelmal Abate sing at a venue in Los Angeles a few years ago during Entutatash (Ethiopian New Year). I watched her work the band and the audience into an incredibly high energy, while maintaining her poise and intonation to perfection. She is from the beautiful multi-ethnic Eastern city of Harar and is considered one of the queens of Ethiopian music. I feel incredibly lucky that she is on Bahir. She and I talked about collaborating and she ultimately invited me to record her at her friend’s home in LA. I am so happy she won the Afrima Award in 2017 and I pray that “Shuruba Song” brings her even more exposure and respect. It is a re-working of a traditional theme and the popular chikchika rhythm.

Dexter Story’s Bahir drops in mid-March on Soundway.