Ethiopian groove

Anyone interested in exotic scales should definitely listen to the Ethiopiques record collection, copiously shared on youTube. They were re-mastered from recordings rediscovered after being buried in the vaults during the 18 years of Ethiopia’s repressive Mengistu regime, which tried to ban everything Western, including saxophones and trumpets.

The familiar and less familiar pentatonic scales receive an eery modal treatment, delivered with an intense nervous vibrato much appreciated by fans of this music. Here are two examples of the less familiar scales, which I have heard nowhere else, though they might also be present somewhere in the vast repertoire of Indian music. Be that as it may, the flavour of these performances is quite unique to Ethiopia.

In the first piece I have transcribed a portion of the sax riffs, which keep to a { 3 3 1 4 1 } scale starting on E-flat. Used modally, without interpolated notes, this scale creates a very tense, passionate atmosphere.

For the second tune (the title means “You are sublime”) I have written out the opening guitar line. If you start from E, the scale resembles the Japanese { 1 4 2 1 4 } insen scale. The Ethiopian version however, treats A as the tonic, so that it becomes a sort of defective A minor scale (missing its fourth and seventh): { 2 1 4 1 4 } . Even accidentally hitting one of the “missing” notes spoils its special flavour.

MOVES notation can offer ideas for learning to find your way around any scale. Instead of representing numbers of halfsteps (semitones), we simply decide that each number will represent a number of intervals in the nominated scale. So the instruction {+1} simply tells us to go up to the next rung in the scale. The wiggly brackets tell us to keep looping that operation. So basically, it instructs us to play the scale ascending. My Shortcut to Improvising Fluency offers a variety of formulae to help you master any scale inside out. Naturally, these exercises will give different results depending on the number of tones in the scale. A loop like {+5 -4 } will give you a sequence of fourths rising in halfsteps in the chromatic scale { 1 }, the original MOVES default scale. Using the same notation on a heptatonic scale would give you a melodious series of sixths, while on a pentatonic it would yield a sequence of leaping octaves. So it is up to the player to decide whether the notation is diatonic (using the notes of a scale), or chromatic.

It all becomes clear in the book, if it isn’t already.

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About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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