A vocalist and composer who defined the cosmopolitan Addis Ababa scene when its thrumming energy made it an East African counterpart to swinging London, Mahmoud has survived the fall of an emperor and a long reign of Marxist terror, a calamitous famine and bloody civil war. He arrives at Zellerbach Friday for the Cal Performances double bill “Afropop Spectacular” as a singular, unifying figure for his ancient, ethnically riven nation, a status he maintains through his indefatigable generosity as a performer (Mali’s Trio Da Kali opens the concert).
“I have seen dozens and dozens of concerts with Mahmoud all around the world, and I’ve have never seen him give a bad concert,” says Francis Falceto, who introduced Mahmoud and dozens of other Ethiopian musicians to the West via his invaluable 29-album Ethiopiques reissue series, speaking from France via Skype. “He jumps less high, but he’s always giving, giving. In Carnegie Hall last week people were standing by the third song, then they’d sit. By the second half everyone was standing the rest of the show, even way up in the balconies, which is something to see! He’s an incredible entertainer. It is his life to be on stage.”
Falceto started spreading awareness of Mahmoud back in 1986 when he brought two of the singer’s mid-70s Kaifa Records masterpieces to the Belgian label Crammed Discs, which were released on the album Erè Mèla Mèla (and reissued again on 1999’s Éthiopiques / Buda Musique). The album paved the way for Mahmoud to start performing internationally, but at home and in the vast Ethiopian diaspora, Mahmoud never needed a reintroduction.
“Most if not all Ethiopians around the world consider him a living legend, a national treasure, and young musicians in Ethiopia today still perform his old hits,” says guitarist Zakki Jawad, who was born and raised in Ethiopia and settled in Washington DC some three decades ago. He’s part of the eight-piece band touring with Mahmoud, a group featuring six DC-based Ethiopian musicians and two ringers from Boston’s 10-piece Either/Orchestra, trumpeter Tom Halter and saxophonist Russ Gershon.
For more on the story Mahmoud in Berkeley- Berkeleyside