The young pianist Samuel Yirga may not be brand new on the scene, having gained international recognition while touring with Ethio-fusion group Dub Colossus, but his debut solo album Guzo is sure to launch him straight into the forefront. Yirga’s youthful talent is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had never even touched a piano until the age of 16. A mere ten years later and he is being named as one of Ethiopia’s most promising musicians.
The album’s title means ‘journey’ in Amharic and while it represents the start of what is sure to be an extremely successful musical journey for Yirga, it also takes the listener on tour of Ethiopia’s rich musical traditions and influences. “I believe that my country’s music is unique and deserves to be kept alive… I mostly play a traditional Ethiopian style mixed with 20th century Ethiopian jazz” Yirga tells Think Africa Press in a 2011 interview.
The album opens strongly with the traditional love song ‘Abet Abet’ that features the distinct sound of the messenqo, a one-stringed fiddle. The album then moves through all the genres you’d hope to find on an album like this with funky bass lines (‘Firma Ena Wereket’), traditional Ethiopian classics (‘Tiwista’), reworked psychedelic soul (‘I Am The Black Gold of The Sun’), upbeat Latin (‘My Head’, complete with the Dub Colossus horn section) and stunning piano solos (‘Drop Me There’ being my favourite).
It goes without question that Yirga has talent; every track demonstrates virtuosity and jazz know-how. However, I wouldn’t say that this is what makes Guzo one of best albums of the year so far. Yirga is a performer. The album oozes with feeling and heart. Every track is so full of artistic sensibility that it’s hard not to be sucked up in the performance. That holds especially true for the piano solos like ‘Yeh Bati Koyita’ and ‘Drop Me There’, which are painfully beautiful.
You may happen across this pure musicality every once and a while at live performances, but rarely is an album able to bring it’s audience along for a passionate ride, full of ups and downs. Guzo does exactly that. And if Yirga can perform with such spirit on an album, I can only imagine what it would be like to hear him live, something I am definitely looking forward to.