31 May 2012

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The tour in Italy with the Ex & Brass Unbound started in Livorno on a warm summer night, after hearing the tragic news that Chalatchew Ashenafi had suddenly died in Addis the day before. This was a shock to everyone in the band, particularly Terrie Hessles, who had just seen Chalatchew two weeks earlier on a visit to Ethiopia, where the two discussed final details for a new album that Chelatchew was working on for Terrie’s label, Terp. He had been in great health and spirits, and now he was gone. Without question, Chlatchew was the greatest singer I ever heard. One night when I was in Addis with most of the Ex, Paal Nilssen-Love and Ab Baars, a number of us heard him sing an impromptu set at Melaku Belay club, Fendika. All evening, various performers at the club asked him to sing, and one after another they were rejected with a scowl. This continued until about 2:30am, the mooring of the coming of Gabriel, an major religious holiday in Ethiopia.

Then, quite suddenly and surprisingly, Chalatchew asked for a masenko and began the greatest concert of vocal music I’ve ever listened to. Often an Azmari playing the masenko and singing is accompanied by a drummer, but in this case every musician in the room was silent to give Chalatchew center stage. There were only about 20 of us there at that point. Aside from the few folks visiting with Terrie’s project everyone was Ethiopian. Song after song came, his masenko playing was extraordinary, the best I heard while in Addis. And his voice, it cut to your heart, deep into the collective past your soul never knew it had. The experience was passionate, joyous, incredible, and even though I understood none of the words I was so captivated I feel like part of me is still in that room listening. Then, after a full range of different songs, Chalatchew sang a hymn- just his voice alone in the space of the Fendika. Before he was finished everyone in the room was in tears. It was the most powerful music I’ve ever heard. When I heard that Chalatchew Ashenafi had died I felt as I did when I heard that Peter Kowald had passed, it was impossible to process that someone with so much vitality and so young could be gone so early.