Dereb the Ambassador + Mista Savona + The Afrobiotics – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne (17/06/2011)

It was clearly going to be a night of so-called ‘world music’, given away by the trail of hippies interspersed with the kind of geeky young men often passionate about so called ‘specialist genres’, you know, the ones who single-mindedly seek out that rare King Tubby 7”, pouring into The Corner.

Whatever the descriptor, the congregated attendees were enthusiastic and joyous from the get-go, ensuring that, even though the venue would be far from full, the wild nature of their dancing filled every available gap.

The first band up were The Afrobiotics, a Melbourne six piece who specialise in the variety of West African funk known as afrobeat. The group delivered a tight, energetic set, with each of their members holding their own to create a sound that would have made Fela Kuti proud. The majority of the audience may have been still arriving, but frontman Lamine Sonko put every effort into getting the party started and what followed was very enjoyable.

After a short break, Melbourne’s own director of classic dub and reggae, Mista Savona took the stage. Consisting of band leader/organist/producer Jake Savona, vocalist Vida Sunshine and a rhythm section of drummer Julian Goyma, bassist Any Papadopolous and guitarist Barry Turnbull, tonight they were also joined by occasional sax player Andrew Jackson and vocalist Jornick Nicolas. This group, who could probably be better described as a dub soundsystem with live instrumentation, have been playing around Melbourne for several years, this being their final local show before the core of the group, Savona and Sunshine, leave to perform at Glastonbury.

Mista Savona gave a set of very simple, yet effective, dub and reggae tracks, designed to get you feeling the vibrations out on the dancefloor. Savona sat behind his keyboards, controlling some elements of the productions from a laptop, while the band kept the pulse perfectly. While this style of music is inherently repetitive and built around simple grooves, many of the songs were difficult to pick from one another and seemed to be basic jams, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Vida Sunshine is a very charismatic frontwoman who dominates the stage with sheer personality and ability. Often landing somewhere between singing and rapping, her vocals seemed to have been written to the music, taking away from the initial impression of the performance being a jam. What furthered this idea, however, were Nicolas’ vocals, as he didn’t seem to understand the basic concept of ‘you sing and then I sing’, and was constantly speaking/chanting/singing over the top of Sunshine’s parts, resulting in a muddle of words. Even during the final track, being Mista Savona and Vida Sunshine’s new single “Women Run Tings”, a song about female empowerment, Nicolas just wouldn’t take a hint when there were little or no spots left for him to take centre stage. Nevertheless it was a fun set and here’s hoping they get some well deserved attention over in the England.

Due to a late start the night was now running very late and so there was not a long wait until the headlining act took to the stage. The band itself was an eight piece consisting of alto and baritone saxophones, guitar, bass, drums, congas, and keyboardist Daniel Pliner, who appeared to be leading the group. After a short instrumental section, Dereb Desalegn stepped out and took the microphone.

Hailing from Ethiopia and now residing in Sydney, Dereb the Ambassador’s sound is one of smooth, intricately arranged Ethiopian jazz, both ‘warm’ and exciting. The sound is complex, the layers of instruments melding perfectly to create something that has its own insistent energy without leaping out at you, a point where soul grooves meet moments of funk and reggae with a touch of afrobeat. In a record store this would lazily be labeled ‘world music’, as, beside the fact that he sings solely in Ethiopian, Dereb’s style of soulful jazz borrows from many Western genres, but conforms to none of them. This made his set less immediate than those of the support acts who could be placed into easy familiar genres, i.e. afrobeat and dub/reggae, however, while Dereb’s music may have required a little more attention, for those who wanted more than to simply dance it was very rewarding.

While the band gelled and moved smoothly together in a single motion, Dereb himself was the focal point, energetically working the crowd, often standing right to the edge of the stage as if to communicate directly with his audience. Although it is unlikely that many in attendance understood his words, this did not take away from the enjoyment at all, and Desalegn sang his heart out.

The first half of the set maintained a fairly subdued tempo, which built around the halfway mark to some much higher energy songs, using funk and reggae grooves while keeping their jazzy sound. The amount of styles expressed and instruments used by the band were concentrated to create a complex yet impassioned music, which was both foreign and familiar.

Although this music was decidedly less danceable than the previous two acts had been, the crowd’s movements, possibly due in part to alcohol consummation, grew wilder, and there was more bumping of bodies occurring than in a ska circle. At various points members of the crowd attempted to get a group handclap going, perhaps not helped by the polyrhythmic nature of the music, the result being something like applause. Perhaps one could conclude that hippies just ain’t got rhythm.

Dereb Desalegn is apparently very famous in his native Ethiopia, and we can hope that he will build a similarly successful standing within his adopted country of Australia, and more than for simply being a ‘world music’ act. As witnessed tonight, Dereb the Ambassador’s music is as sophisticated as it is enjoyable and a testament to how much our culture can gain through immigration and the bringing together of such world class musicians.

Originally published on The AU Review on 21/07/2011. View original article.

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