Getatchew Mekurya, a saxophonist with an ardent, full-throated style who worked predominantly in Ethiopia for decades before being embraced by a worldwide audience, died on April 4 in Addis Ababa. He was 81.
The cause was an infection in his legs as a result of diabetes, said Terrie Hessels, a founding member of the Dutch punk band the Ex, which toured and recorded with Mr. Mekurya over the last dozen years, fueling his late-career renaissance.
Mr. Mekurya (his name is pronounced GET-a-chew Me-KUR-ya) had an imposing sound and presence, blowing in declamatory gusts with a fervent, quavering vibrato. He found renown outside his native country after one of his albums from the early 1970s, “Negus of Ethiopian Sax,” was released on CD in 2003 as part of the popular world-music reissue series “Éthiopiques.”
His rediscovery led to collaborations with musicians from far beyond his home turf, including the saxophonist Russ Gershon and his band, the Either/Orchestra, from Cambridge, Mass. The Ex sought out Mr. Mekurya and invited him to a festival in Amsterdam, where they struck an energetic rapport. They released a collaborative album, “Moa Anbessa,” in 2006.
That album, which set Mr. Mekurya’s fervent cry against churning guitars and bleating horns, led to a spate of concert bookings in more than a dozen countries. A potent follow-up, “Y’Anbessaw Tezeta,” was released in 2012, capturing Mr. Mekurya’s road-tested bond with the Ex and bringing vibrant new life to compositions he had originally recorded 40 years earlier.
Getatchew Mekurya was born on March 14, 1935, in Yifat, Ethiopia. As a child he learned to play traditional folk instruments: the kirar, a six-string lyre, and the masenqo, a single-string bowed lute. By his teens he had switched to saxophone and clarinet, instruments popularized in Ethiopia under the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, who had a fondness for military brass bands.
Mr. Mekurya spent his early career as a member of government-sponsored orchestras in Addis Ababa, starting at age 13 with the Municipality Band and continuing with the house band of the Haile Selassie I Theater. Later, as a member of the elite Police Orchestra, he often backed popular singers like Hirut Beqele and Alemayehu Eshete.
As early as the 1950s, Mr. Mekurya was using his tenor saxophone to emulate the Ethiopian chants known as shellela, traditionally shouted by warriors going into battle. His quest for an impassioned, expressly vocal quality on the saxophone yielded a startlingly original sound, though it would later elicit comparisons to the 1960s free-jazz maverick Albert Ayler, whom he claimed at the time never to have heard.
Mr. Mekurya stood apart from the appealingly sinuous hybrid known as Ethio-jazz, spearheaded by the vibraphonist, pianist and composer Mulatu Astatke. Rather than a cosmopolitan form of jazz with Ethiopian influence, Mr. Mekurya made a music of gruff, earthy incantation, rooted in folkloric custom. He often performed in warrior garb, making the connection explicit.
When “Negus of Ethiopian Sax” was originally released on Philips Ethiopia, it was a showcase for shellela, with Mr. Mekurya’s tenor ululating over electric bass, organ, piano and drums, in hypnotic triplet meter. The music’s brazen assurance still resonated decades later: One track, simply titled “Shellela,” provided the core sample for “I Come Prepared,” a 2009 single by the rapper K’Naan and the singer Damian Marley.
Mr. Mekurya’s survivors include nine children and numerous grandchildren. His wife, Ayalech, died last year.
Among his memorable public triumphs was a 2008 Lincoln Center Out of Doors concert in New York, featuring the Either/Orchestra and Alemayehu Eshete as well as the singer Mahmoud Ahmed. Mr. Mekurya performed with the Ex, but he earned one of the evening’s loudest cheers with a vaulting unaccompanied improvisation.
Gétatchèw Mèkurya (Amharic: ጌታቸው መኩሪያ) (14 March 1935 – 4 April 2016) was an Ethiopian jazz saxophonist.
Mekurya was born on 14 March 1935, in Yifat, Ethiopia. He began his musical studies on traditional Ethiopian instruments such as the krar and the masenqo, and later moved on to the saxophone and clarinet. Upon reaching adolescence, he began his professional career in 1949 as a part of the Municipality Band in Addis Ababa. In 1955 he joined the house band at Addis' Haile Selassie I Theatre, and in 1965 joined the famous Police Orchestra. He was also one of the first musicians to record an instrumental version of shellela, a genre of traditional Ethiopian vocal music sung by warriors before going into battle. Mekurya took the shellela tradition seriously, often appearing onstage in a warrior's animal-skin tunic and lion's mane headdress. He continued to refine his instrumental shellela style, recording an entire album in 1970, Negus of Ethiopian Sax, released on Philips Ethiopia during the heyday of the Ethiojazz movement. Mekurya continued to work alongside many of the biggest orchestras in the Ethiopian capital, accompanying renowned singers Alemayehu Eshete, Hirut Beqele, and Ayalew Mesfin.
Recent career, collaborations with The Ex and others
Mekurya reached an international audience when his album Negus of Ethiopian Sax was re-released as part of the Ethiopiques CD series. Mekurya's playing style has been compared to free jazz, but developed in isolation from it during the early 1950s. Mekurya has said he is unfamiliar with either Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler.
Dutch avant-garde/punk band The Ex caught the ears of Mekurya, and he invited them to play with him, which they did from 2004 on. Mekurya asked the Ex to be the backup band for his 2006 album, Moa Anbessa. The Ex and Mekurya toured The Netherlands, Belgium and France together in 2006 and 2007, and then the United States in 2008 and Canada in 2009.
Mèkurya has added his distinctive sound to collaborations with numerous other contemporary artists, including British Tamil singer Susheela Raman and Boston jazz ensemble Either/Orchestra. He lived in Addis Ababa, and regularly performed at the Sunset Bar at the Sheraton Addis.
Mekurya's wife Ayalech died in 2015. He was survived by nine children and numerous grandchildren.
- "Shellela" 45 (late 1950s)
- Ethiopiques Volume 14: Negus of Ethiopian Sax (recorded in 1970, originally released on Philips Ethiopia in 1972)
- Ethiopiques Volume 20: Either/Orchestra Live in Addis (Mekuria appears on the track "Shellella") (recorded in 2004)
- Moa Anbessa (with The Ex and other guests) (2006)
- Gétatchèw Mèkurya & The Ex + Guests [DVD, Ethiosonic/Buda Musique] (2007)
- Y'Anbessaw Tezeta (with the Ex and Friends, 2012)
- The Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia (2012, World Music Network)
Gétatchèw Mèkurya, Ethiopian Saxophonist, Dies at 81
Rediscovery of earlier recordings led to new popularity
Gétatchèw Mèkurya, a leading Ethiopian saxophonist, died April 4 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was 81 and the cause was an infection in his legs as a result of diabetes, according to an obituary published in The New York Times.
Born March 14, 1935, in Yifat, Ethiopia, Mèkurya began in music playing native Ethiopian instruments before switching to saxophone and clarinet. His professional career launched in 1949, as a member of the Municipality Band in Addis Ababa. He spent the next couple of decades largely performing Ethiopian folkloric music with several of his country’s most prominent orchestras.
According to the Times article, an album recorded by Mèkurya in the early 1970s,Negus of Ethiopian Sax, representative of a style called Ethio-jazz, was reissued in 2003 as part of the popular world-music series Éthiopiques, leading to new popularity outside of Ethiopia.
An album recorded by Mèkurya in the early 1970s, Negus of Ethiopian Sax, representative of a style called Ethio-jazz, was reissued in 2003 as part of the popular world-music series Éthiopiques, leading to new popularity outside of Ethiopia.
Mekurya died April 4, 2016, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was 81 and the cause was an infection in his legs as a result of diabetes.