On The First Album From D.C.’s Feedel Band, The Future Of Ethio-Jazz Is Now

By Steve Kiviat

Images from Feedel Band's May 2015 performance at WAMU 88.5's studios.
Images from Feedel Band's May 2015 performance at WAMU 88.5's studios. Rhiannon Newman

Ethio-jazz combo the The Feedel Band is best known for evoking the funky, minor-chord, ’70s-era East African music collected on the Ethiopiques compilation series — but on its self-released debut album, Ethiopian Ocean, the D.C. ensemble reaches beyond its core sound.

“[W]e’re trying to take that whole Ethio-jazz concept and move it forward into this century,” trombonist Ben Hall says about the album. “We’re trying to put a spin on the older dance styles that we love, and still have it danceable but with our own twist to it.”

Most of the compositions are instrumentals that were penned by Feedel’s keyboardist and leader, Araya Woldemichael, with two songs from other members. Some have a relaxed feel more appropriate for listening than dancing — “Behelme,” for example, starts off smooth before transforming into a more straight-ahead jazz number.

Other cuts are more vibrant: The title track starts off with a guest playing the Ethiopian masenqo, a one-string violin, and then a rough-edged male voice comes in, using the pentatonic scale identified with Ethiopian church music. Eventually, the song adds psychedelic horn riffs. Album closer “Araya’s Mood” has a repeating James Brown-in-Addis modal structure along with fuzzy, psychedelic guitar lines and clever keyboard fingerwork.

Hall says the six-year-old Feedel Band has wanted to do an album since the beginning but “we weren’t able to finance it till now.” They self-financed the release and Hall says they have bought Facebook ads that have spurred interest in Ethiopia. The band recorded Ethiopian Ocean from May through August at Cue Recording Studios in Falls Church, Virginia, with engineer Blaine Misner, and then sent it to veteran mastering engineer Charlie Pilzer, who put together the finished product at Airshow Mastering in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Friday, the band is scheduled to perform with veteran Ethiopian pianist Girma Beyene at D.C.’s Atlas Performing Arts Center. Beyene — who worked as a gas station attendant in D.C. before moving back to Ethiopia — is best known for his rhythmic jazz standard “Muziqawi Silt,” and playing with legendary group the Walias Band.

“The project with Girma Beyene is to recreate his songs with a Feedel Band sound,” Hall says. “We’ve been transcribing the recordings and rehearsing them to put forward the best product for Girma.”

Feedel Band and Girma Beyene perform Oct. 14 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.