2 DC Ethio-Jazz Greats Have New Albums

Selam Woldemariam’s new album “Grace” was released in January. (Courtesy of Selam Woldemariam)


Two Local Ethiopian Jazz Greats Have New Albums

Every Friday from 2016 until recently in a small, second-floor room of the Crystal City restaurant Enjera, Ethiopian guitarist Selam Seyoum Woldemariam has led his trio through minor key, groove-filled renditions of 20th century Ethiopian songs. For the crowd of mostly 40-something-and-up Ethiopians in attendance, Woldemariam’s catalogue brought back memories of when these tunes were the radio soundtrack to their lives. The band stands on a tiny stage jammed up against a wall, playing their lounge-funky East African jazz for an audience of roughly 50 people who enjoy plates of Ethiopian and Eritrean food with spongy injera or just drink and socialize at tables close by.

Performing live, Woldemariam says, gave him “the utmost satisfaction and a chance to meet my fans,” who he says treasured his shows and aren’t fans of going out to other types of nightlife like dance clubs or hookah bars.

Woldemariam, 65, is one of the stars of a lively Ethiopian music scene that, before the pandemic, encompassed local clubs and restaurants, most notably in D.C., Silver Spring, and Falls Church. But as the novel coronavirus has spread, restaurant closures and bans on large gatherings has put everything on pause, including gigs for two popular Ethiopian artists who just released new albums.

Hailu Mergia, a 74-year-old keyboardist and accordionist based in Fort Washington, typically brings his funky Ethio-jazz to larger venues, such as the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage or the 600-person capacity Hamilton. On March 27, Mergia released his new album, Yene Mircha. The Washington Post and music website Pitchfork have hailed both hailed the new work, but because of the pandemic, Mergia has been unable to translate that acclaim into live appearances: His American and European tour have been cancelled.

Woldemariam also recently released a new album, Grace, in January, under the name Selam “Selamino” Seyoum. (Seyoum is his father’s last name and Woldemariam is his grandfather’s last name.) He was able to put on some album release shows locally and one in Texas before the pandemic, though planned shows in Oakland, Calif., and Los Angeles have been cancelled.

Both artists, best known for being part of the 1970s Ethiopian music scene that later reached a fanatic audience through a collection of retrospective albums called Ethiopiques, mix traditional Ethiopian pentatonic scale chords with sounds from elsewhere in Africa, plus American R&B, jazz, and rock to create their funky afro-psychedelic Ethiopian styles.

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