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Ethiopian Guitarist Selam Woldemarian On 40 Years At The Top Of East African Soul Music

Selam Woldemariam took a solo at Summerstage on Tuesday night, stood right in the spotlight, guitar in hand, and played fluid, string bending slashed picking, not chords, and certainly not blues though like them in melodic tone. Like a Clapton circa 461 Ocean Boulevard. Like a deep soul from another place.The great Ethiopian guitarist had been hiding in plain sight all through "The Power Of The Trinity" performance but. a team player since his years with the  Roha Band days and even earlier, he knows when to shade and when to shine.

Selam was born in Addis Ababa where his father was deeply involved in the Protestant Church, and when his father moved to Asmara to be the Director of the Protestant Church School, Selam began his long career at the age of eleven: "I formed my first group, a Spiritual group when I was very young. And I played for our Church and we became very popular." Not a million miles from how james brown began his career. "The Ethiopian civil war forced me to leave Asmara, and I completed my High School education in Addis Ababa."

This was the war that would end with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie being overthrown, though Selam sees no contradiction between having been deeply affected by the War, essentially ending his education for 20 years,  and working with musician Tomas Doncker on the music for a theater production praising Haile's speech at the League Of Nations. "I was not involved in the the writing of the play at all. The play was written by Roland Wolf and his sons were working to continue it. My job was to help Tomas make the music sound authentic. I have no problem with the play's politics."

Perhaps, but the result of the Emperor's long power struggle was Addis Ababa University being closed and Selam's education coming  to a protracted suspension (he would pick it up again in 1988, a statement which leaves no doubt as to the type of man he is). He joined his first secular group, the Black Soul Band, in 1973. and toured Ethiopia. In 1974 he worked at the Venus Club and in 1975  joined Ibex (a very popular backing band) and later the Roha band, and , ruled Ethiopian popular music. "We showed the young people how to do it the right. How to be in a group. Yes, as a Protestant man, not just professionally. Yes, I did make a great deal of money!"

Ethiopian soul music uses both the tonal shifts of Western music and the pentatonic melodies of Ethiopian music. Also, right next to Sudan, there is a strong Middle Eastern flavor. "You  haven't hear enough, if you don't hear the Middle eastern influence," Selam corrects. Ibex and Rohu bands were both hired guns who played with all of the biggest Ethiopian vocalists, including the incomparable Mahmoud Ahmed . Ahmed  was already in Ibex when Selam joined them. 

But by 1995, the bottom had fallen out of the Roha Band, "The technology had changed, all the music we recorded was single track, now all the young performers were using computers". 

In 2000, Selam moved to Washington, DC, which has the largest Ethiopian population in the States, and became a real estate broker, eventually moving his wife and three children to the DC area, where his kids completed their education. But the bottom fell out of the Real Estate and Selam returned to college and got a degree before working 9 to 5 at a law office. "I realized this life was not for me and so I started playing music again." But before that his wife battled and beat breast cancer.

Meanwhile, in 2009, Tomas Doncker was working with Roland Wolf's sons on an adaption of Roland's "The Power Of The Trinity" -a project tailor made for  Doncker's Global Soul vision. But the Ethiopian music Tomas was discovering was not what he wanted until, listening to Francis Falceto's Ethiopiques series of compilations of the glory years of East African soul. Volume Seven featured the Ibex band and Tomas found the sound he wanted.

Within two weeks of listening to the Ibex Band, Tomas and Selam were jamming at a  hotel room in Washington DC. "There was an instant connection. "From the very beginning it clicked. Tomas wanted an Ethiopian band but everybody he heard was too much jazz, he wanted a soul sound.." They joined voices, Tomas writing the songs and Selam keeping in authentic and sampling from classic Ethiopian songs.
Selam will be playing with the Tomas Doncker Band on their score of "The Power Of Trilogy, for three more shows at Summerstage's presentation, Marcus Garvey Park through Sunday. Admission is free. Tomas promises a 45 minute jam after the show.
Then Selam will return to DC where he is working on a book about his 40 years in the music business and hoping for a Grant. He will also being playing weekends with a band of young Ethiopian musicians called the Hahu Band, and the perpetually youthful Selam will fit right in. Selam hopes to bring them to record in nyc soon, hopefully we will get some live shows as well.
Mr. Woldemariam is a world class musician but equally a world class man. Through a life filled with revolution and reversals, he has maintained the highest levels of  integrity. I recommend you listen to Roha Band Tour 1990 (it is available on Spotify). A wonderful piece of soul sound that melds the East and the West with magical ease. Selam is a gift from the God's of music. And now you get the chance to hear him yourself.

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