9 out of 10: Dereb the Ambassador bring the Ethiopian funk.
Souvlaki, laksa and tempura are but three examples of the welcome impact multiculturalism has made on the Australian palette; musically, though, it’s still the same meat and three veg of rock and roll that keeps the masses satisfied. Tonight, however, is different. Tonight Dereb Desalegn showcases the band he has put together over the course of the last decade since his arrival in Australia from his native Ethiopia, a band that serves up the slinky sounds from his homeland’s musical golden period.
Mulatu Astatke is the one-man Motown of Ethiopia, a veritable genius who created the classic Latin jazz, funk and traditional Ethiopian infusion that came to be known as ethio-jazz and which had Addis Ababa swinging in the 60s and 70s. Dereb the Ambassador mine that sound, and they fittingly begin with a driving cover of the instrumental Astatqe standard, Yelage Tizeta. The original is sexier, more lounge, the aural equivalent of a martini sipped among belly dancers in a Saharan oasis bar; but Dereb the Ambassador are bringing the funk tonight, and they conjure up a sweaty dancefloor in an overheated, overpopulated North African city, a single fan blowing ineffectually from the ceiling.
Dereb sings in his native Amharic, which, without words recognisable to this Australian’s ears, makes his voice sound like a bellowing clarinet of deep, evocative hues, both resonant and rich. And it’s that voice along with the two saxophones on stage that trace the thrillingly exotic Ethiopian melodies. Their lines slink, slither and slide, the saxophones at times sounding like two hissing snakes intertwining in desert sands. All this is on top of a crack rhythm section, the congas and the drums polyrhythmically combining to produce an outstanding underlay of intermeshed percussion for the rest of the instruments to sit on.
Dereb the Ambassador, however, are not mere revivalists: they also introduce Jamaican elements into their Ethiopian melange to good effect. The ska-like bounce to many of their numbers add a unifying element to the funky bodies on the dancefloor that are otherwise dancing to any one of the various interlocking parts of the funky, elegant whole.
Dereb the Ambassador are the real deal, a band of tight professionals that, thousands of miles away from Ethiopia, nonetheless manage to evoke the steaming clubs of Addis Ababa with their sexy flights of jazzy, North-African funk. Twiddly, trebly, whiney rock need not be the sole musical diet of a Melbournite looking for something live, and happily Australia’s multiculturalism now has something musical to hang its hat on.