Samuel Yirga’s musical life so far has been full of obstacles: social restrictions, family regulations, hurdles thrown up by life. Yet in the face of all of this, the young and gifted pianist who grew up in the capital of Ethiopia and the centre of the heady mix of music known as Ethiojazz, has at last had his time to shine.
Bringing contemporary and classical jazz, celebrated pop songs from the golden era of Ethiopian music, traditional Ethiopian rhythms and deeply-felt classical piano undertones, this young man from Addis has opened up a whole new door on a musical genre and region which has already grabbed the interest of many people around the world.
Sammy was just ten years old when he knew he wanted to become a musician. “It wasn’t a case of knowing it or not,” he says serenely of this early musical conviction, “it was just something inside of me that told me I wanted to be a pianist.”
His family weren’t keen for him to play music but at the age of 16 and without his parents knowing he went for an audition at the Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa. Having never touched a musical instrument in his life, he came third out of the 2,500 people who auditioned.
But the struggles weren’t over. His parents eventually forgave him but his teachers considered his hands too small to play the piano. Finally they agreed and for the next three years, Sammy practised the piano for 16 hours a day, usually forgetting to eat or go to his other classes. He wanted only one thing: to be the best pianist in Ethiopia.
Sammy played the classical music he was given by his teachers but he also had a growing interest in Ethiopian music, from the popular wedding and folk songs he’d heard as a child, to the Ethiojazz legends that, in the last decade, had made something of a comeback. He found himself once more in trouble with the school who forbade him from playing contemporary music, deeming it too simple.
“I didn’t agree with them,” he says, “but I would just tell them that if something was simple, then we should try to make it better. We need to research and experiment.” And experiment he did. By the time Sammy graduated from music school at the age of 19, he was playing funk and Ethiojazz with one band, playing jazz gigs at a local club, experimenting with popular Ethiopian songs and creating contemporary versions with another band, and at the same playing salsa and classical music. Wherever his music went, however, he always held the beat of Ethiopian music at its heart.
Guzo is Sammy’s debut release, the product of his experiments with the music of his roots and the outside influences of jazz, Latin, and classical music. Through the piano it explores the traditional musical history of his homeland, ventures into Ethiojazz, and simmers with his deeply impassioned piano solos. It is both bold and sensitive, a passionate expression of a young man who dreamt of becoming a pianist and whose dream, finally, came true.
Listen to tracks featuring Samuel Yirga
Extracts of tracks taken from the album Guzo:
Firma Ena Wereket
Yeh Jo Halka Saroor Hae
Buy the music
Visit the Real World Records website