For more than 40 years, Mahmoud Ahmed has deftly combined the traditional music of Ethiopia (essentially a five-note scale that features jazz-style singing offset by complex circular rhythm patterns that give the music a distinct oriental feel) with pop and jazz, yielding some of the most adventurous, passionate, and often surreal sounds heard in free jazz today.
Ahmed was at the forefront of Ethiopian music's "golden era" in the 1960s and '70s, and is still one the country's most eminent musicians. His body of work--including landmark recordings Almaz, Alèmyé, Ere Mela Mela, and Tezeta re-released as part of the Éthiopiques series--have become an essential benchmark of Ethiopia's musical history and cultural heritage, earning Ahmed the prestigious BBC World Music Award in 2007.
Ahmed has been a star in Ethiopia since the day he began performing. His swooping vocals with his multi-octave voice, complemented by the freewheeling jazz of Ibex (the band with whom he recorded his masterpiece, Ere Mela Mela), are very different from what is normally lumped into the broad category of Afro-pop. The rhythms are repetitive and intense, similar to those of Fela Kuti. But Ahmed's voice--swirling high notes that sound as if they're chasing one another, impeccable tone and phrasing--is the distinguishing element. By singing in this style, he has attempted to fuse the past and the present. Ahmed is not an elitist when it comes to singing older Ethiopian music, but he hears the similarities in Ethiopian pop that have thrived over time and is keen to bring them together.