It was Saturday afternoon at the Pioneer Works art space in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, and a spirited conversation was taking place. It was a conversation between musicians: the legendary Ethiopian vocalist Mahmoud Ahemd and the band that backed him. Ahmed would sing out a phrase — with its upward-twisting melody and beautifully wavering cadence, it usually sounded inquisitive — and the band (or, more accurately, the horn section) would deliver a response that felt bold and declarative. But it was also a conversation between generations: The audience included people who could have been introduced to Ahmed during his first burst of global fame in the mid ’70s, as well as those who likely were introduced to him via the Ethiopiques series in the late ’90s, and those who first heard his music in the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers. And it was a conversation between cultures; many members of the audience — particularly those near the front — were enthusiastically singing along to every word.
It’s a testament to Ahmed’s stunning charisma that he was able to sweep all of these disparate groups up with just the sound of his aching, spiraling voice. Saturday’s show — curated and produced by ISSUE Project Room — quickly progressed from lively performance to full-on party. The music was a wonder; the vocal melodies were swerving and snakelike, and Ahmed delivered them with magisterial authority. There’s a genuine sense of mystery to Ethiopian jazz — the horns settled like late night fog, and Ahmed’s voice was the stranger walking between them. The set’s opening numbers felt like eerie prologue, noir-film brass bearing down against Ahmed’s swerving voice.
But the instant they arrived at “Etu Gela,” momentum kicked in. The song is a dizzying contraption full of punch-drunk horns, endlessly-ricocheting percussion, topped with Ahmed’s precarious, high-flying vocal. It sounded like a parallel-universe James Brown, having all of the feverish energy and rhythmic thunk, but paired with a melody that was both otherworldly and utterly hypnotizing — like someone using their finger to play a 45 of “Sex Machine” backwards on a turntable.
From there, the intensity heightened: the songs, which pick up bits of soul and reggae and funk but refract them through Ethiopian music’s distinct melodic scale, became more feverish and the crowd responded in kind. They leapt and cheered and danced and Ahmed jumped ecstatically up and down, clapping and pointing skyward. By the night’s end, the room was a blur of non-stop motion, hands raised, hips swiveling, a giddy and frenetic mid-summer dance party. “Are you OK?” Ahmed asked several times during the show. The roar he received in response — which grew louder and more ecstatic and rapturous as the night wore on — was also a kind of conversation, between revelers at a party, sharing in a moment of communal bliss.