Monday, June 10, 2013

Live in Brooklyn: Ethiopian Pianist Girma Yifrashewa

New Yorkers got a rare treat on Saturday, June 8, 2013 when Ethiopian pianist-composer Girma Yifrashewa presented two sets of music at Issue Project Room’s downtown Brooklyn performance space. Curated by the Unseen Worlds label, which has presented concerts of music by pianists Lubomyr Melnyk and “Blue” Gene Tyranny, it’s actually not too hard to see how Yifrashewa fits into the label's ethos of very personal approaches to modern classical music. Yifrashewa hails from Addis Ababa and was born October 15, 1967; schooled in Bulgaria and in Leipzig and London, Yifrashewa is probably the foremost interpreter of Western classical literature in Saharan Africa, but it is his own music that particularly excites. His touch is lively and spacious with an elegant complexity, trilling and brightly intense. As a jazz-schooled listener, my ears picked up Mary Lou Williams and even Matthew Shipp, though any coincidence stems from hearing Western music and instrumentation through a uniquely Afrocentric (in this case Ethiopian) perspective.

The first half of the concert featured his interpretations of Gershwin’s Prelude, Schumann’s Arabesque, Debussy’s Claire de Lune and three works by Chopin. He brought out a glorious, parlor minimalism in Schumann, a lush continuousness that sometimes recalled Melnyk, if only in flourishes. Chopin was rendered with a florid attack that never overpowered, rather outlining the composer’s penchant for sweetly jarring contrasts. The second half of the performance featured Yifrashewa’s own compositions, which are based primarily on traditional Ethiopian themes and affects. “The Shepherd and the Flute” is probably his most famous work and based on the popular “The Shepherd Flutist” by Ashenafi Kebede, with surging and overlapping eddies set into a vast, lush and entirely personable framework. “Ambassel” is based on a popular Ethiopian musical mode, also reflective of the mountains in a so-named northern Ethiopian district, and explored motifs emblematic of an upward path with cellular repetition and granular grace.

One of the most curious pieces was “Chewata,” which translates to expressing joy over a sad occurrence and has a pretty striking similarity with gospel and the blues. The age-old sentiment of “having to laugh to keep from crying” was borne out in Yifrashewa’s gorgeous, lilting piano work, recalling Mary Lou Williams in its interleaving of the blues and gospel music with crisp, Romantic classicism, or Jelly Roll Morton by way of Frédéric Chopin. Following the crisp nachtmusik of “Sememen,” Yifrashewa closed with “Elilta,” its right-handed clusters a transposition of joyous, celebratory vocal ululations and fragments of popular wedding song.

The amiable, peaceful and relaxed Yifrashewa closed with a gorgeous “Maple Leaf Rag,” interpreting the famed Joplin piece with an approach that made it seem as though the pianist was floating over the keys, impulses braced by an incredible, skimming touch that may be outside of ragtime but fully within Yifrashewa’s language. This was an unexpected and surreally powerful reading of a solo piano chestnut, setting into relief the entire evening's program. While Yifrashewa’s music – both his own pieces and his readings of repertoire – currently have negligible availability on disc, that is likely to change as Unseen Worlds has plans to record his work. Such a project would be most welcome, as continual revisiting of Yifrashewa's art would yield much fruit. 

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