Samuel Yirga Photography credit- York Tillyer
‘Love’ as motivation
Love motivates me to play the piano because for me, the sound of it is so much related to the feeling of love.
My two older brothers because they were so much into listening to instrumental music, especially the piano.
Earliest memory …
While I was playing in a reggae club called ‘Changes’ in Addis Ababa, the keyboard fell because the stand was not fixed well and it was a horrible sound that came out from the clash of the two keyboards. It was actually a unique sound for the reggae group and what’s worse, I had to play sitting on the floor until they fixed the stand.
Can you tell us more about life as a child and teenager growing up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – your dream to become a musician, and the many obstacles you faced?
When I was a very small kid, I had so many different interests. For example, I was very good in academic education which led me to the interest of being an engineer or a pilot. On the other hand, I was very good at playing football, I was good at acting, good at teaching, I was good at making a speech and presenting so that led me to the interest of becoming a president or a prime minister. In the later case, I had the chance to be the leader of different groups. However, the interest of being a musician was more than all the above interests.
Even though, I was very much interested in becoming a musician especially a pianist and a singer, my family didn’t want to send me to a music school. They told me that they would send me when I got to grade 10, but they didn’t and I was very much into the academic education.
Life as a child was not that comfortable for me and I don’t think that things were fulfilled for me. To get what you want will take ages and when the time comes you’ll be in a different life. I can’t say that I was in a high class school when I was in elementary and high school but I had a big passion in all of the courses I was taking. However those things didn’t stop me from being strong and accomplishing my aim.
The culture didn’t have that much respect for the music profession and those things were the big challenges for many of the interested ones. Actually it’s not only the music but Art in general that didn’t get the acknowledgment from the culture.
It’s getting better right now but again it’s not changed that much. My father was not happy when I joined the Yared school of music because he wanted me to be an engineer or doctor or something better than music.
He just let me do everything I was trying to do at that time because he thought that I would get a bachelor degree and not play my music. I can’t blame my father alone, but the whole culture. Right now, he’s so happy about my success and respects the arts in general. Now, he even knows many of the artists and he always discusses every details of music with me.
This will be a big lesson for other families and will really teach them how to help with the interests of their children. Because of all the problems that I mentioned above, most of us decide very late about what we have to be.
What are your plans and aspirations for the future?
My big plan is to change the production quality of Ethiopian music, helping to create as many good musicians as possible.
I believe that when the production of the music gets better and better, it will be possible to create good musicians because the music and everything will bring a challenge on the potential of the musician. If we are talking about the quality, the musicians will try to be as great as the record and if we are talking about the music arrangement, again the musicians will work hard to perform the same or better level of the arrangement which will make them good in performing as well as rearrangement.
On the other hand, when I think about my country, I don’t think that it’s promoted in a positive way.
I mean the other world knows about Ethiopia as a country of drought, famine, poverty and many other negative descriptions. However, I know my country better than the others because I see what we have and what we don’t have.
There’s poverty, drought, famine and some other problems, but i do believe that we have got much much better things and the country should be described in these great things.
I know that we Ethiopians have got the responsibility of showing the good side of the country and I am trying to do that.
Starting from the great culture of the country, there are many positive things about Ethiopia. We have great and unique music and it’s getting very good acknowledgment from the rest of the world. It proved that music is not only about theory but mainly feeling.
Our special mode called Anchi-Hoye proved this and people started understanding it. They started to see that people can sing those “weird” intervals that are found in the Mode or Scale.
I just mentioned part of our greatness but there is more to show. So as a cultural ambassador, I’m planning to change all these bad images about the country and bring out the positive side.
Proudest career moment (to date)?
For me I think every moment that I have had in my music life is great and I’m proud of all because I tried to show the real feeling about my music and about my country.
Cover image of the album – Guzo
Can you tell us more about ‘Guzo’ from a musicians point of view and composer – the musical influences behind it ?
GUZO is my debut album and it shows my different interests and potential in playing piano and composing. I have been experimenting with many different things in my music by fusing traditional Ethiopian music to classical and jazz, RnB and Latin, keeping the real identity of our culture. I have different interests and i am not restricted in one kind of creativity because I believe that there is no wrong thing to do with music. Anyone can say, this is my favourite or not my favorite but they can’t say that it’s wrong because it all depends on the interest and feeling that the music gives. It might be good to one and bad to the other. So I put my experiments on this album which gave a great impression to different people and gives this positive idea about creativity.
This album is a mix of different types of music from different parts of the country and the world. I divided it in 4 major parts:
1. Solo Piano– this part shows my piano playing and the influence of Jazz, Ethiopian, and classical music. I tried to put the different modes of the country in my own playing and tried to show the real description of those modes when an Ethiopian musician plays. I included some original and some cover songs in this part.
2. Traditional instruments of Ethiopia fused with Piano and some modern instruments – this part of the album was recorded in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in Solomon studio which is owned by a legendary Ethiopian and great bass player Abiyou Solomon. Great and well known musicians of the country participated on this part. The songs Abet Abet and The blues of Wollo (which features the great female singer Genet Masresha) are some of these fused ones.
3.Ethio-Jazz– This is like a big description of me. Having all the fights with the school professors because of the rules which only allows the students to play classical music, I’ve accomplished my aim to be a jazz musician. Many people know me as an Ethio-jazz pianist and have been performing with different jazz and funk groups. This part of the album contains the songs that I wrote while I was in school and after graduating. songs like Tiwista are in this part of the album.
4. Funk, Pop and Latin fusion- is a collaboration with other great and well known musicians and singers from other countries. The songs African Diaspora and I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun are in this category which includes the Creole Choir of Cuba that is an amazing group touring all over the world, Nicolette a Nigerian-British and the ex-lead vocalist of the group Massive Attack and Mel Gara, a British singer whose origins are in Iraq.
In general, you can see a little bit of each influence from my different interests. I can say that I was very much interested in playing Ethiopian music, to sing RnB and to get a new sound from the experiments. The great Ethiopian pianist Elias Negash made me think of experimenting on Ethiopian music and i always want to thank him for that.
This album is the product of a lot of hard work from Nick Page, the producer. He gave me many big lessons like how to take a song and make it big. He’s an amazing musician and an all-rounder. He sees things in different directions. I don’t know how to describe him but he’s an inspiration to me. He cares about the artist that works with him. I really want to thank him all time.
From the beginning it has been getting a great response from all over the world, including Ethiopia.
Any tips for young and aspiring pianists?
First of all I don’t believe in luck and I don’t think I’m lucky. But I’m a dreamer and a hard worker with a positive mind.
I always dreamt of being a singer and a pianist, even though in the middle of this I was so much into my academic education. But I knew that I would be a well known musician and that I would travel outside my country and I got all what I wanted.
When you work on something you like or are passionate about, you’ll invest a lot in it. But you have to know what you’re doing and it’s always good to start from the basics.
Spending too much time doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be good. Sometimes it’s better to sit for a small amount of time and do the right and precise thing which will make you more effective than spending too much time without understanding what you’re doing. However it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to spend or practice for a long time. You can use it if you really know the right way and the right elements of that interest.
So Dream, Pray, be positive, practice, sacrifice. VALUE=great results and great feedback.
Samuel Yirga – Photography credit York Tillyer
Listen to Samuel Yirga play – http://vimeo.com/11804510