Ethiopian jazz band, Ethio-Cali.

Ethio Cali Infuses Flavor at Music Tastes Good  

  • 10/12/2018
  • Melina Paris

By Melina Paris, Music and Arts Columnist

The Ethiopian jazz band, Ethio Cali, took full advantage of performing on the last day of the Music Tastes Good Festival this past September. And boy did they put on a African diasporic clinic.

The band’s leader, Todd Simon spoke with RLn music writer about their show, calling the experience amazing.

“The crowd was great and we played full, high energy stuff- a lot of Ethiopian classics and a lot of Nigerian (music).”

They ended their performance with with an African version of Prince’s I Wanna Be Your Lover. Whenever Ethio Cali performs, they pay tribute by playing some of the music of artists who have died. On that Sunday, they were feeling Prince.

“We feel the spirits of those who have passed away that are dear to us,” Simon said. “Usually in the musical world but also spiritual leaders and people in our family that are really tied to us,” Simon said.

Ethio Cali has suffered losses of its own recently such as Long Beach Jazz scene’s Ikey and Aaron Owens, brothers of Ethio Cali’s bassist, Brandon Owens. Both men played in the Long Beach Dub Allstars and many other bands. Simon also played with them in the mid 1990s. He said after losing them, losing Sharon Jones and others (Charles Bradley, Leon Ware,) it was a hard few years.

Ethio Cali play jazz from the golden age of Ethiopian music from the 1960s and 70s, a time that stands in stark contrast to the famines and civil strife following the fall that nation’s emperor Haile Selassi I.  Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa, circa 1968 was one of Africa’s preeminent cultural, social and diplomatic hot-spots.

Capturing this eccentric spirit, Ethio Cali’s music foundation is inherently diverse, infusing sounds from Sudan, Somalia, Ghana and Columbia, yet, it’s also uniquely Los Angeles. Simon previously said that when he was asked to put the ensemble together, he picked the name Ethio Cali because, “We are in California but there’s also the connection that we are in a town that’s from around the world as well.”

Later that day, to add to the pleasure they had a second performance at MTG called #JAMINTHEVAN where they actually jammed in a van. This was eight Ethio Cali members jamming together in a hot van. It’s unclear what the inspiration was for this set up but they were definitely hot and they were great. They performed three long numbers in the contained environment. Sidama de Cali, a sultry horn groove with steadily deepening percussive beats. Zela Segna, an original from their keyboardist, Kibrom Birhane and Mujer Poda Rosa, which translates to strong woman. Simon as described it as a special number.

The songs inspiration is from Guiney, where one of their percussionists, Kahlil Cummings’ (deemed a master drummer as a child), family is from. The inspiration for Mujer Poda Rosa came from the folk songs in that area that talk about women who are the matriarchs and are very strong, outspoken and not afraid to let their voices be heard. This inspired number began with reverential tones fronted by Simon’s trumpet and Randal Fisher’s sax. Then came a change-up into an exuberant groove of playful strings and Simon’s rolling trumpet topping off the rising beats.

Simon is well versed in the history and diaspora of Ethiopian and Afro Caribbean music. He remarked on a huge musical exchange between Cuba and West Africa.

“When Fidel Castro took power, he sent soldiers to different parts of West Africa with recordings,” Simon said. “The style that really resonated was the rumba. When you’re in countries like Senegal, the rumba is still a huge craze. It’s a story of the slave trade and how African music influenced the Caribbean Latin cultures but then it came back and re-influenced Africa in a whole new way. So, this song- it’s strong. It’s one of the most challenging songs we’ve done so far.”

Hodgpodge: Musicians jamming with DJs, DJs jamming with musicians.

Simon has developed a successful project he calls Hodgepodge. It’s a take on what was happening during the acid jazz movement during the 90s. Simon was inspired by San Diego’s DJ Greyboy, who was well known for spinning `70s soul and funk. He later formed Greyboy Allstars. DJ Greyboy worked the turntables alongside musicians fusing jazz and hip hop. Simon, in high school at that time, dreamt of being able to do something like that and playing and working with DJs.

“It’s something that’s always been a part of me,” Simon said. “Fast forward many years of collecting records, I started (to) DJ. I got invited by DJs to do some events and I got the respect and support form DJs who told me I should do it. Once I felt comfortable spinning purely vinyl, I started pulling my horn out, jamming with it and the response has been golden.”

When the composer, trumpeter-come-DJ felt comfortable in his new craft, he infused it with other musicians and DJs. It’s been going now on for three years and he said “Nothing is scripted, nothing is rehearsed.”

Now, Hodgepodge’s home is in East Chinatown at a bar called Apotheke.

“It’s the right venue for what we do. You never know who’s going to show up,” Simon said. “We’ve had the Dap Kings, people from Antibalas, Jimetta Rose, Bus Driver. And then amazing DJs like Jeremy Sole (KCRW) Gaslamp Killer, House Shoes, Cut Chemist. It’s been an incredible thing.”

Simon brings Hodgepodge to Long Beach at Roe Restaurant, Oct. 13 and 27 and then to the Los Angeles Times Taste OC event, on Oct 21. Ethio Cali will play Taste OC, Oct 23.

We’ve never played Long Beach until this summer,” Simon said. “Long Beach is special to me because it’s where I really paid some dues and learned the ropes of running a successful band. I have a huge chunk of my musical family here.”

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Melina Paris

Melina Paris is a Southern California-based writer, who blends her passion for writing and connecting people to their local community into pieces centered music, cultural events, the arts, and most recently, the intersection of art and social justice.