“Love” is what “motivates” him to play the piano because “the sound of it is so much related to the feeling of love.” These are not words from a teenage boy, who is deep in his high school crash; these are the words of an Ethiopian pianist Samuel Yirga, who, at 27, is fast becoming one of the most innovative young piano players around the world.
Taking his influences from jazz pioneers such as Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson and George Duke, Samuel’s piano sound is sensationally deep, modern, young and emotional. The effortless shuttle left and right on his piano keyboards of his fingers reveal they are indisputably made to do nothing but play the piano.
A shocking truth about Samuel’s early encounter with music is that, growing up, he had never touched a musical instrument, least a piano; but today his passion for playing piano and his precision with any keyboard he comes across spills out onto the keys with a great and authoritative melodic command.
As a kid he grew up listening to a lot of music, especially instrumental, thanks to his two older brothers; but he also listened to his own favorite songs by Ethiopia’s music legendary the late Tilahun Gesesse and America’s pop queen Mariah Carey. Not to mention his other favorite singer and piano player, Alicia Keys, who naturally ignites deep love and passion that motivates many to play the piano.
Samuel’s journey started at an entrance exam for Yared Music School of Addis Ababa University where many experienced musicians come together and take the same exams. But Samuel’s natural talent for musical sensibilities and confidence mean he was not only able to enter the compound but carry his studies through to become the “most unforgettable students”, according a piano instructor at the school. “My time at Yared Music School was so great as well as tight. I didn’t think I could play by starting from scratch, but I enjoyed it so much and tried my best by staying committed”, Samuel told this magazine. But he also admitted that his experimenting at the School was “difficult to be accepted,” perhaps contributing to his relatively unknown fame at home.
Samuel doesn’t “believe in luck” and doesn’t think he is “lucky but a dreamer and a hard-worker with a positive mind” and he loves “experimenting” on his piano, which means his stay at the Yared Music School represented lots of ups and downs. But he soon became Jazz night sensation in Addis Ababa where he played in many places with different bands, notably with Nubian Arc, stretching the limits of his ‘experiment in fusing Ethiopian jazz with funk, Latin and even pop music.
The rise and rise of Samuel
Samuel’s dream was soon realized when international singer and songwriter, Peter Gabriel, fell for his talents and signed him to record his debut album Guzo under Peter’s Real World Record label. Guzo, Samuel’s debut album which he wanted to collaborate with Ethiopia’s music legendary Mohamud Ahmed and “broke my heart” when he turned Samuel’s request down, was recorded both in Addis Ababa and at Real World Studios. Today the album is acclaimed by music critics as a phenomenal mixture of musical sounds and an awesome sensation for all listeners. Its unique feature is that it effectively captured the essence of Ethio-jazz, soul, funk, American jazz (the influences of the works by Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock are particularly visible), Latin and classical music, and is full of deep virtuosic piano solos. Guzo also features more upbeat songs which include guest vocalists such as the Creole Choir of Cuba, whose songs go back to their Haitian roots, Mel Gara, a British singer whose origins are in Iraq and Nicolette, a Nigerian-British singer famous for her collaboration works with great artists such as Alec Empire. Guzo has been selling successfully globally but not in Ethiopia, yet. But Samuel says he is “planning to have a big concert for Ethiopian audiences until I bring the album to Ethiopia,” so he can give an “idea about the album.”
Answering to our question on why his debut album was missing from the Ethiopian market, Samuel says, “Selling the album for more than 200 or 300 birr is completely impossible for Ethiopian market economically as well as by law. But I’m having discussions with my Label about bringing the Master to print [the CD] here and sell it within the normal Ethiopian price”.
Way before the launching of Guzo, however, in 2008 Samuel earned a stage to perform at the Glastonbury Music festival in the UK, alongside famed artists such as the late Amy Winehouse, Eddie Grant and Jay Z. But his biggest moment so far came in 2013 when he was nominated in the Newcomer category by Song line Music Awards, Europe’s emerging music award. Samuel was not only nominated but “The Blues of Wolo”, a track from his album and his favorite one, earned him one of the five places for Best Newcomers along with the group Deb Colossus, with which Samuel has done a remarkable collaboration in fusing traditional Azmari music with ethio-jazz, and reggae, and which was announced as the winner in April. “Performing on the world stage, you see lots of talents from all over the world and it’s great to see all the varieties. Everything has a big value on the international stage. The main thing is to keep my identity and creativity in music,” Samuel said.
Growing up, Samuel “had so many different interests”. He was good at academics, so he wanted to be an “engineer or a pilot”. He was also “very good at playing football, I was good at acting, good at teaching” and even good at “making a speech and presenting”. Today the best in him is not an engineer, nor is it a pilot, a footballer or a teacher; it has come down to the keyboards in his piano and soon into singing, the next exciting thing happening for him in Ethiopia.
“I have a plan to create a group with many percussion players having a huge energy to perform the rhythms of Ethiopia and create a new sound”, Samuel, whose humbling personality and respect for his profession is admired by many as is his musical talent, told this magazine.
Photo Credit: York Tillyer