Album review: Awalom Gebremariam – Desdes [Awesome Tapes from Africa, 15th April 2016]

On listening to Desdes, the title track of Eritrean exile Awalom Gebremariam‘s new album there is an immediate appeal. An acoustic instrument (a one-stringed fiddle) plays beautiful riffs, and the sweet, gentle quality of his voice draws you in. The relentless beat gives the music a hypnotic quality – at first. But by the time you get to the third track you begin to tire of it, and by the tenth you’re wondering how the arrangements can be so unimaginative.

The very high female backing vocals sound like he’s pitch-shifted his own voice, which itself has a rather limited range. Some tracks have lovely lilting pentatonic scales, and the backing vocals are reminiscent of nomadic Fulani music. Track five ‘Tehhelo’ has a slightly Arabic feel to it, but that’s the only drama you get on this album.

The soundworld is limited by the dominating electronic drum. Its sound is identical on every track with no rhythmic variation, playing just the main beat from start to finish, usually at exactly the same tempo as the song before it. When so many tracks are also in the same key it just sounds repetitive.

Without any other cultural references it’s rather hard to make judgments about this music, which was originally released in 2007. The songs mainly speak of love, so there’s no particular political agenda here. The use of an autotune effect on the vocals places this music the popular domain of African r&b or hip-hop and it probably had some appeal amongst young Eritreans at the time. So, a strange mixture of traditional and popular music, pleasant enough, but rather unadventurous and certainly not groundbreaking.