Sound Opinions: Two Richmond Musicians On the Pan-Cultural Sounds at the Folk Fest 

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Jim Thomson on the Feedel Band (Ethiopia)

A beloved local musician during his tenure here in the ’80s and ’90s, percussionist Jim Thomson was a founding member of some of Richmond’s most famous bands including Gwar, Bio Ritmo and the Alter Natives.

He moved to New York in the late ’90s and founded a small vinyl-only label, Electric Cowbell, eventually moving back to Washington to be near his hometown of Arlington. After a few years booking shows at Tropicalia – the Washington City Paper called him the city’s “most interesting booker” — he now plays in the band Time Is Fire and books the club Bossa in the Adams Morgan district.

Thomson discovered the ethio-jazz of the Feedel Band after a trusted friend suggested he book it for an Ethiopian party. That night he was awed to learn that some of the musicians in Feedel, which means alphabet in Amharic, played on classic recordings from the famous Ethiopiques album series, such as saxophonist Moges Habte, who performed with the legendary Walias band.

Washington has the largest Ethiopian population in the country. Thomson occasionally calls it “DCopia.” He even recently got paid to drive legendary Ethiopian musician Mahmoud Ahmed, 74, to Duke University for a rare concert. “I got to watch him eat doughnut holes at a gas station,” Thomson says. “That was surreal.”

Here’s what Thomson has to say about the Feedel Band:

“They’re great — we became friends. You’re going to hear pentatonic scales, a lot of polyrhythmic 6/8 time signatures. There are like over 80 different rhythms among the [Ethiopian] regions that really distinguish the groups. When you put that together with influence from Western jazz, which essentially comes from Africa too — you get that funky James Brown sound underneath some of it. I do think they’ll be tailoring this more to the folk fest by using more traditional instrumentation. They’ll have dancers too.

“I suggest you come with an open mind. A lot of times I want to hear pan-cultural music a certain way, the stuff I like, the roots. Then I catch myself and realize that’s narrow-minded. Let the musicians tell you what’s up. … This is not the Ethiopiques stuff. That is the gateway drug for a lot of people. But I did play Francis [Falceto, the French producer of the Ethiopiques series] the Feedel band, and he had already heard it, he’s very tuned in. It’s lovely music that will drop you into a space you don’t want to leave.”

The Feedel Band performs Saturday from 5:15-6 p.m. on the Altria Stage and from 7-8 p.m. at the Dominion Dance Pavilion. On Sunday it plays from 3:15-4 p.m. at the Dominion Dance Pavilion.

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Marlysse Simmons on Zedashe Ensemble (Republic of Georgia)

The familiar keyboardist of Bio Ritmo, Marlysse Simmons also plays in several other local projects including Miramar and an all-girl Beatles tribute band, the Girtles. She discovered Zedashe while performing with Bio Ritmo in the Republic of Georgia in 2010. The band hosted the Richmonders in the medieval fortress city of Sighnaghi in eastern Georgia and the resulting musical collaboration was one of the “most memorable party nights that Bio Ritmo has ever had,” she says. It was their introduction to live polyphonic choral singing and it blew them away. Tears were shed, she recalls.

Simmons wound up returning to the country on her own twice since then, once for six weeks. “The music, the food, the wine, the people all drew me in,” she says. “Half the time you’re out, there are singers. Everyone has a strong, proud connection to Georgia and they love to share it. They know the world doesn’t know about them. They are not part of Russia. So they have so much to offer culturally. You feel how proud they are to sing their traditions that have outlived so many wars.”

Simmons says Zedashe’s name comes from the ancient earthenware jugs buried under family homes for making wine.

What you should know is it’s a choir group and dancing group. Polyphonic singing, harmonically, it’s not something we’re used to hearing. It’s very unique in its style and tone. A portion of their singing is ancient pre-Christian chants that came into liturgical use as well. Some of these chants are thousands of years old. It’s amazing, and its been preserved by Georgian people like an oral tradition. It could’ve easily been lost. The instruments may look familiar but they’re not: lute, accordion, hand drum, bagpipe. They’re all slightly different.”

“By the time they play the folk fest they’ll be on fire. They started a month ago and Richmond is their last show. They leave the next day. The afterparty at Capital Alehouse is going to be crazy on Sunday.

Zedashe plays Saturday at the WestRock Foundation Stage from 3:45-4:30 p.m. and on Sunday from 2:45-3:30 p.m. at the VCU Health Stage and 4-4:45 p.m. at the CarMax Family Stage.

You can not only see Zedashe at the festival, but also hear it when Bio Ritmo joins it and Mestre Panao and Capoeira Resistencia and for a special after-party Sunday, Oct. 11, at Capital Ale House downtown.

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