Music is like air; you can’t do without music
Ethiopian-born Thomas “Tommy T” Gobena is a prolific bass player and producer residing in the Washington, D.C. area. Having spent his childhood in Addis-Ababa, for over 25 years home has been the U.S. Although, in the past 8 years, home has been on the road as he intensely tours with the multinational gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. A believer of “music without boundaries” his music wings are eclectic and limitless, fitting properly as the bassist for the multinational band group described by Music Guide as “one of the most explorative and inexhaustibly creative bands on the planet.”
Far beyond unfilled noise, this Renaissance man is softly yet as toweringly as his stature filling the shoes of some of Ethiopia’s music legends. His solo debut album, The Prester John Sessions has won raves by critics and causal observers. “September Blues”, a song off the album is a testament to his imaginative artistry and sonic architecture. An interpretation of an old Ethiopian blues song in a smooth yet transfixed emotive melody, the sax duet speaks to a love departed as the production departs, experimentally, from conventional Ethio-sounds. A trailblazer and musical powerhouse, the record is only preparing us for what’s more to come.
I recently caught up with Tommy T, his deep voice and warm eyes frequented with laughter eased the meeting. The skype conversation was filled with humor yet full of substance, bringing out his radiant spirit and making all things feel properly cosmic. “Do we do this in Amharic or English?” I ask curiously, a question reserved for the hybrid Ethiopian. His eyes twinkle as he lets out a chuckle. “Whatever works for you,” he says with ease. His approach seems effortlessly even-tempered and buoyant.
A curator of his gift, you can say Tommy T’s life has been devoted to music. “Music has been my passion for as long as I can remember,” he says, explaining how it all started at the age of 5. “The first acoustic guitar that entered our household, purchased for my older brothers, inspired me. By the age of 6, listening to my brothers play the guitar, I started to develop an interest; more like a hobby,” he explains.
More than a hobby, growing up in the church, Tommy T’s love for the guitar took on a different meaning. By the age of 12, he was part of the Church’s Sunday school choir group; from pre-teen up until his teenage years the guitar was an invocatory instrument used for praising. So much so, at the age of 15, for personal reasons informed by religion, uninterested he declined an offer to join his high school (St. Joseph) band in Addis Ababa. Instead, he took up coaching some of the band members who happened to be his classmate.
Nevertheless, after moving to the US, his musical calling felt at a very young age was beckoned to stretch its wings into new musical realms. Seventeen year old Tommy, inspired by his brother Henock Temesgen – a popular bass player responsible for influencing Tommy T’s passion for the bass – departs from gospel-like music and takes an easy leap towards mainstream. It was the beginning of “Tommy T’s” thriving days in music.
With a keen taste for Ethiopian soul and funk, highly influenced by the sounds of bands like IBEX and Dahlak – Ethiopian bands from the 70s – Tommy T’s artistry flourished. “Being in the US, finding and playing with various Ethiopian musical bands like Adola, I started to deeply appreciate Ethiopian sounds,” he says, “But I don’t believe any one Ethiopian musician has influenced me per se. But I have worked with Ethiopian legends like Tilahun Gessesse and Mahmoud Ahmed. I do admit though, I seem to be more of Mahmoud’s camp.”
For years on, conveying love for Ethiopia’s funk and soul music on his bass he played at various venues around the DC-metro area. Until out of necessity, around 1999, drawn by his desire to stand for the under-represented Ethiopian music on the world stage, he ventured into the business side of music. “Though there were some African musicians like Youssou N’dour, generally, African music and especially Ethiopian music was under-represented on the world-stage. I started shaping my ideas and vision around that concept,” he explains. And up until 2006, he put his bass down to manage musicians. He worked with Ethiopian musicians like Grammy nominee Wayna Wondwossen, world-renowned songstress Gigi, and a few others.
While pushing forward on the business side, a strong pull for artistic creativity kindled within him to pick up the bass. “Around 2006, I felt an intense emptiness, a yearning for artistic creativity,” he says, explaining of his reasoned decision that never rang more true and had him rush back to the stage.
Shortly after, while collaborating on a project with guitarist Eran Tabib, he heard Gogol Bordello was looking for a bass player familiar with international grooves. On their first meeting he played with the band for 8 hours straight and hasn’t left since. Eight hours and eight years later, with Tommy T’s “knowledge of global rhythms as a key part of the band’s ever more expansive sound,” he has recorded three studio albums with the band and a fourth album in the making.
Insanely touring with Gogol Bordello throughout the years, packing 20 or more shows in 3 weeks (100+ shows a year) across different lands, languages, people and culture, Tommy T still finds time for personal projects.
Recently, he reunited with his former band mates of Abyssinia Roots, formerly known as Adola, to open up for Stephen Marley. Adola, a band he formed back in the day is now a musical collective, a group Tommy T tributes for production contribution to his album, The Prester John Sessions. Released in 2009, the album came in at #1 for ten weeks and top ten for 15 weeks on the World Music Chart. A rich collection of blissful fusion of Ethiopian melodies of soul, funk, Oromo dub (Cushitic dub), and Jazz, you can hear the influence of the early ‘70s: “the golden age” of Ethio-jazz, funk and soul style music.
“You can tell I was highly influenced from the heavy organs and the groovy sound. The ‘70s was more organic and live instrumentation,” Tommy says with a smile. And like the album title, the rich collection of songs is a tribute to ancient Ethiopia; thus, a musical journey through Ethiopia’s culture and history.
Tommy T discovered the story of Prester John in Graham Hancock’s book, The Sign and the Seal. ”It sounded like it would be a great title and also a way of educating people. The Prester John story is another reminder of Ethiopia’s massive treasure, and how its musical cultural gifts have been denied to the world. We know that whoever tells our story controls our life,” he says of history and narratives. “I decided if I were ever to do an album and represent Ethiopia musically, in my own musical way it would have to bring light to its treasures.”
As a record, obvious is the intentional messaging in song titles like “The Eighth wonder” that pays homage to Lalibella: Ethiopia’s historical site that didn’t make it on the list of the “World’s Seven Wonders”. Also, an “Oromo Dub” (Cushitic Dub) track, a trendsetter with dub experimentation in Oromo – widely spoken language in Africa – the song title gives a clever shout to the Cushitic family that extends beyond Ethiopia’s borders. “Instrumentally speaking, through the description of the music titles, it was important to make the educational connection and link it to the rest of the world, “ he says. And no doubt, powerful messages are transmitted from highlighting what a “call-and-response” African traditional style music is to a song titled “Brother”, written mostly by his brother Henock, the song title pays homage to a brother who inspired and influenced Tommy T’s musical career.
The album was released internationally except in Ethiopia. Due to lack of music regulation, a conscious decision was made to hold back. But due to changes in the musical landscape, the album will be re-released early next year in Ethiopia under a label Tommy T and friends are establishing. The re-release will feature a bonus track, an original song titled “Anchin” (meaning “You” in Ethiopia’s official language) featuring the legendry Mahmoud Ahmed. The song, a spellbinding expression of a love forlorn has a melody that instinctively feels like a guaranteed hit. Also, the video to the song, directed and produced by Tommy T, is due to be released by the end of this year (2014). Stay tuned.
But that’s not all there is to Tommy T, more of his work in Ethiopia’s musical landscape is yet to come. He has big and hopeful plans to incite change and be part of Ethiopia’s revival of the arts and culture. “In Ethiopia, musicians are respected because they make money and not because of their creativity. The objective of Art has become the maximization of profit. The element of its spiritual invocation, the personal journey and art culture has been lost. We have to do better,” he expresses. “But my biggest concern is how the world perceives Ethiopian music. They don’t believe we have music beyond the ‘70s. And as far as we (Ethiopians) are concerned we seem to get stuck when we find a style. Especially when we find it’s profitable. We need to start producing ‘fresh’, ‘hip’ and ‘funky sounds’ while we still keep some of the sounds from the golden era. This was one of the objectives for my album; if any, to prove to myself that it can be done,” he says, leaving no stones unturned in his quest to bring back fresh, hip, funky, and vintage style Ethiopian grooves.
Putting his money where his mouth is and stretching his imagination, Tommy T has ambitious plans to contribute to shaping the future of Ethiopia’s musical landscape. ”Speaking of reviving, relating, and linking Ethiopian music with the rest of Africa and the world, a project I’m working on in collaboration with Abegasu Kibrework Shiwota – a well-known producer in Ethiopia – is producing an Oromo vocalist, Abdi Nuressa. The album, instrumentally, is anywhere from old school rock steady vibe, reggae, to sounds from Mali,” he optimistically announces. And beyond this soon to be released record, in collaboration with childhood friends in the music industry, he’s in the process of establishing an entertainment company in Ethiopia.
Setting the tone for the current and coming generation, Tommy T offers wise words on tracing the origin of their music. “I don’t mind the young generation getting into hip-hop, dancehall, etc., but what we’re currently doing is a ‘bad imitation produced very badly’. Bad representation of our cultural sensibilities,” he continues, “We can do it authentically. We need to be leaders not followers. Have ambitions beyond just making money. It needs guidance. We need producers who have a library of knowledge – architects of sound. In Ethiopia, the job of a producer is misunderstood. A producer is beyond an arranger or a composer.”
Tommy T insists that the future of Ethiopian music is not a lost cause, but at the same time he expresses the need to free the spirit: “We (Ethiopians) need to be open-minded and grow out of our coy sensibilities. People completely misinterpret love and music. The idea is not meant to imprison, but to free us. As musicians or even otherwise, we have to have an open mind – this is what freedom is about. We have a beautiful culture in music; there is a need to export our arts and culture so the world will know us on an alternative narrative. Cultivating the arts and culture is a goldmine.” And with that, as Tommy T’s words present prophetic, it seems on the cusp of the future of Ethiopian music is “authenticity”, “freeing the mind” and “openness’.
You can purchase The Prester John Sessions, here
Photo credits: Alison Clarke