How many millions of tons in raw materials would it take to build a bridge from Manhattan clear to Ethiopia? If the mind boggles at the thought of all that concrete and steel, take comfort: The feat has actually been accomplished with a single CD. That's the idea behind Bole2Harlemwww.bole2harlem.com), an astonishingly original new album created by a visionary artist and two singular producers. (
Bole2Harlem producers David Schommer (front) and Steve Mac
photo: DAVID WEISS
The roots of this only-in-New-York record aren't so unusual, starting with Saturday night jam sessions in an out-of-the-way downtown nightspot. In this case, however, the site was a Moroccan/French restaurant called L'Orange Bleue, which had become a favorite weekend haunt for the busy production team of Steve Mac and David Schommer and their friend Maki Siraj, an Ethiopian transplant with a day job as a computer whiz and a sharp gift for rhyme and rhythm.
“I have a collection of drums at this restaurant,” Schommer explains. “On Saturday nights, we have a couple of drinks, get crazy, and after midnight, it turns into a dance club. Maki and I were always playing drums together, and then I started experimenting with remixing Ethiopian tracks, just to hear what it would sound like.
“My father was a teacher in Ethiopia in the 1950s, so I grew up with Ethiopian friends,” Schommer continues. “They have such a rich cultural heritage, and it's the most distinctive musical style I've ever heard. I took a trip there about five years ago, and when I was there, I found there was a new version of hip hop coming out and it was kind of bad. Big pimping works here, but maybe not so well in Ethiopia with this 3,000-year-old culture. I was interested in taking traditional Ethiopian song themes and traditional sounds and mixing them with what is in Harlem right now, because Harlem is the gateway to African music in New York City. Likewise, Bole is the airport in Addis Ababa, which is the gateway to Ethiopia.”
Realizing that they had a unique opportunity to fuse up-to-the-minute production techniques with deep flavors of hip hop, reggaeton, global music and traditional Ethiopian rituals, many of which are rooted in highly rhythmic — often politically charged — chants and boasts, Schommer and Siraj got to work making simple song shells in Spectrasonics' Stylus RMX and Atmosphere for Siraj and other singers to work over. While the pair collaborated at Schommer's spacious personal studio, Sounds of the Mushroom, the fifth floor of a Harlem walkup on 123rd Street, they speeded production via the efficient workflow honed in Mac's commercial music facility, Mac Sound (www.macsoundmusic.com), located 95 blocks downtown within the post facility wild (child).
“We have the best of both worlds,” Mac says. “Up here [in Harlem], we have this amazing vibe: It's like going to the woods and recording, this place is so vibey and quiet, and every room has a different acoustic architecture. When we go downtown, you have an amazing acoustically correct listening environment. During the day, you have this chaos of a commercial post facility, but at night, everybody goes away, and all of a sudden a string section and horns show up, and [the common area there] is incredible to start recording.
“At the same time, when I'm working on a commercial spot and I need some percussion, we'll exchange music files via Instant Messenger and Dave will record it [at Sounds of the Mushroom]. He's got a huge array of percussion instruments, and it would take a U-Haul to travel with it. This way, I can let him know what I need and get a session back in 20 minutes. We have a whole group of guys we're working with this way, contributing their specialty from their own natural environment.”
Up in Harlem, the songs were happening quickly. The first tune written, “Bole2Harlem,” came together in just 90 minutes, as Schommer, Siraj and two female backup singers laid down the vocals for the darkly strutting song, which matches Siraj's confidently engaging rap-style delivery against the women's sultry textures, evolving into growling line repetitions paired with high calls that go out like sirens into the darkness, all over hypnotic percussion and programmed beats. “Amet Bale” sways in the traditional Ethiopian 6/8 time, reflecting on holiday traditions with a deeply funky bass line. The entrancing “Enseralen Gojo” tells a love story that celebrates the ancient city of Harar, a fabled 900-year-old walled city that was built by a fierce king with five daughters of great beauty. For pure emotional inspiration, it may be hard to beat the intense groove, sprinting percussion and swelling triumphant vocals of “Endegena,” toasting the subtle similarities of Ethiopia, Brazil and the music, energy and rhythms of its peoples.
Schommer took advantage of the flexibility of his space, using mics such as the Neumann M147 and U87, RØDE NT2 and AKG C1000 (“great on percussion”) going into John Hardy M-1, Avalon 737 and Focusrite ISA mic pre's before hitting Pro Tools HD3 to capture spontaneous performances in the private-party atmosphere that pervaded each recording session. “No one else that I'm aware of has taken rap to this extent, lyrically,” Schommer says. “Maki's like Jay-Z meets Humpty Hump, and the Amheric language is not as literal as English, so you can paint these really funny stories. So the notion was, ‘Let's try a song. Come back next week, let's try another.’ We wanted it to feel more like a collective than a solo album, and every song was about featuring different players, like Henok Temesken, who's a famous Ethiopian bass player, and Balla Tounkara, who plays a 21-string instrument called the kora. It was a very magical process. The most important thing is we were making a record as an artistic experiment — we didn't set out to say ‘We're going to write a hit song.’ Let the music happen first, allow it to be the best song it can possibly be, push itself to its limits and push the next song as well.”
As the songs multiplied in Harlem, the files made their way through cyberspace down to Mac's facility, where he applied his high-level talents working with Pro Tools HD 3 and listening on Dynaudio AIR 15 monitors to create advanced mixes, constantly sustaining the album's feeling that another exciting sonic event is always just a moment away. “It goes back to what we said earlier about the whole production process,” Mac says. “Someone wasn't telling us to make this mix a hit. Instead, it was about treating each song individually with no pressure. I used plug-ins like SoundToys FilterFreak to turn instruments into percussive elements using filters. As far as EQ'ing and compression, there's nothing like mixing on Neves and APIs, which work at set detented gains and frequencies. When you have a plug-in, you have the ability to make frequencies super-thin and gain at micro-dBs, but then you're overdoing it. Instead, I would use plug-ins as if I were using old APIs so I wouldn't over-compress stuff. That comes from my experience working with real gear.
“When we recorded the horns, they went through a great mic and a clean pre, and sounded nice and clean, like on a Sting record,” Mac recalls. “But that really wasn't what we were looking for, so to get the horns to sit in a spot so they weren't so in your face, we used the Pro Tools plug-in Lo-Fi, which has been around forever. It lowers the bit rate, I added a little distortion and it crapped the horns out and put them back. Also, the Sony Oxford is an amazing reverb. The sound is incredible — it feels like a Lexicon 300 — and there's emulations in there of old EMT plate reverbs, which I use a lot on horns.”
Though hit status was a low priority to its creators, the powerful sounds of Bole2Harlem make it an instant success story — uniquely capable of filling Western listeners with fierce national pride for a land they will probably never see. Meanwhile, the album's impact is already being felt in Ethiopia: The intrigue of a new kind of Africa-inspired music recorded in New York City is propelling Siraj to stardom in his homeland. “Ethiopia is the kind of place that literally responds to the music,” Schommer says. “There's a political environment there, and right now, we know they need a little celebration. This is our gift back to Ethiopia.”
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