Artist: Ukandanz

Album: Yetchalal

The band name Ukandanz can be pronounced as “You can danz” (“dance”), thus I pronounce it that way. They’re a French band (sax, bass, guitar, drums) that plays loud, highly energetic Ethiopian-style pop music sung by immigrant Asnake Guebreyes, so I have Ukandanz-Yetchalalno idea if I’m pronouncing it correctly, or what the name might in fact mean. But I *can* dance, and the music on Yetchalal makes me want to, and now this review has a cheap hook, so there.

The strangeness levels on Yetchalal, to Western-trained ears, vary quite a bit. Belomi Benna is Ukandanz at their most catchy and straightforward: bopping along in 4/4 time, with simple call-and-response vocal hooks and a horn section not that far away from Dixieland jazz. Wub Nat could be taken as a variant on ’90s indie guitar rock: some of it based on a choppy percussive 6/4 bass riff Soundgarden could’ve authored on an inventive day, other sections built on dreamy floating guitar closer to Ride or Swervedriver — all of it made unfamiliar only by the very busy and complicated horn sections, and by Guebreyes’s lithe, ululating, wiggly voice and exceptional breath control. Tezalegn Yetentu‘s guitar, bass, and drum work start at punk-pop, then spend the rest of the song not far from Led Zeppelin doing one of their Mideast-inflected epic buildups; Lionel Martin’s horn blasts here are simple and rousing, and shouldn’t scare anyone who’s ever heard a marching band (unless they were stomped over and crushed bone-by-bone by said marching band, in which case, ouch!, but I was just trying to use a sonic comparison).

Addis Abeba Bete slides on very slippery rhythms, but the bass guitar is set for blasting out of car speakers, and Guebreyes’s smoothest, lowest singing and the saxophone’s sway are probably damned seductive until the song accelerates into double-time. Semmenawerq pushes the drummer Guilhem Meier forward for his best showcase, while Ben Lecomte’s bass tolls like doom, or just an insane clock. Aykedashem Lebe is the most ominous, heaviest song here (and quite possibly my favorite), but Martin’s sax still slips a folk-dance feel into the otherwise tense action-adventure setting. Then again, the bassline of the dreamy Senadere feels almost disco. Or at least it does after nine previous Ukandanz songs have already stretched my musical horizons — and until it climaxes as a fierce guitar rave-up.

Last year I suggested that the Debo Band’s self-titled debut, also Ethiopian-styled, had become my favorite African-pop album. I can still recommend it happily, but the superlative is no longer true; Yetchalal has walked away with that title. Both bands seem equally talented, and I can express the differences in neutral, objective terms: Yetchalal is faster, denser, trickier, and louder than Debo Band, and Asnake Guebreyes’s singing, though smooth, is high-intensity where Bruck Tesfaye’s voice is calmer, more studied. You might prefer either; but those differences translate in *my* head as “Yetchalal is better, better, better, and better, and also the singer is better”. My interest in “World Music” began, a few years ago, with a certain level of artifice: of trying new things in the belief that trying new things is a Good Thing To Do. The novelty hasn’t worn off yet, but the artifice is gone; it’s just fun now.

– Brian Block

To see the rest of our favorites, visit our Favorite Albums of 2013 page!