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Samuel Yirga’s musical life so far has been full of obstacles: social restrictions, family regulations, and hurdles thrown up by the reality of life. Yet in the face of all of this, the young and gifted pianist who grew up in the capital of Ethiopia and the centre of the heady mix of music known as Ethiojazz, has at last had his time to shine.

Bringing contemporary and classical jazz, celebrated pop songs from the golden era of Ethiopian music, traditional Ethiopian rhythms and instruments and deeply-felt classical piano undertones, this young man from Addis has opened up a whole new door on a musical genre and region which has already grabbed the interest of many people around the world.

Samuel was just ten years old when he knew he wanted to become a musician. "It wasn't a case of knowing it or not," he says serenely of this early musical conviction, "it was just something inside of me that told me I wanted to be a pianist." At home he devoured the Ethiopian pop music and American R&B that he heard on the radio and cassettes but he had no encouragement from his parents who were afraid that learning music would distract him from his academic studies.

However he attended an audition at Addis Ababa's Yared School of Music and, the age of 16, and having never touched a musical instrument in his life, Samuel entered the school and, with a coin tapping out rhythms on the top of the piano, breezed through the exams. Of the 2,500 people who took the exam, Samuel came third. It was only at this point did he choose the piano as his instrument. The speed of his development as a pianist was miraculous.

Samuel played the classical music he was given by his teachers - from Chopin to Rachmaninov - but he also had a growing interest in Ethiopian music, from the popular wedding and folk songs he'd heard as a child, to the Ethio-jazz legends that, in the last decade, had made a comeback. In spite of resistance from his more conservative teachers he began playing funk and Ethiojazz with one band, playing jazz gigs at a local club, experimenting with popular Ethiopian songs and creating contemporary versions with another band, and at the same playing salsa and classical music. Wherever his music went, however, he always held the beat of Ethiopian music at its heart.

The young prodigy began his recording career creating music for the Society of Sound release 'The Habasha Sessions'. From this early work Samuel went on to make 'Guzo', his critically acclaimed first album. This is the product of his years experimenting with the music of his roots and the outside influences of jazz, Latin, and classical music. It explores the traditional musical history of his homeland, ventures into big-band brass ensembles, moves through soul and funk, and then simmers with the deeply impassioned solo piano tracks. While the latter can be introspective, he carries with him some great singers and instrumentalists, from Ethiopia, Europe and the Caribbean.

While Samuel wrote originals and new versions of old Ethiopian songs, he was also joined by Nick Page, the British musician and producer behind Transglobal Underground and Dub Colossus, the Ethiopian band in which Samuel also plays. Page produced the album and chose to cover the song 'I am the Black Gold of the Sun', originally a psychedelic soul track from the 1970s. Samuel's version opens with the bright vocal chorus of the Creole Choir of Cuba, a Cuban choir whose songs go back to their Haitian roots, and is followed by the vocals of Mel Gara, a British singer whose origins are in Iraq, and Nicolette, a Nigerian-British singer, famous for her collaborations with Massive Attack. The funk-laden chords and flourishes of Samuel's jazz-infused piano playing underpin the three sets of vocals.


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