Samuel Yirga

Samuel Yirga’s musical life so far has been full of obstacles: social restrictions, family regulations, hurdles thrown up by 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 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. 

Sammy 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.” 

His family weren’t keen for him to play music but at the age of 16 and without his parents knowing he went for an audition at the Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa. Having never touched a musical instrument in his life, he came third out of the 2,500 people who auditioned.

But the struggles weren't over. His parents eventually forgave him but his teachers considered his hands too small to play the piano. Finally they agreed and for the next three years, Sammy practised the piano for 16 hours a day, usually forgetting to eat or go to his other classes. He wanted only one thing: to be the best pianist in Ethiopia.

Sammy played the classical music he was given by his teachers 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 Ethiojazz legends that, in the last decade, had made something of a comeback. The school forbade him from playing contemporary music, deeming it too simple. "I didn’t agree with them,” he says, “but I would just tell them that if something was simple, then we should try to make it better. We need to research and experiment.”

And experiment he did. By the time Sammy graduated from music school at the age of 19, he was 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 Habasha Sessions is Sammy's debut solo release and compiled specifically for Society of Sound.  It is the product of his experiments with the music of his roots and the outside influences of jazz, Latin, and classical music. Through the piano it explores the traditional musical history of his homeland, ventures into Ethiojazz, and simmers with his deeply impassioned piano solos. It is both bold and sensitive, a passionate expression of a young man who dreamt of becoming a pianist and whose dream, finally, came true. 

The Habasha Sessions was produced Nick Page, the musician and producer best-known as Dubulah.  Page started his music career with Michael Riley (Steel Pulse), and went on to form Trans-Global Underground with Tim Whelan and Hamid Man Tu in 1990, recording six albums before leaving to form Temple of Sound with Neil Sparkes. Along the way he became a prolific producer, working with the likes of Natacha Atlas Los de Abajo, and Rizwan Muazzam Qawwali and most recently Dub Colossus and Syriana.

Society of Sound asked producer Dubullah aka Nick Page for the background to this unusual recording:

What are the challenges of recording music in an environment like Addis Ababa in Ethiopia?

"Four tracks for the album: The Blues for Wollo, Firma ena Wereket, Endet Nesh, Abet Abet were all recorded in Addis Ababa by Samuel with Abiyou Solomon engineering.  The rest of the album was recorded and mixed in the UK at Real World Studios.

There are no big, well-equipped studios in Addis that I know of. Although there is a national radio studio, unfortunately we had no access to that. There are also at least three small to medium sized pro-tools rooms that we know of, which are generally owned by well-established successful Ethiopian musicians.

Solomon Sound Studio is owned by the fantastic musician Abiyou Solomons and based in his house.  His spare room was particularly useful as a studio.
It has three linen cupboards that became very nice (but extremely warm!) vocal and brass section booths with blankets on the doors! In Abiyou’s studio, if a dog barked or it rained very hard you would have to stop recording.  Added to this there are power cuts are every other day – so this stage of the recording was all a bit hit or miss.  But the coffee, tea and biscuits were fantastic. 

Even getting to the studio on time for a session was a challenge, what with horses running free on the highway, people herding cows or goats in the middle of three-lane roads and never-ending road works slowing everything down!

We recorded the tracks on pro-tools via a digidesign interface. Abiyou is a very good engineer."

With some elements of this album recorded in Addis and other parts recorded in the UK, how did you stitch them together sonically?

"Well, we changed the sample rates from 44k 24bit up to 48k and 24bit.
The UK sessions happened at Real World Studios where Greg Freeman, the engineer, put the audio through Neve and Focusrite preamps via the SSL desk in the Big Room Studio.  The parts from each session were stitched together using the old Neve and Pultec analogue eqs with the SSL desk as a unifying sonic processor. Compression was handled by a vast number of ureis, distressors and other rack units. This gives some consistency to otherwise very different audio identities.

Adding high-end percussion to bring continuity to the top end of the recording was very important, and acoustic guitar recording also helped a lot.  We also recorded the Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano overdubs at Real World. Finally I then went through the process of balancing and editing audio at ‘Castle Dubulah’ for several weeks.

Real World is a world-class studio; but it is the outboard gear, mics and especially the great engineers that make it for me; not forgetting the swan that does stretching exercises every morning in front of the studio window pond view."

Where did the mixing happen?

"The mixing and fixing was done by engineer Mat Arnold at Real World Studios, using Ethiopian coffee (abasha buna) as rocket fuel, along with vitamin B12 for our nerves plus some beer and medicinal wine."

Musically what were you looking for?

"A combination of the sense of live performance taking us on a journey from Ethiopia-Africa to UK via Haiti and Cuba."

How did you handle the recording of the piano?

"Samuel performed tracks on three different pianos in three different studios. He recorded solo pieces on a Steinway Grand in Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, a Yamaha baby-grand in Real World’s Big Room and a fantastic Bosendorfer concert-grand in Real World’s Writing Room. 

All the environments and instruments had very different sounds and spaces, but each suited different pieces: the warmth of the Steinway in a big concert hall versus the accuracy and mid tones of the Bosendorfer, contrasting with the sweet tone of the Yamaha."

Photography: York Tillyer
©2011 Real World Records Ltd.

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