Monday, October 26, 2009

Girma Yifrashewa: 'I think my Ethiopian music is a bit unique for the listeners' in Los Angeles

AfriClassical was pleased to interview the Ethiopian pianist and composer Girma Yifrashewa (b. 1967) today, following his participation in 'Africa Meets North America', Oct. 22-25, 2009 at UCLA, and before his departure from Los Angeles.

Good morning, this is Bill Zick.
Hi Bill, how are you?
Well I'm very happy to talk to you after all these years that we've been communicating in writing!
Yes, thank you! I'm very grateful to you for following up my professional progress. So I'm thanking you for this.
Well, you're very welcome! It's been an interesting and, I would say, a unique career. There don't seem to be very many people doing the same thing that you're doing.
Yes, I felt that during my stay here, I really felt it!
How did the concert go on Friday?
The Friday concert was very well received. There were so many Ethiopians and also Americans, so it was really very nice. I didn't expect that big an audience, and of course the appreciation. So I was quite happy about that!
So the audience was enthusiastic about your music?
Yes, very much, because I find my Ethiopian music is a bit unique for the listeners around here. So they listened with very big interest really.
Well that's very good. You were scheduled to begin with the “Interludes” from Rachel Eubanks?
Yes. I started with Rachel Eubanks and then Robert Mawuena Kwami.
His work is the “January Dance”?
The “January Dance,” yes.
Could you tell us anything about that?
The “January Dance” I think is choral music which was first written for choir. It's vocal music, but written for piano, just by capturing the atmosphere and the real vocal style of that Ghanaian music. So it was kind of a challenge for me to play that Ghanaian music which I have never had that kind of chance to play. So, I think that was also an interest for the audience, hearing the Ethiopian pianist play that Ghanaian music which was really absolutely related to the theme of the Symposium.
You say that Kwami is from Ghana?
Yes. I think it was first played in 1974, in Ghana. The composer was very enthusiastic about the people, how they received it, because there was such a large choir, combined with percussion instruments. The reason it's different is you can feel the background of the percussion. He tried to put all those elements in his piano arrangement.
No wonder that was a challenge!
Well it was a kind of first approach for me but I did it with interest really, to show the exact feeling of the composer.
I see, very good! And then after that I believe you had some “Preludes”, which are very familiar to the audience, I think. from George Gershwin?
Yes, after that I played two “Preludes” of Gershwin which are very familiar to the audience I think.
And then I continued my own repertoire, the Ethiopian music.
Did you play some of the same works that are on your “Elilta” CD?
Yes. “Elilta,” “Ambassel,” “Chewata,” and “Sememen” as well, all the piano works of that CD. And of course “The Shepherd with the Flute” piano version.
And for the benefit of the readers, the original of the recording of “The Shepherd with the Flute” included orchestra, right?
Yes, the original was a piano version and then it was orchestrated. On the “Elilta” CD you find it with orchestra, played by the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra.
That was in Sofia?
Sofia, yes. The Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. I played the piano version, and I played it last just to please the organizers and to thank all of them for creating the chance to interact with Africans and learn from American musicians also. I played it last, and it created a very happy atmosphere. I don't know, but this is what I felt. The next day, on Saturday, I played the “Strong Will,” which is a quartet. I played that with the members of the UCLA Philharmonic Orchestra.
How did that go?
Oh, that was also very well received. The musicians were very happy to play that. They were really excited to play it. You could see the happiness of the musicians playing my composition, so I have no doubt that the audience would really appreciate it. It was really nice!
Did any of the musicians say if this was the first Ethiopian music they had played, perhaps?
Yes. I think that was their first experience, and even the musicians who played; they really asked if I have more Ethiopian compositions to leave behind before I leave. So that shows their interest in playing the music.
Did you have an opportunity to play any other music while you were in Los Angeles?
Not much, actually, but yesterday as we finished the Symposium program I just had an informal communication of playing Western Classical Music for the groups who were together.
Did other people play too?
Yes, I think the American pianists were also playing, just a kind of gathering after the closing session of the Symposium. We were waiting to go to the last concert. We were just playing what we know. So that was also an experience, to give them my other part of piano interpretation which is on Western Classical Music.
I'm glad you had that opportunity!
Yes, but I think I need more of that, to create that kind of an opportunity to play for a bigger audience by showing my own stature with Western Classical Music.
You have a change to your website, so people can hear a continuous loop now of all six pieces in a sample?
I think I have to start to update my website. I think there are some samples of all my music.
Yes, all six of the piano samples.
I've been advised to add some videos of my interpretation, so this is what I'm going to do very soon.
What else did you want to say?
This is just my first experience of this very well organized concert, which I found very interesting, and interesting for the future. It shows how my appearance could be received if I have more to play in different parts of the States. So I think this is a wonderful opportunity for me. It shows the interest of people in my interpretation and in my music. I'm very grateful for what's happened now for the last four-five days, and I look forward for the future to concentrate on doing it more here in America. I think I will go back home with lots of hope and strong feelings about my profession.
Well I want to thank you very much Girma for taking the time...
Well, Bill I have to thank you for your very honest and genuine interest to share my musical activity with other people. I'm very honored that today I get this chance to talk, which has not been there for a long time! So I have to thank you for all of your interest for my music!
You're very welcome, and the music is very enjoyable. I hope you have a good trip and I hope we see you again!
[Girma Yifrashewa is profiled at]

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