For the past three years, Tommy T (Thomas T Gobena) has been the bass player for gypsy punk powerhouse Gogol Bordello. Tommy was born and raised in Addis Abada (Ethiopia’s capital city) and the knowledge of global rhythms he brings to Gogol’s sound has become part of their unclassifiable approach to music making. With the encouragement of his Gogol Bordello band mates, Tommy has produced his first solo effort, The Prester John Sessions. An aural travelogue that ranges freely through the music and culture of Ethiopia, the album is a collection of 11 songs including a remix of the track “Oromo Dub (Cushitic Dub),” featuring fellow Gogol Bordello band mates Eugene Hutz and Pedro Erazo and mixed by Michael Goldwasser of the Easy Star All-Stars. The Prester John Sessions has been released exclusively via iTunes, with the wide release at traditional retail outlets everywhere on November 10, 2009 via Easy Star Records.
“In the 70s, funk, wah-wah pedals, and jazz had a huge impact on Ethiopian music,” Tommy explains. “The Prester John Sessions will give people an idea about the musical diversity of Ethiopia, which includes influences and ideas borrowed from the sounds of the 70’s with the added bonus of up-to-date production values.”
Tommy composed and produced the music, along with his brother Henock, contributing to the tunes “Brothers” and “East-West Express.” The tracks were written at Tommy’s home studio, cut live in studios around Washington, DC, and overdubs were laid down in real time with a final mix by Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, Gogol Bordello) giving it the feel of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters jamming with Ethiopian godfathers The Imperial Bodyguard Orchestra. The music blends Ethiopian modes with dub reggae, funk, and jazz, for a sound that’s at once familiar and mysterious.
Tommy discovered the story of Prester John in Graham Hancock’s book The Sign and the Seal. “Hancock was looking for the Biblical Ark of the Covenant,” Tommy says. “His quest led him around the world, from the Middle East to Europe and back to Ethiopia.” In the 12th and 13th centuries, Prester John was an unknown Christian king with massive troops that got the attention of European kings. Prester John is the character I use to symbolize the man who will bring Ethiopian culture to the rest of the world.”
To fulfill his vision, Tommy started digging through Ethiopian folk music, choosing melodies he could improvise on. He also wrote his own compositions based on traditional modes. “A lot of popular Ethiopian music is based on a 6/8 beat called chikchika, but there are also many other rhythms in Ethiopia that have their own unique characteristics,” Tommy states. “I play with The Abyssinian Roots Collective on the album. They are sometimes known as The ARC, which coincidentally ties into the Ark of the Covenant and the Prester John story.”
“We are extremely excited to be working with Tommy,” says Easy Star co-founder Lem Oppenheimer. “He’s made an incredible record. The way he integrates reggae and dub into Ethiopian music fits right into what we have been releasing for the past decade – music that expands on a reggae foundation, taking the genre in new directions.”