The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Concert Review - Tuesday 17th May 2005

Gigi at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Given by -

Reviewed by - Claire Davies

I'd been waiting for Gigi for months - ever since the flyer popped through my letterbox when my first reaction was to panic in case the tickets had all sold out. After I realised there were plenty of seats available, I panicked again, in case the queen of Ethiopian music didn't get the reception I thought she deserved. In true Ethiopian style, however, people surged forth for tickets at the last minute and on the 17th of May, London's Queen Elizabeth Hall had sold out to both ferenj and habesha late-comers to hear Ejigayehu 'Gigi' Shibabaw and the Abyssinia Infinite band.

The programme introduced Ethiopia as "surrounded by mountains and sea"; still we were there to hear Gigi and not to be misinformed about geography. The pamphlet went under the seat as Gigi shimmered onto the stage. Born into a family of rural coffee growers, New York City life had rubbed off on her silver sequinned outfit. We took off with Adwa, an acapella performance which had the audience quivering like her vocal cords at the words, "Africa, Mother Ethiopia" (just about the only Amharic I understood). At the end of the song, every one sighed in relief. She was as good in the flesh as in the recording studio. We weren't going to be disappointed.

Some new songs were followed by the familiar ones we were all waiting for. Guramayle, Bati Bati, and of course, Ethiopia, bought cheers from the crowd. In person, Gigi was more vulnerable than in her photos. She hid beneath bushy corkscrew hair and seemed surprised that we had bothered to turn up. It was hard to imagine this figure as someone who rebelled against her family in order to pursue her musical ambitions. Coyly she told us that her songs were about "being in love," as well as paying a tribute to her baby son in the audience (which explained the woman with an infant in the aisle).

Abyssinia Infinite pulled it all together. An eclectic New York creation, they included a bassist in a Motorhead t-shirt, an accordionist in a leopard skin fez and a long-limbed Senegalese who thrashed out the rhythms on the drums. Only the keyboard player and the backing singer (whom we only ever knew as 'Tigist') hailed from Ethiopia, yet it all came together somehow. It was all a far cry from the azmari beat but when Gigi sang, we were flying down the Bole Road in a line-taxi again.

On the success of the Zion Roots album (nominated for a BBC World Music Award), the concert was part of a six night back-to-back tour. Perhaps this was why the evening had a premature end. "This is our last song," she declared, at quarter past nine, just as I was set to move down to the front and wave my arms in the air. Maybe the programme was taking its toll on her larynx but it felt like the magical music carpet had been whipped from under our feet. Ten minutes of stamping eventually brought her back for one song but Gigi seemed reluctant to give more. Everyone lingered in the foyer afterwards, not quite believing it was over, as if she might move on to an Ethiopian restaurant, if only we hung around.

Despite the brevity of the performance, it was a special treat to hear contemporary Ethiopian music receive such a warm reception here. Life in New York hasn't made Gigi need to hide behind the walls of a recording studio. Nor has she forgotten her own Zion Roots. "The songs are Ethiopian songs," she says, "no matter what style I try to put them in." Gigi made us feel that way too, even if it was only for a short time.

Gigi - photo © Petulia Mattioli

First Published in News File Summer 2005

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