Ethiopia is a closely watched country among musicians, thanks to rhythms, melodies and expressive voices that you won't find elsewhere in Africa. Behind the Kutu project is one of the best singers in Addis Ababa's tumultuous music scene and a prodigy of French jazz, violinist Théo Ceccaldi. Kutu's music differs from classical ethio-jazz, pioneered by vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke, on several levels. The focus is not on jazz harmonies, but on trance-like rhythms that are reinforced by a strong dose of electronics. The melodic line is carried by an explosive female voice, the instrumental solos above it creating another layer in a call-and-response method similar to classic blues. Violinist Théo Ceccaldi studied classical music but fell into jazz in his later years. At the age of twenty-four he formed a trio with which he combined chamber music with improvisation, and at thirty he was named Musician of the Year by the French monthly Jazz Magazine. In 2019, he went to Addis Ababa for inspiration, where the Kutu project was born.
Singer Hewan Gebrewold has been a member of the Jano Band since 2011, which has been the most successful band on the Ethiopian scene for ten years, performing in the US, Europe and the Middle East. But while Jano Band preferred electric guitars and a rock format, Kutu relies heavily on club electronics, improvisation, Ethiopian roots and musical invention. The name Kutu is derived from an Ethiopian town near the border with Sudan, 700 km west of Addis Ababa.
The group’s music is a vibrant sequence of constant change, with inspirations including the pentatonic scales that give Ethiopian melodies their unmistakable shape, and spiritual rituals. Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries, but unlike in Europe, giant kebero drums are still used in worship. In addition to violinist Théo Ceccaldi, the band’s prominent mainstay is drummer Cyril Atef, a musician a generation older than his colleagues and a veteran player in dozens of top ensembles. Born in Berlin to a French mother and Iranian father, he spent his musical beginnings in Los Angeles and later became the most sought-after studio drummer when he settled in Paris. He has contributed to albums by artists such as Souad Massi, Salif Keita, Gotan Project and Winston McAnuff & Fixi.