Born and raised in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Abeba, Samuel Yirga knew from a young age that he would like to become a musician. With hours spent listening to music from the traditional sounds and melodies of Ethiopia to the foreign sounds of American R & B, the songs were ingrained in his memory as if a radio were playing non-stop in his head.
Despite a number of obstacles including family and cultural restrictions, his destiny of creating a unique expression of Ethio-jazz began to manifest when he auditioned for the famed “Yared School of Music” in Addis Abeba at age 16. Out of 2500 students who auditioned, Samuel “Sammy” came in third and was given an opportunity to train at the prestigious academy despite never having touched an instrument. The audition had been conducted simply by taping out rhythms with a coin on the top of a piano. It was immediately evident to the teachers at the school that Sammy possessed a special, inherent understanding of rhythm that can’t simply be taught.
With unbridled enthusiasm and endless commitment, Sammy embraced the learning process often spending up to 12 hours a day practicing and honing his craft. Days would go by that he would forget to eat as he dove into his musical discipline. This carried on for 3 years straight and though his school was committed to the classics, he would find himself interpreting Ethiopian traditional melodies and songs in a new and fresh contemporary expression. There was little room in the school’s mind for deviation, as the focus was simply classical music. Sammy couldn’t stop the songs of his youth from manifesting on the keys of his piano. This twist on the classics and incorporation of what the teachers called “Simple” music caused many on the staff to question his commitment to the classics. It wasn’t long before he was asked to leave the school, but by that time, he was playing Ethio-jazz with one band, playing straight up jazz at a nearby nightclub, experimenting with salsa and performing classical music at venues around the city. He played with the Addis funk band, Nubian Ark and is a member of the Ethio/UK collective Dub Colossus.
His brilliance was noted by music lovers both inside and outside Ethiopia. He had cultivated a following and was soon embraced by UK producer Nick Page (Aka Dubulah) After playing and recording with the Ethio/UK collective Dub Colossus, He was signed to Peter Gabriel’s iconic record label “Real World”. He recorded two albums with Dub Colossus including “Addis Through the Looking Glass” and “A Town Called Addis”.
In 2011 released an 5-song EP entitled “Hagere”. “Hagere” which means “My Country” contains a musical collage that is both bold and sensitive, often improvised and always impassioned. Featuring mostly Ethiopian music with a jazz-twist, the songs contain and array of traditional instruments including the masenqo (a single-stringed bowed lute commonly found in traditional Ethiopian music) and kebero (drum) punctuated with brass and dominated by Sammy’s keys. Nick Page, also known as “Dubulah”, (renowned for his production of Transglobal Underground, Syriana and Dub Colossus ) produced this debut effort which met with accolades from critics worldwide.
His follow-up debut full length release came out the following year in 2012. “Guzo”, an Amharic word for “journey” is exactly that. This collection of songs is truly journey through music that explores Ethiojazz, funk, American jazz, Latin and classical music. His collaborations with musicians from around the world, including vocals by the “Creole Choir of Cuba”, Mel Gara, a Brittish singer whose origins are in Iraq and Nicollete, a singer from Nigeria famous for her collaborations with Massive Attack were compelling and exciting. This release garnered critical acclaim on a worldwide scale. Sammy was featured in a PBS live performance in Australia to support the release.
Following the release of Guzo, Sammy performed at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (2012), Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel, Womad UK and Las Palmas. Also performed with Dub Colossus at Galstonbury, Roskilde, Womad UK, Womad Australia, Womad New Zealand and Las Palmas and many more.
- Rhapsody’s top 30 world music album and top 50 albums of all kinds
- ITunes US and UK best album of the year
- Named Top 10 Albums of 2012 by Huffington Post
- Spain University Radio Best Album
- Recommended Artist of Africa on Africa jazz network
- BBC Giles Peterson 2012 best albums
- ABC Australia best album of 2012
- Best album of 2012 on the Art Desk
Along with the many glowing reviews for his music, in 2014, Sammy was listed as one of the most influential 50 Most influential people by Paris based magazine, “The Africa Report”. He was also featured in the New York Times on November 13, 2014 on the jazz scene in Ethiopia.
His track with Meklit Hadero “Kemekem” (I like your Afro) was recently named by the BBC as the Top 10 African tracks of 2015.
In 2016, Sammy is currently working on a new release as well as participating in a project called “Sacred Imaginations” with vocalist Susheela Raman and 18 artists from Eastern Christian countries. He has three tracks that were licensed for a 2016 movie release about Nelson Mandela.
Sammy has much in store in the coming year as he continues to tour worldwide and share his unique musical expression. 2016 will open new roads and open Sammy to a new audience in the US and abroad.
Countries he has performed in:
- New Zealand