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Singer Aster Aweke Wants to Awaken US Listeners to Sounds of `Ethiopi-pop'

SINCE the ``Graceland'' album, Paul Simon's 1986 collaboration with South African musicians, pop music from all over the African continent - Zaire, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Algeria, Morocco - has been flowing westward. But one of the African countries whose music hasn't yet made an impact in the United States is Ethiopia. About the only place you can hear Ethiopian pop music is over the sound system in an Ethiopian restaurant.

Now a singer named Aster Aweke is about to change all that. The first US album by this Ethiopian-born vocalist, who has been called the Aretha Franklin of her country, is due out this month on the Columbia label. Titled simply ``Aster Aweke,'' it was originally released in England by Triple Earth Records.

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Ms. Aweke has been living in the US, near Washington, D.C., for the past eight years, singing mostly in Ethiopian caf'es that serve that country's large expatriate community in the D.C. area. Before that, Aweke was (and still is) a very popular singer in her homeland, with 11 recordings to her credit.

In a recent telephone interview, Aweke talked about her music and her career. ``I had a hard time ... when I started singing back home,'' she said in a voice that rises and falls like her music. ``If you are a girl ... trying to sing, forget it. They don't like it. They want you to do something else - study something, but not music.''

The ``they'' to whom she refers includes friends and relatives who tried to discourage her music career. ``My family opposed me,'' Aweke says, ``but I just kept going and going ... That's my life. I tried everything, but music makes me so happy.''

Since her arrival in the US, things have been easier. But she still drives herself, working sometimes for 10 or more hours at a stretch writing songs - both lyrics and music. Right now Aweke is at work on a new album that will be released in early '91.

Her new association with a major American label means Aweke will reach a much larger audience than she has known before, even though she's already quite popular in Europe.

She has been described as a ``soulful'' singer whose style is influenced by jazz, but that style is also distinctly Ethiopian - incorporating complex rhythmic backgrounds and ornate, sinuous vocals that sound foreign to American ears. The typically Ethiopian instrumental backup, however, for many of her songs - two horns, bass, drums, keyboards, and lead guitar - is similar to what many American bands use.

UNTIL now, Aweke has been singing in her native tongue, Amharic, the Semitic language of Ethiopia. Now that she's recording in America, she is considering using English lyrics in some songs, even if just a few phrases. ``In the future ... mixing [languages] would be nice. I get up on stage, and they see the movement and hear the melody and the voice I express - [but] they don't know what I'm talking about. Sometimes that bothers me a lot. I see their faces, and they're looking for a meaning.''

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Though she considers verbal communication important in music, she also strongly believes that ``you shouldn't change your identity.''

Aweke loves American singers. Billie Holiday and Anita Baker are two of her favorites. In Ethiopia, she was accused of trying to imitate Western vocalists. ``I admire American singers,'' she says, ``they have great voices and they know how to use them. But I never wanted to compete with them - never, ever.''

As if to prove her point, on the album she includes ``Tizita'' (``Memories''), a traditional Ethiopian folk song backed only by an Ethiopian harp, a bowl lyre called a krar. Another song, ``Y'Shebullu'' (named after a river), is rich in pentatonic scales unfamiliar in American pop music. On other cuts, Aweke does indulge in some funky, bluesy riffs. But on first hearing, the sound will seem exotic to most Americans - less accessible than the music they've been hearing from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

With a little patience and persistence, however, Aweke's music becomes intriguing, suggesting that Aweke is probably just the person to awaken American audiences to the unique charms of ``Ethiopi-pop.''

Becoming a pop icon in the States isn't Aweke's goal, however. ``I don't want you to like my song immediately.'' she says. ``If you have courage to listen to it again and again, then it will never go out of your system. Music shouldn't be commercial. You have to do what you want and believe in it....

``I never expected people to listen to me, especially Americans. I keep working harder and harder to be myself, to put out on the stage what I feel.''

After the release of ``Aster'' and her second album (as yet untitled), Aweke plans to embark on a world tour.

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