On the Saturday night of ATP, while watching the fantastic Bitch Magnet in the Reds venue, I noticed a small wedge-shaped area on the right of the stage that wasn’t being used for anything. I started thinking about how good it would be to be taking photographs with the camera actually on the stage as opposed to from the audience’s point of view. I made some enquiries the next morning, and again thanks to some incredibly helpful folk who work at ATP, I found myself later that day setting up the 4×5 on the stage just as The Ex were getting ready to play.
I have a dim memory of seeing The Ex in Dublin a long, long time ago but have missed them every time they have played in recent years. Their gig at ATP was a collaboration with Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria. Anyone familiar with the Ethiopiques series of albums will know what an incredibly rich musical tradition there is there, but the whole history of European musicians collaborating with African ones is not a particularly inspiring one. Why do people assume that all you have to do is take something good, mix it with something else that’s good, and you get a result that’s even better? Usually it’s worse. Usually, far worse. Why do Western musicians think you can parachute in somewhere for a week, get some “local” musicians down to the studio to “jam”, and not end up with something that’s just garbage?
The Ex however are an entirely different story. These guys have put in the work. They have got in the van, several times, and toured Ethiopia, up and down the country, wherever they can find somewhere to play. They’ve studied this stuff intensely, collaborating with Ethiopian musicians both over there and back in Europe. They are not some fly-by-night act looking to add some exoticism to their recordings, they are deeply immersed in this music, and approach it with the respect and openness that it deserves. And they have hit upon an incredibly simple but smart way of approaching a collaboration with Mekuria. They haven’t concocted some sort of hybrid music, they are not playing their music and getting him to sprinkle some Ethiopian magic on top, they just basically play Ethiopian music. They don’t change their style all that much, they are still playing as a fairly intense punk group with a load of battered old guitars, but the actual songs they are playing are Ethiopian standards with Mekuria leading on sax (at least as far as I know, I’m no expert on this). Happily, it really, really works – and the rawness and energy of it brings it much closer to what I imagine some band playing in a nightclub in Addis Adaba in the 1970s would have actually been like, if not exactly in sound, then certainly in spirit.
The photo at the top was taken while Mekuria was doing an instrumental duet with the drummer from The Ex. That’s why the other two lads are sitting down taking a breather. The intricate pattern of light trails you can see in the picture are caused by the movements of his saxophone over the course of the exposure, which was 5 minutes and 20 seconds long. You can see the faint outline of Mekuria himself in front of the mic on the left of the picture. Overall, an incredible gig and an incredible way to experience it. Big thanks to Deborah and Stone (that’s really his name) at ATP for facilitating this. My only regret is that I was in such a rush setting up that I didn’t get to speak to any of the guys from The Ex beforehand to let them know what I was doing. They were probably wondering what the weirdo with the improbably large camera was doing beside them on the stage ….