If you've heard Ethiopian music, the chances are that you've heard the bold tenor saxophone vibrato of Gétatchèw Mèkurya. Ever-present on the recordings of the '60s and '70s, much of which was found on the amazing Ethiopiques series, his career found a larger international audience in his later days with his work with the Dutch anarcho-punk band The Ex, Boston-based creative fusion ensemble Either/Orchestra, the group of Fendika, Indian singer Susheela Raman and others, and his music was sampled by K'Naan and Damian Marley.
The native of Yifat, Ethiopia began his studies on the traditional instruments the krar and masenqo (stringed instruments) before taking to the saxophone and clarinet. Around the age of 14 he became a professional musician with a band in Addis Ababa and in '55 joined Haile Salassie's royal house band. He worked with popular Ethiopian singers such as Alemayehu Ashete, Ayalew Mesfin, Hirut Beqele, Mahmoud Ahmed and others. He also recorded a classic album of his own in 1970, Negus of Ethiopian Sax. That album was reissued as part of Ethiopiques and he began collaborating and touring internationally with The Ex in 2004.
He was notable as well for recording the first instrumental version of a shellela, a traditionally vocal song for warriors going into battle, and Gétatchèw would appear onstage in full warrior outfit (something that I got to witness in person when I saw him play in Boston). As well, there are recordings of him in the 1950's blowing away in a style similar to free-jazz (a genre which had not existed yet and that Gétatchèw knew nothing about until much later).
Check out this 2007 clip of the legend in action:
Here's one from his classic album Negus of Ethiopian Sax:
Here's a cut from the late '50s, blowing away like a free-jazz radical in a government-run orchestra:
Here he is performing with The Ex, live in Slovenia in 2009: