Endeguena Mulu (Ethiopian Records) is a DJ and electronic music producer pioneering experimental electronic soundscapes with a distinct Ethiopian flavor. He has created the ‘Ethiopiyawi Electronic’ genre, fusing electronics, dubstep, and experimental tones with authentic Ethiopian sounds. While his primary audience is based in the US and Europe, ER has garnered a strong underground following in Addis. His most recent EP ‘Yefikir Edaye’ was released under the label Arcola this June.
For those who might not know you well, could you introduce yourself?
My name is Endeguena Mulu. I go by my stage name Ethiopian Records or E.R. I’m 31 years old and I’m an Ethiopiyawi Electronic musician.
How did you get started in music? When did you decide that that was the best way to express your identity?
I actually first started with writing. I wrote short stories not more than 10 pages long. Soon, I found myself interested in poetry. I also took art and music classes but it wasn’t really my thing. But then at 14, I found myself in front of a computer. I always tried to find something to occupy my time with back then because I had strict parents and couldn’t do much more than read at home. But ever since the 9th grade, I spent my time with a computer. I first started making music with this old software called Tuareg then moved on to a number of other platforms before settling with Ableton.
How did you come up with the name ‘Ethiopian Records’?
When I made music, even back in my Reggae and Hip Hop days, I always tried to insert my Ethiopian influences. It wasn’t a conscious effort; it’s just something that happened. Almost like a reflex, really. After a while, the people around me started calling me Ethiopian Records because of that and it just stuck.
For a name as big as yours, we don’t see you frequently in concerts and festivals. Why is that?
I have actually been focusing more on my production but if someone invites me over to play a show I like, I’ll definitely go.
Besides that, I think I need to amass a huge following before being able to play frequent live shows. I mean, I have a solid following – people who have educated themselves on my music and love what I do. And that’s really amazing, I’m eternally grateful. But most of my music is online and getting internet access here is tough; so I can’t say I’m surprised that a good chunk of my fans aren’t in Ethiopia. That’s why I don’t play live very often.
What pushed you into the Ethiopiyawi electronic music you now produce?
I don’t think there are any conscious decisions when it comes to art. I think it’s all about how you feel and express yourself. And I grew into the music I make in that exact way.
What’s your take on our music industry?
Do we have a music industry? We don’t have record labels in Ethiopia; we don’t have an infrastructure that supports artists here, a system that educates people about music. Our older generation had some of that, through government support (which has its own ups and downs). But it was something. I feel like we don’t have that now. We skipped a lot of steps when it came to art in general. There’s almost no support for artists. I think painters have it slightly better, but only barely.
Because of the lack of help, I don’t blame the musicians that choose to follow the same cut-dry route most others do. The audience isn’t presented with much of a choice so it’s not surprising that we’re suffering from a lack of diversity in genre. If you take a look at Kenya or South Africa it’s completely different. That being said, in Ethiopia, I only see people who make music here and there, not an industry. It’s more accurate to call it a music scene instead. There are plenty of people who produce their art underground – which is not a bad thing. When you’re not big, you make your craft for you. For instance, I don’t really care what people think of my music because I do it for me, without the worry of people liking it. That’s the pro of being underground; you can perfect your work on your time. It’s quite hard but I’m still paying my rent so I guess I’m alright.
With the sudden pour of Ethiopian EDM and Electronic artists in recent years, what advice would you give to them as someone who has experience navigating the scene?
Well, I can’t say anything as a full-proof advice but I can share what I’ve learned. When I was younger, I tried to produce what I would call “TV Music”. I’m talking about the kind of music you would see on DSTV for instance. I didn’t hate it. It was fun. It’s not like I was forcing myself to do it. But I feel like that perspective in music is completely tapped out and oversaturated, in my opinion. I mean I’m glad I went through that phase because through it I’ve learned techniques I employ to this day. And I’m not saying people should stop producing that kind of music. If you like it then go for it. But don’t complain about how tough it is to break in. There are too many people doing the same thing, which for me, is kind of sad because there is so much going on around that could inspire musicians.
The reason I subconsciously put in Ethiopian elements into my music was because it spoke to me. It was what I was surrounded by wherever I went. I heard it on the radio, at weddings, in the songs my grandmother used to listen to. Whether I liked it or not, it had imprinted on me. What I’m basically trying to say is, people shouldn’t push away from who they are.
Also, when it comes to marketing yourself, take baby steps. The big stage isn’t always as glamorous as they make it seem. The value system for it nowadays, compared to a small intimate setting, is based on how much money you can make. It doesn’t matter if your music is good or not. And that is just completely wrong in my eyes. Focus on enjoying what you’re doing first – it will grow eventually. It’s not supposed to escalate overnight because if it does, it’s going to die overnight as well.
What, in your opinion, is a limitation of electronic music as a genre?
Technically speaking, I don’t think it’s limited at all. Even the people who consider themselves avant-garde haven’t tapped into more than the surface of the potential it has.
I believe the main limitation of electronic music comes from its one-sided perception worldwide. And not just that, it’s also one-sided in the instruments and production techniques the mainstream uses. It’s catered to the western cultures. The instruments we employ aren’t catered to Azmari’s or traditional musicians. But electronic music as a concept is much wider than the music you hear in clubs these days. The other limitation in the perception of electronic music is that it isn’t considered a team effort. It’s almost always seen as a one-man show. Producers don’t really work with live musicians. But in the instances they do, it has a more organic feel to it than, say, a well rehearsed pop song.
What impact do you want to make on Ethiopian music scene?
It’s the same thing I want to bring to the Ethiopian society in general. When taking the internet as an example, while it was starting people were like, “this is it for the major music corporations”. But what is the reality now? Companies such as Sony are thriving on the internet. The internet is just a tool, it doesn’t make something happen on its own. It’s about how you use it. That’s the essence of any tool. And the reason why I think there is no industry here is because music is all focused on selling the concerts now. We have lost the essence of it. But who goes to your concerts? Don’t you want to know? Do you want just a 100,000 privileged people to come to your concerts? Don’t you want a 100 million audience? Instead of having 5, 10, 100 musicians that are revered, wouldn’t you rather have 200,000 musicians that are not just respected here but respected worldwide? People complain. They ask, “Why isn’t Ethiopian music breaking worldwide?” It’s because we don’t have enough musicians to do so. And I want to contribute to that. For me, I want to bring traditional music forward in an eternally Ethiopian way, without losing its essence.
You’ve released 4 EP’s so far. Do you plan on releasing a full length album any time soon?
I’m producing one now but I’m not sure when it’s going to be done. I’ve been working on it for 2 years now. I finished a bunch of tracks, I just have to rework them and choose which ones to include in the album. I’m basically making music every day so when I think I’m finished, this new track comes around and I’m like … I’m definitely not done.
How did you decide to sign to the US-based label 1432 R?
Well they were offering me a platform when virtually no one else did. This other artist, Dawit Eklund, introduced me to them actually and they liked my music, understood it. There was another label I was talking to in England but they were dragging their feet.
Music is about the moment and I felt like that was the moment for my EP so I went with 1432 R.
What are some events you have taken part in? What do you like to see in a show you are featured in?
I’ve played a couple of shows here, Selam Festival being one of them. I also played a show in Mannheim, Germany. Those are about the only major ones I can list. I think Mikael Seifu played more shows in Europe than I did.
As for what I want in a show, I just want to express myself freely and play something I believe in. I also want to have fun and see the audience enjoy themselves. If a concert fits those criteria, I’m happy.
As a producer, what kind of impact do you think concerts and similar events play on a musician’s individual growth?
When you’re an instrumentalist, live shows are an obvious necessity for growth. I don’t know if there is an instrumentalist out there who doesn’t like to play live because it’s somewhat of a contradiction. But when you’re a producer, the lines start to get blurry. I’m sure there are plenty of people who are satisfied with just producing, but that’s not really the case for me. I think the studio life can be very lonely. The energy I get when I play and DJ is unparalleled. I like being in the studio but I need to play live as well. I don’t think I can grow without it because you see how people react to the music, how they interact with it. And after the show some people come by to tell you they like your work. It’s just all this positive energy you get in the studio magnified by thousands.
Besides, if you don’t share art, I don’t think it has much relevance. It’s like it doesn’t exist.
Which local and international artists have you had the opportunity to work with?
I’m actually forming a band with these 3 guys named Ermias, Wondwossen, and Wallelign. Other than them, I’ve collaborated with Mikael Seifu. We had a group called ‘Gold and Wax’ and we used to work together frequently but we haven’t put anything out in a few years. We’ve kind of decided to focus more on our own things. I’ve also worked with Zion Rebels as well as Mizan. I’ve also played live with a Senegalese musician named Ebaku. I’ve featured Nardos Tesfahun, an azmari, on my song ‘In my sleep’. I usually work with underground artists and traditional musicians so I wouldn’t be surprised if you aren’t familiar with most of the people I listed.
Is there any last remark you’d like to make or people you’d like to thank?
I’d like to thank my parents. They both passed away a couple of years back and even though they weren’t outright supportive of what I did, they never tried to hold me back. My mom was very religious but she didn’t stop me from producing. I see that as support. My dad was more open; he let me do what I wanted. But he just wanted me to get a job that pays bills.
I’d also like to mention that people tried calling me an azmari in a condescending way but I took it as a compliment. Because it really is one to me. I started doing this Ethiopiawi Electronic thing due to my awe of azmaris. There is no other musician dedicated so much to his craft as an azmari. When you become a traditional musician, there is no financial compensation. You get into it purely because you love it. And that, for me, is priceless. So I owe it to them as well.
Ethiopian Records will start playing shows on a few radio stations along with international FM radio shows. If you want to share the platform with Ethiopian Records, you can send him your music work to his email firstname.lastname@example.org