There’s no mistaking Aster Aweke’s primary influences. Listen, for example, to her early ’90s albums Aster and Kabu, with their Memphis-style horn section, soulful keyboards and crackling drums, and it’s immediately apparent why she’s sometimes been dubbed the “African Aretha Franklin.” Lady Soul, along with the Godfather, James Brown, and vocally versatile jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, loom largely in her roots, her deep R&B/funk groove a reminder that bridges are meant to be crossed. Aweke doesn’t leave the traditional behind by any means; she respects it, she draws from it, but she’s never beholden to it.
And then there’s that voice, as supple and mystifying an instrument as has ever been. Simultaneously tamed and wild, its flights of fancy are wondrous things. You can’t help but be awed.
Aweke was born in Gondar, Ethiopia, some time between the late ’50s and 1961, depending on which account you believe. She grew up in the capital city of Addis Ababa and began singing as a teen, working with several groups, most notably the Roha Band. As Ethiopia entered a period of unrest following the death of iconic leader Haile Selassie, Aweke left for the United States. She became increasingly popular within the Ethiopian community in the States, performing in restaurants and clubs, particularly in her adopted home of Washington, D.C., one of the largest Ethiopian expat communities in the country.
Aweke signed to the small Triple Earth label in 1989, and the two aforementioned albums were then picked up by Columbia Records, which had high hopes for her commercial potential in the West. The sales didn’t pan out but Aweke has continued to record and tour—her 1995 Live In London CD is an excellent primer that displays her charismatic appeal to the fullest.