Getatchew Mekurya, a saxophonist with an ardent, full-throated style who worked predominantly in Ethiopia for decades before being embraced by a worldwide audience, died on April 4 in Addis Ababa. He was 81.
The cause was an infection in his legs as a result of diabetes, said Terrie Hessels, a founding member of the Dutch punk band the Ex, which toured and recorded with Mr. Mekurya over the last dozen years, fueling his late-career renaissance.
Mr. Mekurya (his name is pronounced GET-a-chew Me-KUR-ya) had an imposing sound and presence, blowing in declamatory gusts with a fervent, quavering vibrato. He found renown outside his native country after one of his albums from the early 1970s, “Negus of Ethiopian Sax,” was released on CD in 2003 as part of the popular world-music reissue series “Éthiopiques.”
His rediscovery led to collaborations with musicians from far beyond his home turf, including the saxophonist Russ Gershon and his band, the Either/Orchestra, from Cambridge, Mass. The Ex sought out Mr. Mekurya and invited him to a festival in Amsterdam, where they struck an energetic rapport. They released a collaborative album, “Moa Anbessa,” in 2006.
That album, which set Mr. Mekurya’s fervent cry against churning guitars and bleating horns, led to a spate of concert bookings in more than a dozen countries. A potent follow-up, “Y’Anbessaw Tezeta,” was released in 2012, capturing Mr. Mekurya’s road-tested bond with the Ex and bringing vibrant new life to compositions he had originally recorded 40 years earlier.
Getatchew Mekurya was born on March 14, 1935, in Yifat, Ethiopia. As a child he learned to play traditional folk instruments: the kirar, a six-string lyre, and the masenqo, a single-string bowed lute. By his teens he had switched to saxophone and clarinet, instruments popularized in Ethiopia under the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, who had a fondness for military brass bands.
Mr. Mekurya spent his early career as a member of government-sponsored orchestras in Addis Ababa, starting at age 13 with the Municipality Band and continuing with the house band of the Haile Selassie I Theater. Later, as a member of the elite Police Orchestra, he often backed popular singers like Hirut Beqele and Alemayehu Eshete.
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As early as the 1950s, Mr. Mekurya was using his tenor saxophone to emulate the Ethiopian chants known as shellela, traditionally shouted by warriors going into battle. His quest for an impassioned, expressly vocal quality on the saxophone yielded a startlingly original sound, though it would later elicit comparisons to the 1960s free-jazz maverick Albert Ayler, whom he claimed at the time never to have heard.
Mr. Mekurya stood apart from the appealingly sinuous hybrid known as Ethio-jazz, spearheaded by the vibraphonist, pianist and composer Mulatu Astatke. Rather than a cosmopolitan form of jazz with Ethiopian influence, Mr. Mekurya made a music of gruff, earthy incantation, rooted in folkloric custom. He often performed in warrior garb, making the connection explicit.
When “Negus of Ethiopian Sax” was originally released on Philips Ethiopia, it was a showcase for shellela, with Mr. Mekurya’s tenor ululating over electric bass, organ, piano and drums, in hypnotic triplet meter. The music’s brazen assurance still resonated decades later: One track, simply titled “Shellela,” provided the core sample for “I Come Prepared,” a 2009 single by the rapper K’Naan and the singer Damian Marley.
Mr. Mekurya’s survivors include nine children and numerous grandchildren. His wife, Ayalech, died last year.
Among his memorable public triumphs was a 2008 Lincoln Center Out of Doors concert in New York, featuring the Either/Orchestra and Alemayehu Eshete as well as the singer Mahmoud Ahmed. Mr. Mekurya performed with the Ex, but he earned one of the evening’s loudest cheers with a vaulting unaccompanied improvisation.
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