Inside the Ethiopian Merkato, everything smells like sage. The market sits in the middle of Little Ethiopia, a half-mile stretch of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants, Jewish thrift stores and an erotic-cake shop. Along the Merkato’s walls, DVDs and CDs showcase the profiles of African pop stars, and baseball hats emblazoned with green, yellow and red decals of the continent are stacked neatly against a shelf. The aroma of curry greets customers as they walk in the door, and, for a moment, the sage mingles with the restaurants’ scent wafting down Fairfax Avenue.
In front of a case of glass pipes and fake gold jewelry, Luke Top and Lewis Pesacov kneel and rifle through a bucket of cassettes. Top wears a fedora and Pesacov’s sunglasses rest upon his head. The two members of Los Angeles musical collective Fool’s Gold carefully inspect the Merkato’s choice collection of African hits. A young black child leans on the display, and stares at them, mouth slightly ajar. “Are you guys,” he starts, stops, squints his eyes suspiciously and continues, “famous?”
“Not quite yet,” Pesacov says, smiling, hands still full of tapes.
“We’re in a band, and we’re just trying to sound like this guy,” Top adds, holding up a tape with an African man, whose white robe fades into a cloud scape. “We’re not there yet,” Pesacov tells the boy, “but we’re getting there.”
As a matter of fact, Fool’s Gold’s self-titled polyglot pop album does sound like Mahmoud Ahmed (“Nadine”), the beloved Ethiopian soul singer on the cover of that tape. But their sound also gleans the rolling congas of Cuba (“Poseidon”), the guitar gymnastics of Mali’s Tinariwen (“The World Is All There Is”), and the saxophones from Detroit soul (“Night Dancing”).
“Some of our songs are a heartbeat, some singing and a melody, it’s so simple,” Top tells me over a lamb plate at Messob Restaurant, across from Merkato. “Purely visceral and emotional.”
The band members, a 10-person collective of friends and neighbors, represent a cultural cross-section. Some come from L.A. bands, including drummer Garrett Ray, guitarists Matt Popieluch and Pesacov of eclectic rockers Foreign Born; Brad Caulkins, saxophonist from Jail Weddings, and flutist Mark Noseworthy of Pink & Noseworthy; and Mike Tapper, ex-drummer from We Are Scientists. Keyboardist and backup vocalist Amir Kenan immigrated from Israel when he was young, and became friends with Top at a summer camp in Reseda when they were 10. The percussion team adds international flavors to the musical gumbo, with Argentine pop star (and Latin Grammy nominee) Erica Garcia, Ghana-trained percussion leader Orpheo McCord (who also plays with Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros), and Brazilian/Mexican visual artist Salvador Placencia.
“It comes from the same place, you know, the slave trade brought people from all different cultural points, like West Africa, Cuba, to Louisiana, to Brazil,” Pesacov says. “And there’s a point where they all overlap. Music from the Congo was really influenced by Latin music. So there is a place where African drumming overlaps with drum-line music in New Orleans, and where that overlaps with Samba in Brazil.”
Fool’s Gold is an extension of this cross-pollination, but not a means of culture-vulturism purveyed by other musicians, looking to capitalize on the next big craze, Top says. “It’s not like Diplo just playing a sample. We’re actually playing this music and digesting this music through our bodies,” he explains, diffusing the authenticity argument waged by so many music writers upon American bands with African influence.
“Ethiopians are influenced by Western music,” Top says, “and we’re bringing it back here, redigesting it into Western music. It’s a cycle.”
“It’s a dialogue. We’re praising it, and lifting it up. Through learning to play it, living and breathing it,” Pesacov says.
Pesacov’s musical background is far more heady than the others’: He studied under American avant-garde composer Mark Randall Osborn in Germany. “I’d spend seven months just writing one piano piece,” Pesacov says. When Randall Osborn died in 2002 in a traffic accident, Pesacov picked up his guitar again. “I haven’t figured out how it informs what I do now,” he says. “When I’m onstage [with Fool’s Gold], I’m not thinking. It’s coming from the body, not the mind.”
“That music lives in the brain, whereas Fool’s Gold lives in the heart,” Top interjects.
Top plays bass and sings lead vocals. His voice soars high or wavers like a shaking leaf as he sings in Hebrew. Like Mariah Carey, Ahmed and, more recently, Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projectors, Top practices melisma, the vocal act of singing a single syllable and extending it over many notes. This vacillating vocal style appears in African-American gospel and R ’n’ B, but is largely absent from most American music, especially rock. It’s the sound, to reduce it to its barest element, that sounds “foreign.”
“Ethiopian pop and Eritrean pop? I don’t know why I love it so much or identify with it, but I just do,” Top says. “Why do I feel this shit, why do I have to do this shit?”
Here, in the idea and culture of Ethiopia, Fool’s Gold takes root. After all, Ethiopia is a land of origins and sanctity. It is the cradle of civilization, home to Lucy, the 3.2 million–year-old Australopithecus skeleton, and early–20th century Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, exalted as god incarnate by Rastafarians.
Top’s mother, he says, thinks he has a spiritual connection to Ethiopia’s Jewish heritage. The Beta Israelites of Ethiopia believe themselves to be the lost tribe of Israel, and Emperor Selassie traced his lineage to King Solomon. Though many Ethiopian Jews were airlifted back to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984, and Operation Solomon in 1991, Top and Pesacov dream of going back and playing Hebrew Ethiopian soul for those left behind.
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The decision to sing in Hebrew was natural and unexpected, says Top. “When we started the band,” he explains, “[we] just jammed with no vision. Then it just seemed organic to sing in another language, because the music we were listening to [at that time] was in another language. So I was, like, BTW, I know another language.”
Top was born in Israel to an Iraqi mother and a Russian father. He came to California at 3 years of age, and lost the connection to his Israeli roots. “I grew up thinking I had no home,” he says, “and I didn’t really identify with the people here. Singing in Hebrew now helps me explore this side I barely know. It allowed me a freedom. There was a bit of a security blanket in knowing that people couldn’t understand what I was saying. They were connecting with the pure sound of my voice.”
Fool’s Gold aren’t world music, but they are worldly. They represent real stories of L.A., about immigration and assimilation, outcasts and innovators, co-existence. “Growing up with this strange duality maybe led me to seek out different [cultures] to identify with. I really identify with this meld of Eastern and Western music, it’s everything I am. I think we’re punk.”
Fool’s Gold perform at the Roxy with Metronomy on Friday, October 9.