Iri’s unique approach to music
Iri Di has been making music for many years and finally settling in Addis has reinvigorated her interest in the local music world. Born Iri Dimako Chordi, Iri’s inviting vocals and warm composition make her a standout artist.
Her music is a beautiful hybrid of traditional Ethiopian scales, melodies that come from her roots in Hamer and modern soul, R&B and pop genres. Her single Waymala dropped a year ago and was warmly received.
“Humans create cycles, that’s what I've understood in life. Waymala means wait; it’s saying let's wait for each other. Every word I've chosen in those lyrics is synonymous with circle. The way Hamer people dance is by making a circle of men and women on each side and people dance in the middle. When people join the circle gets bigger. When they leave it gets smaller. We’re moving to create balance. If you have cycles in your mind, everything we do is ritual. Cycles of our planet become visible.”
Her newest EP 24 is based upon this premise. Each track combines to make a full day going through the sun rising and morning rituals in the track Welcome Rain and Buna then moves through the day and into the night with each song.
“My voice is my first tool of expression. Putting words to what you feel gives it double power.” Amplified by heartwarming melodies, powerful lyrics and Iri’s mesmerising voice, 24 adds a much needed dimension to contemporary Ethiopian music.
“I want my music to be a message of hope,” she explains regarding her single Late Night Buna. The track is a combination of two songs in her EP 24, Late Night and Buna. The two parts are linked by an original poem, smoothing the transition between night and day. In the music video directed by Michiel Robberecht, Iri pays homage to coffee and Addis Ababa. Dressed in one of a kind outfits of tarp and coffee sacks made by designers Kunjina Tesfaye and Anna Getaneh, Iri sits atop piles of coffee as the music builds to a caffeinated rhythm.
The Ethiopian-French artist gets her musical influence from various sources but her upbringing in the Omo Valley cannot be understated. “The Hamer are musical people. There are strong melodies and polyphones people create on a daily basis. That’s the foundation of my musical journey. I was very attracted by that west African sound too. Music created in Hamer sounds kind of the same as that. Same scale, rhythmically repeated words,” she explains. “My dad had a collection of CDs. classical, jazz, blues, hiphop, rap, all the 90s R&B, soul. I grew up with that. I remember when I was 9 or 10 my dad played a lot of Erykah Badu. I listened to Aster. I love Gigi. I still listen to those. I go back to where my sound comes from. I picked up on those unconsciously and I have developed my own musical identity.”
A short visit for her sister’s wedding turned into settling permanently in Ethiopia, visiting her family, traveling the country and soaking in the culture.
Her French heritage and life abroad has influenced her music but Iri identifies with her home country a lot. “I want to represent the people that recognize me as Ethiopian. To be in a place where I don’t have to prove anything.” she explains. Iri goes on to describe instances where she’s faced confusion and outright opposition when she tells people she’s Ethiopian.
“Me being Ethiopian is one thing but singing in English is really hard to understand for Ethiopians. I decided to stay here because I want my musical career to stay here. I want to be the yarada lij that people know about. I want Ethiopians to recognize me as their own.” Born in Ethiopia but spending the majority of her life abroad has influenced Ethiopian audiences.
Iri describes her artistic process as deconstruction of Ethiopian identity both for Ethiopian audiences and for fans around the world. “There are cliches we all associate with Ethiopia, the netela, buna, 70s jazz but Ethiopia is so much more than that.” Rejecting her identity and reclaimed home country can also be associated with the continued erasure of certain ethnic groups from Ethiopian history and contemporary identity.
Writing poetry was a part of her life from a young age and transitioning to writing lyrics is only natural. The words in 24 are aware but kind, giving a message of hope while tackling complex subjects, as in the track The World. “It was an important subject for me to tackle as a young woman, she explains.
“There’s a lot we haven’t done,” she says referring to the musical stagnation from the 1970s to the present moment. “There’s something missing musically. There are a lot of young musicians creating songs using Ethiopian sounds and rhythms in an accessible way. Artists like Ahadu Beatz, Ethiopian Records, Orphan; they’re from my generation. They’re mixing modern sounds with traditional melodies. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics you can bump to the beat. That’s a way of inviting people in.” Addis is alive, it’s boiling, there’s music about to be born, she says and she’s about to bring something different, whether it’s sound or another artistic expression.
There is something missing but Iri has made Addis her home to be part of the cultural progress. Sometimes things feel closed off but there is hope yet. “I have been meeting incredible, talented people of my generation. We all really want change. If it’s not going to happen right now what we’re doing now can encourage and inspire the next generation.”