Baaro...from the roots of Solomon.

If the essence of roots conscious Reggae is the glory of Haile Selassie and the spirit of African culture, then a Reggae band from Ethiopia should draw more than a passing glance. Musical ties with Reggae's royal family and roots planted firmly in the soil of Zion itself make a good argument that the Chicago-based Baaro is one of the most unique groups in contemporary Reggae and world music.

The Baaro story began in Ethiopia where Dallol was founded by brothers Zeleke and Mulu Gessesse in the late 1970s. Dallol migrated to Chicago in 1980 where it began to build a Reggae scene at the legendary Wild Hare Club. Baaro earned its musical letters in the Windy City through the early 1980s by fusing the energy of traditional Ethiopian dance rhythms to roots Reggae inspired by Bob Marley.

Dallol eventually caught the ear and captured the imagination of Rita Marley. In 1986, she produced Land of the Genesis, the seminal work of Dallol -- Ethiopia's first reggae band and evolutionary predecessor to Baaro. The album, released on Tuff Gong in Jamaica and Meadowlark (Shanachie) in the U.S., unfortunately suffered from a glossy overproduction and didn't do justice to Dallol's powerful live performances. One of the better cuts from Land of the Genesis can be found on the Marley Family Album, released on Heartbeat on Bob's fiftieth birthday.

One of Bob Marley's plans before his passing was to work with Ethiopian musicians. When he died in 1981, Rita kept the vision alive and created the opportunity for her son to follow that path. Dallol began work with Ziggy Marley after the release of Land of the Genesis, and backed Marley on the platinum, Grammy winning Conscious Party album, and the One Bright Day album, in addition to the world tours supporting each.

After the Ziggy Marley years, Dallol split into two bands, Baaro and Gizzae. Baaro is made up of the Gessesse brothers ( Zeleke on bass/vocals and Mulu on guitar), and original Dallol member Mulaku Reta on guitar-synthesizer. Joining the original Dallol core are younger brother Fikru Gessesse on drums, and the lone American, Chicagoan Jasper Stone on keyboards.

According to bassist /vocalist Zeleke Gessesse, Baaro's Ethiopian roots are fundamental to its existence. "It's our life. It's a revelation. Bob (Marley) cried out about his Ethiopianism and the origin of man. The Rasta way of life originated there." The band's name comes from an ancient tributary to the Nile River. The valley has yielded some of the oldest human skeletal remains and therefore evidence of Ethiopia as the true "land of the Genesis," according to Gessesse.

As a Rastafarian from Ethiopia, Zeleke Gessesse sees the philosophy of Rastafari from a unique viewpoint. He is quick to emphasize that Rasta is a "way of life" as opposed to a religion. "Religion is a myth. The spirit is in me and you. God is a word. Word comes out of man, so God is in man. It's a way of life based on the One God, One Aim, One Destiny concept that Marcus Garvey preached."

Gessesse prefers to call Baaro's version of reggae 'Ethiopian,' but he says categorizing music too much can be misleading. "For example, rap in our history was there five or six hundred years ago. When a tribe was angry or wanted to tell their grief to the king, they would just chant."

Many songs in the Baaro repertoire, such as the title track to their recent release, Time, are sung and chanted in Amharic, the Ethiopian tongue. Zeleke explains that the lyrics to "Time" are actually from a 700-year-old Ethiopian monastic chant. The spirituality inherent in this track is revealing of the unique strengths of the band. At its best, Baaro's Ethiopian rhythms are as captivating as any in contemporary African music. Another cut from Time, called "Chebelew," conjures up imagery of an ancient desert trek by horseback. The furiously pulsating rhythm of the track makes the experience strikingly real.

Baaro also masters traditional Jamaican styles that roots rockers love. Baaro's cover of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down" is ingeniously wedded to a rock steady groove very similar to Bob Marley's "Soul Rebel." The band has also been known to play one of the best cover versions of Bob Marley's "War" being done this side of Addis Ababa. Another element in the Baaro formula is a touch of funk, largely due to Zeleke's bass playing, which some say is as funky as Mandrill meets Fela inna chocolate bar.

Observing the current climate of the reggae scene, Gessesse feels the music changing back to more traditional styles. "(Dancehall) has done a certain positive input in terms of commercializing the music, but it's gonna come back to the roots, because that's the foundation. It can't go away. That's the base of the whole thing. The time is coming for awareness, very (much) less slackness. Singing is coming (back) very strong."

Gessesse notes that the absence of programmed tracks and sampling in Baaro's music is a result of lessons learned on tour with Marley. "Reggae is natural music. You can't program it and make it work. With Ziggy, everything we programmed didn't work. Everything we played, live, it came off. It's just part of the nature of the music."

Baaro sets usually include a nod to the Marley years with a song like "Tomorrow People." Gessesse says the creative interplay between Marley and his band worked two ways. "We freshened up (his) music with the African influence, and he showed us where we can take the music. We're still very very close (to Ziggy). It's beyond influence. It's part of revelation."

One of Gessesse's favorite memories of working with Marley was when the band wrote "Black My Story," after a gig at Amherst College in Massachusetts. It was a Black History month (concert), and it was all white kids in the audience." The rhythm track came together spontaneously in a soundcheck -- a magical moment. The final version on One Bright Day features the Amharic background harmonies of the Gessesse brothers.

For Baaro, the future looks irie, but the present is definitely to be enjoyed as well. "We've been up there, and well be up there again," says Gessesse.

Time will certainly tell.

Copyright 1994 Carter Van Pelt