Tommy T (Thomas T. Gobena). Photo by Linda Fittante.
Tadias: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where you grew up, who were the main influences in your life? How you got into music?
Tommy T: I grew up in Addis and moved to the United States when I was 16. I can say that we didn’t have access to a lot of western music at that time except for the work of artists such as Michael Jackson and Madonna. But my brother, Henock was into music and he had an acoustic guitar. I never thought of being a musician then, but I would often play with my brother’s guitar…it was just a toy. But when my brother came to America and became a professional bass musician and sent back an album that he worked on called Admas I started to think about music in a more serious way. I don’t want to say the album was futuristic, but it was quite a forward-looking album. For its time it was unique in combining Ethiopian with Reggae, Samba and various other sounds. It came out as a limited edition and only on vinyl. I was going to school at Saint Joseph’s in Ethiopia at the time and some of my friends played in the school band. I was around them a lot and learned about music from them as well. I never had a formal music education. I just picked up guitar and then switched to bass when I heard my brother play bass guitar on the Admas album.
Tadias: Any idols?
Tommy T: I really don’t have many idols but the closest one is Bob Marley. And it’s not just the music but also his message. Listening to Bob Marley & the Wailers I was introduced to their bassist – Aston “Family Man” Barrett. A lot of the melodies that people love in Bob Marley’s songs wouldn’t mean anything without the bass line. “Waiting in Vain” is one example where the bass line is the melody. Aston is one of my strongest influences. When I came to the United States my brother introduced me to Motown songs. That’s how I discovered bassist James Jamerson, perhaps one of the greatest bassists of all time. He was a legend by any account. I eventually also spent time with Bill Laswell who produced Gigi’s albums. I saw how he produced music and sound in his studio, which has shaped my interpretation of music. I’m into ALL these people (laugh).
Tadias: Before you joined Gogol Bordello you worked with several other artists and managed an independent label. What was that like?
Tommy T: Actually, I had a label with my brother called C-Side Entertainment. The whole idea was to give mainstream access to African artists. Obviously we started with our own people, such as members of Admas band. I then worked with Gigi and Grammy-nominated singer Wayna as a manager, and I was able to broaden my knowledge and my network.
Tadias: Your label C-Side Entertainment. Where does the name come from?
Tommy T: You know music records have an A-side and B-side. We are the C-side – the third dimension. Or should I add the undiscovered dimension. .
Tadias: What adjectives would you use to describe your tour experience with Gogol Bordello?
Tommy T: (laughs) Beautiful Life!
Tadias: Can you elaborate?
Tommy T: Why? I get to play in front of millions of people. In a world where there are so many things going wrong, this is one moment where music makes you feel inclusive, not excluded. We have band members from nine different countries and together we create a universal vibe. We have good people who come to see us play. Yesterday I played in Spain, then today another country. Different people, different language but same energy. It’s beautiful. It’s music without boundaries. We put on one of the best shows and it’s always fun. I also just want to say that in 2007 the BBC Awards for World Music went to Gogol Bordello in the Americas category, and to Ethiopia’s Mahmoud Ahmed in the Africa category. That was a great moment.
Tadias: What do you love most about playing music?
Tommy T: People. I love people. I love hanging around people. I’m really the worst sort of loner. Music forces me to be with different people – from the fierce to the funny to the philosophical. Music is the best way to be with people – at least for me.
Tadias: What do you love least about touring?
Tommy T: You know I love everything about touring. Of course there are always advantages and disadvantages, the disadvantage being that you’re away from home a lot and it gets physically tiring. It’s hard work. No time to get sick. No time to bullshit. If you have a 9-5 job you can call in sick sometimes.
Tommy T: You better make sure you’re dying if you decide not to show up and play at a concert. There are thousands of people who buy tickets, and band members who are relying on you. With Gogol Bordello I tour 9 to 10 months out of the year. And being considered one of the best shows you have to come out full force, give 100% every night.
Tadias: You just released your first solo album. Can you tell us how long you’ve been working on it?
Tommy T: I’ve always thought of doing my own album, but I can say that I started sculpting this work about three years ago. I started going into the studio and it basically took us the past two years to finish the whole album.
Tadias: Where was it recorded?
Tommy T: In several studios in D.C.
Tadias: Who are the some of the artists that you collaborated with and featured on your album?
Tommy T: Some of the musicians are old friends, those whom I used to play with while I was living in the D.C. community. My friend Zaki plays with the Abyssinnia Roots Collective for example. I also feature singer Gigi, and Masinko player Setegn. I produced the songs “Brothers” and “East-West Express” with my brother Henock. And the bonus remix of the Oromo dub features my Gogol Bordello bandmates Eugene Hütz (Ukranian) and Pedro Erazo (Ecuadorian).
By the way, all the songs are given titles that help teach something about Ethiopia. For example the track Eighth Wonder has a Wollo beat, which is from the region where Lalibela – the Eighth Wonder of the World is located. I expect people to buy a record and read and learn something new. Music is a way to educate. The Beyond Fasilidas title is in reference to the castles of Emperor Fasilidas of Gondar, which used to be Ethiopia’s capital city in the 17th century. The music on this track uses traditional beats from the Gondar region.
Tadias: There is also the Ethiopian literary tradition known as Sem Ena Worq (Wax and Gold). The tracks are modern songs carrying the diverse and rich sounds of Ethiopian music, as you say “the nuggets culled from one of the oldest cultures on earth, presented in all their shining beauty.” And so is the album title The Prestor John Sessions.
Tommy T: The whole thing came about when I was reading Graham Hancock’s the Sign and the Seal. And in that book Hancock mentions that around the era of the Crusaders there was an unknown king that was sending letters throughout Europe about the might and massiveness of his army and his treasures. Initially Europeans thought this king was from Asia so they went to India to look for him. Eventually they figured out that he was from Ethiopia. They didn’t know his name so they dubbed him Prestor John. There are of course so many other versions of this legend. But once I heard the story I said there is nothing else that I could call this album but The Prestor John Sessions.
Tadias: So the album cover is Tommy T as Prestor John?
Tommy T: You got it. (laughs). Prestor John is the symbol that I use to bring Ethiopian culture to the rest of the world. I’m writing music that incorporates the rhythms of Ethiopia but is also multi-ethnic and global, much like the work that Gogol Bordello creates, taken to the next level. The music is Ethiopian, dub, jazz, reggae – it’s music without boundaries.
The Prestor John Sessions album cover.
Tommy T. Photo by Bossanostra.
Tadias: What would you like to say to your fans and to Tadias readers?
Tommy T: First I would like to say, listen to the music and give it a chance. The music that I put out is sort of representative of my life – starting with the song “Brothers,” which I produced with my brother Henock. The last song is one that I made with Gogol Bordello. I think it’s all great work. I know a lot of people enjoy listening to Ethiopian music, and mostly what they know is theEthiopiques series. I think it’s about time that we include and represent more sounds, and I’m trying to introduce those diverse Ethiopian sounds. I hope it’s a true representation. I hope I won’t let anybody down.
Tadias: In your spare time…what else besides music keeps you going?
Tommy T: I don’t know man. I’m always around music. Whether I’m out at a club or at home. I do read once in a while, but I don’t want to make it sound like I do that all the time. Besides, coming out of a tour you need time to unwind and I spend quite a lot of time at home or visiting friends. But even then, I’m always around music. I’m always working on music. I don’t think that I could be without it.
Tadias: Are there any upcoming gigs that you’d like to mention?
Tommy T: I’m thinking of doing a CD release party possibly in D.C. and New York around Thanksgiving weekend. It’s not confirmed yet, but it may happen on the 27th and 28th since I’m going to be home on break from tour. All of this info will be available on my website,tommytmusic.com as well as on my Facebook and MySpaces pages.
For Christmas, Gogol Bordello will be playing in New York at Webster Hall for three nights. This is a time to expand your mind and lose your soul (laughs). I’m just making fun. It’s great music and it defies any kind of boundary. It’s one of the best shows that you’ll ever see. The best three nights.
Tadias: Congratulations on your album Tommy! The music is incredible.
Click here to listen to the songs from Tommy’s new album.
The Prestor John Sessions are currently available exclusively on itunes. Purchase and download a copy and leave a comment!
Cover photo by Dalia Bagdonaite. All images courtesy of the artist.
By Tseday Alehegn
Published: Friday, October 16, 2009