Berhana delivers his magnum opus - The spellbinding album ‘Amén የዘላን ህልም’, alongside the mesmerising short film, ‘The Nomad’s Dream’.
LA-based artist Berhana first entered public consciousness in 2016 with the self-titled ‘Berhana EP’. Immediately captivating audiences with his personal, immersive approach, he went on to release debut album ‘HAN’ in 2019. His genre-crossing sound has continued to develop and grow over time. This is evident in ‘Amén’, which feels like his most accomplished creation to date.
Both the album, and short film will be discussed here. To set the tone, it would be very difficult to say anything negative about either. These reflections will be interspersed with my recollection of Berhana’s own words during the Q&A at the London premiere for the short film.
In creating the album and film, Berhana was drawn to his connection with his Ethiopian roots. He travelled to the capital city Addis Ababa, and further to his family’s hometown, making him one of the first in his immediate family to make the trip for some time. This is evident as a source of inspiration in both album and film, with them sonically and visually influenced by Ethiopia. The themes drawn on in both include heritage, romance, family and individuality. Berhana’s exploration of these themes exudes honesty and self-reflection in abundance. There is a refreshing level of care taken in the creation of this whole project.
‘Amén የዘላን ህልም’ begins with ‘Amén’, which sets the scene, and introduces us to our protagonist ‘The Nomad’. This takes us into one of the singles, titled ‘Gone (Abebe Bikila)’. The track’s title pays homage to the famous Ethiopian marathon runner who won gold at the 1960 Olympic games whilst running barefoot. The song is vibrant and up-beat, with an infectious energy from start to finish. It’s a wonderful way for the main body of the album to get underway. Following this, is ‘Like A Habit’, where we see a reflection on romantic relationships that don’t stand the test of time. In the vocals, Berhana exhibits a versatility through
his natural rasp, contrasting beautifully with a falsetto flair. There is a pondering over the toxicity of a relationship, with standout lyrics such as ‘You try to break me like a habit’. However, the instrumental spirit remains, with a continuation of the grooves felt in the previous track.
Pulsing kick drums and shimmying hi hats mark the beginning of next track, ‘Tanuki’. Bright guitar plucks give the track a levity, whilst Berhana continues to build on the theme of romance. ‘Wish I didn’t have to let you go... but you’re not the one’, stand out as lyrics that hit-home, and encapsulate the core of the song's message.
‘Someday’, possesses a slightly more lugubrious mood. A regimented, metallic drum pattern is met with ethereal melodies. This one stands out as a production highlight of the album. A spirituality is found here, with a prayer-like mantra being repeated, and the character of ‘The Nomad’ taking front and centre.
‘Anansi’ is next up, taking its name from a West African folklore character depicted as a spider, which is known for its wit and trickery. The panned instrumental elements give the track a hypnotic, dreamlike quality. Love is under discussion, with Berhana expressing the complexity of attempting to find ‘the one’. This harks back to the themes of Tanuki, highlighting the album’s cohesion.
Next is one of my personal favourites, ‘Break Bread’. A more measured, contemplative Berhana appears on this one. ‘You know I can’t break bread with just anybody’ is delivered flawlessly, in a way that sticks in the memory long after listening. The sentiment suggests a protection of one’s energy, not being willing to ‘break bread’ with someone not worthy of your time. The relaxed nature of the track parallels the maturity that seems to be developing over the album’s narrative. In this song we no longer have Berhana diving into a romance not suited to him, but approaching things more cautiously.
‘The Nomad’s Dream’ is a purposeful interlude. A dream-like state is once again entered into. A psychedelic euphoria is given through Ethiopian melodies providing a moment of solace in the characters journey.
It builds to ‘Don’t Go’, a track filled with buoyant energy. We hear Berhana over twinkling keys, pleading with his lover to stay by his side. The summery, blissful aura of this one acts as a tonic to remedy the more strained offerings earlier in the track list.
It is followed by another of my personal favourites, ‘WOW!’. This one stood out from the first time I heard it. It has a remarkable energy, and a brilliantly executed contrast throughout. The bliss experienced in the previous track is shattered by Berhana’s frantic delivery. He shows off a new side to himself, as he provides razor-sharp lyricism over fizzling bass guitar. The chorus and verse are at odds with one another. The song’s message is the conflict between the desire to hold on to youthfulness and its hedonistic joys. As opposed to the inconvenience of maturity, and the sobering reality of what is involved in meaningful adulthood. The prior themes of Berhana’s relationship difficulties are given centre-stage here, as he grapples with his visceral impulsivity, and his higher-self. The latter is exemplified in the chorus, where it is transmitted by this story’s protagonist. This track is as beautifully layered, as it is sonically enjoyable. Berhana is at his very best on this one.
Subsequently, we have the delightfully sweet, ‘Honeycomb’. Berhana communicates a sense of arrival at better times, with gentle melodies accompanying him. Building on the previous track, in this one Berhana expresses satisfaction with his choice to embrace adulthood, and leaving certain things behind him.
It brings us to our final track, the aptly titled, ‘Going home’. Here we reach a place of acceptance, with our protagonist reconciling with all the facets of mortal life. Berhana sings on the hook ‘I know right now we drenched in sorrow, but the sun still gon’ come up tomorrow’. This is a beautiful sentiment with which to conclude. Berhana expressed that this final track felt like a song he’s giving to himself. There is a resolution found in the voice from the album’s opener reappearing. They wish The Nomad well, and assure the lessons he has learnt throughout this album will sustain him through the rest of life’s journey.
Arriving alongside this wonderful album, is a short film of the highest quality. In making this, Berhana took inspiration from a 1966 piece of cinema created by Ethiopian students studying at UCLA. That film was called ‘Have A Coke’, and is also well worth checking out. A key difference in Berhana’s film is the musicality, with several songs from the album being interspersed into the visuals. ‘Amén’, ‘Gone (Abebe Bikila)’, ‘Someday’, ‘Break Bread’, ‘WOW!’ and ‘Going Home’ all make an appearance. Berhana stars alongside a selection of characters, together depicting a story that touches on the same themes heard in the album.
The film has an incredibly timeless quality to it. Berhana expressed this was one thing he was inspired by in ‘Have A Coke’. Although that film was made in the sixties, it remains highly poignant to the present day. ‘The Nomad’s Dream’ has a similar feel, with it purposefully being hard to place when the film is set. Through beautifully detailed set and costume design, this film is fantastically immersive. It begins in black and white, and progresses through to vibrant colour. This development takes place in conjunction with the mood provided by the music, and is highly effective in showing the character’s growth.
With this film, Berhana has departed from the typical visual approach artists take, whereby multiple separate music videos are released to go with the singles. He has also not succumbed to the idea that audiences are not willing to take in longer pieces of work in this day-and-age. Many artists have made their songs, albums and videos shorter, as this is perceived as a necessity. However, Berhana has presented this story in full, taking on a long-form method of delivery. The result is a piece of work that is highly engaging, and one that captures the full essence of the album it accompanies. Reflected in the visuals is the contrasting nature of themes present in the album. Scenes vary from jovial debauchery, to powerful depictions of culture. In this sense, Berhana has accomplished what he set out to with this project. He has used personal reflections on family, love and heritage, to inform art that captures vast swathes of the human experience.
He is unafraid in his inclusion of all its contradictions, and bold in his visual and sonic choices. Berhana has created something truly special in ‘Amen’ and ‘The Nomad’s Dream’.