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Trip to Ethiopia influences new album from Michigan folk duo Seth Bernard, May Erlewine

By Sebastian Fryer | Kalamazoo Gazette

KALAMAZOO — Musicians can find inspiration in a lot of things.

For Lake City husband and wife musicians Seth Bernard and May Erlewine, billed as Seth & May, a few weeks in Ethiopia gave them more than enough material for a new album.

A release party for the new album, “New Flower,” will be at 9:30 p.m. Friday at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe. Admission is $12.

The album was recorded after the duo returned in January from a three-week trip to Ethiopia. Bernard and Erlewine collaborated with On the Ground’s Run Across Ethiopia program.

While Bernard and Erlewine were there, 10 Americans and six Ethiopians ran 250 miles across the Yirgacheffe region of the country.

The couple traveled with the runners and met up with them at stop points.
Thousands of dollars, which will go to help fund new schools in the area, were raised through sponsors before the group traveled to Ethiopia, Bernard said.

“A lot of the conditions for these schools, … it’s a hundred kids crammed into a small room with no lights, no materials,” Bernard said.

On a typical day, Bernard and Erlewine played music for students, who then produced artwork inspired by the music the duo played.

At night, Bernard and Erlewine explored the towns, checked out nightclubs and rubbed elbows with local musicians.

They were influenced by the new styles of music they heard — local jazz and tizita, a style of ballad.

When they returned to Michigan, the duo took those influences and entwined them with the rock-influenced music they had been used to playing.

“Some of the songs kind of sound like our other songs that we’ve done,” Bernard said, “but there’s some new flavor, new inspiration in it.”

They weren’t able to fit everything into one album. Another album with unused material will probably be released later, Bernard said.

“We’re just scratching the surface on this album of where this took us.”

Throughout the trip, filmmaker James Weston Shaberg documented the progress of Bernard and Erlewine and the runners. The film, “Why We Run,” will be cut down to half an hour and will be screened at the release party.

“Why We Run” follows the trip chronologically, and the soundtrack, inspired by the trip, was provided by Bernard and Erlewine.

“I think, for us, we’re always expanding and trying to dig deeper, and what we go through stays with us,” Bernard said.

“The experience of going — both musically and on other levels — will be a profound thing that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

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