Francis Falceto is the creator of the 21-volume, and growing, Ethiopiques CD series on Buda Musique. The series gives the most complete picture available of modern Ethiopian music, specializing in the highly productive era of the late 60s and early 70s in Addis, on the eve of the 1974 revolution that ended the long regime of Haile Selassie and launched the 18-year, socialist-military regime known as the Dergue. Ethiopiques includes some traditional music, and some music created since the end of the Dergue in 1991, but it’s great strength is its careful documentation of the extraordinarily creative years leading up to the revolution. Francis Falceto is also the author of a beautiful book, Abyssinie Swing: A Pictorial History of Modern Ethiopian Music (Shama Books). Banning Eyre met Francis in New York in 2005. Here is part one of their conversation, a companion to the Afropop Worldwide, Hip Deep program, Ethiopia—Empire and Revolution.
B.E: Tell me about your personal background, how you came to Ethiopian music?
F.F: My background was music. I started to organize concerts in the mid-70s with some friends in the city. I used to live in the country side in France. We had a non-profit organization to produce concerts. Our music tastes were very, very special. It was between experimental music, free jazz, noise music, industrial and many traditional musics from all around the world. From ‘77 until the late 80s, it wasn’t very fashionable to like these two kinds of music. In the minds of the people, they were very separated. It was rare that in a personal discothèque at home somebody would have both pygmy music and Sonic Youth, you see? We were very into innovation. We made a lot of premiers in the city, Poitier, in west France, like Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, the Residents, and many, many, incredible things. And also, many sorts of traditional music, from Japan, from Africa, from everywhere.
And it happened that, one evening, we were partying, and a friend of ours brought an LP which he had bought in Ethiopia. He was there as a stage manager with a French theatre troupe, touring all over Africa in the French Cultural Centers. And passing by Addis Adaba, taking a walk in the street, hearing music, he went in a music shop and bought this LP of Mahmoud Ahmed. So that night, he played the LP, and I was amazed. “What’s that?” So immediately, I took the LP from him, made some cassettes—at that time it was cassette; this was April, 1984. I sent it to many journalist friends of mine, music reviewers and the like. By the next day, they all called me back, saying, “Francis, what’s that? Where did you get this from? It’s great!” So, immediately I understood that, if these people, supposedly knowledgeable about music by profession, if they don’t know this music, it must be a place to dig, to try to find out if it’s an exception, or if it’s one among many. The next month, I went to Ethiopia to check and invite Mahmoud Ahmed to tour in France and Europe. I was absolutely ignorant about, not only Ethiopian music, at the time, but about Ethiopia itself.
B.E: Amazing. When did the first Éthiopiques CD come out?
B.E: '97? So there were quite some years between that moment of discovery and the actual beginning of the series.
F.F: In fact, the first release was ‘86. This LP of Mahmoud Ahmed on Crammed Disc in Brussels. This was the first release abroad of modern Ethiopian music. It was a kind of fetish for me. This was the LP which opened the doors for Ethiopian music.
B.E: I remember that record very well.
F.F.: It was released in '86 in Europe and in America. It got good reviews. In the New York Times, John Pareles wrote a beautiful article about the LP. It was praised as one of the five or ten best world music albums of the year.
B.E: It was very striking, amazing to me. It made me very curious about Ethiopia. But the official Ethiopiques series didn’t come for another ten years, right? 1997?
F.F.: ’97, yes. But in the meantime, by ’90, I had recorded in Paris and released two CDs: one with Alèmayèhu Eshèté and another with Netsanet Mèllèssè, two brilliant, famous singers with the Walias Band. We were still under the Dergue time. It had been possible to invite them to Europe, but the full band could not come. They did not allow the guitarist or the saxophonist to leave Ethiopia. You used to need an exit visa to leave your country. Can you believe it? It was quite a hard time to complete these recordings: I had to work with some French saxophonists and guitarists to play the guitar and horn lines. And in ‘94, came the second release of golden oldies. That was the first edition of Ethiopian Groove. By the way, it’s in early '94 when the CD was released, a collection of oldies from Kaifa Records, the label belonging to a famous producer, Ali Tango. What a beautiful name! So before I started the Éthiopiques series in ’97. There were these four releases in the meantime.
B.E: Let’s talk about Ethiopian history. Tell us what led up to this very fertile environment of the late 60s and early 70s.
F.F.: In general, all of us are very ignorant about this country, because we are living through clichés that have been here for more than 20 years. We imagine this country as a kind of desert where everybody is dying of famine and hunger. One thing to understand, first of all, is Ethiopia is a highland country. It’s as large as France and Spain together, with 60 million inhabitants, a huge country. Two thirds of it is over 2000 meters in altitude. It’s a green country in fact. And, historically, we need to note that it is the only African country to have been independent for 3000 years. OK, they were invaded by fascist Italians in 1935, but this ended in 1941, so it’s a very short period of non-independence. But the country has existed for 3000 years.
B.E: Did it think of itself as one country? Was it unified in terms of its sense of political identity?
F.F.: It was not exactly. 2000 years before, it had not exactly the same borders as today. But basically what’s made the unity of Ethiopia is the altitude, the highlands. It’s a kind of natural fortress from which you can defend against invaders. Another historic point that is very important, which gives a deep identity to this country and this culture, is that they were Christian before us, before France, before Hungary, before Russia, before England. From the early 4th century, meaning more than 1600 years before, they were Christianized. They are still nowadays Christian Orthodox. So it’s a kind of backbone for the culture of this country. This is very, very, very important.
The church had the same role in Ethiopia as the church had in Middle-Age Europe. No king could be a king without the consent of the church. Another historic point is that Ethiopia had its own script, its own writing, almost from eternity. The church has the language Ge’ez, which is the equivalent of Latin for the Catholic Church, for instance. From this Latin, always spoken by the priests in Ethiopia, came Amharic, also Tigrinia and several other languages, just the way Latin gave us French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, and other languages. Ge’ez is a Semitic language, just like Hebrew or Arabic, but written from left to right, not right to left. The design of these letters is really beautiful. So all these points: religion, long history, Christianity, are the core things that make this country absolutely unique in Africa.
B.E: Most of Africa fell to colonial rule in the 19th century. What was going on in Ethiopia then? There must have been attempts to conquer it.
F.F.: Of Course. In the 19th century, most of Africa was colonized by the French, English, Portugese, and Germans—except Ethiopia. Italy had decided also to have a colonial empire, and little by little, Italy installed some ports on the coast of the Red Sea, in the northeast of Ethiopia. Actually, nowadays it has become Eritrea. Then little by little, they started to go inland from the coast. In 1896, Italy tried to conquer Ethiopia militarily. But what happened, and this is another unique thing in African history, the army of the Emperor Menelik completely defeated the Italians. This was something that made a big noise all over the world. And right after this incredible victory of an African country, an African king over a colonial country, many delegations, many ambassadors from Russia, from France, from England, even from the US, came to visit Menelik in 1897, ’98, 1900. “Who is this king that can resist the Europeans?” And that started the first modern meeting between Western countries and Ethiopia. I have to say, then, that during the Fascist invasion of the Italians in the late 30s when Haile Selassie, who was in exile in England, came back with the support of the British, England tried to colonize Ethiopia. In fact, if you look at a map of colonization in Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, it was just Ethiopia who was missing to be complete and perfect for British colonization. They had everything, from the Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and almost South Africa.
B.E: Yes that was Cecil Rhodes’s vision, that they would have control from Cape to Cairo, right?
F.F.: Yes, but Cecil Rhodes was 19th century, so this is another time to colonize Ethiopia. So after this incredible victory of Adwa in 1896, it was very clear that the country intended to remain independent. By 1924, Ethiopia became the first African country to become a member of the Society of Nations, the ancestor of the UN. It was something incredible. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to preserve Ethiopia from Italy’s invasion. The Society of Nations should have defended Ethiopia against this invasion, but many countries thought, “Oh, this is just the remaining African country not to be colonized. Why not this one, too?”
B.E: So that was 1935, but the Italians weren’t there very long?
F.F.: By ’41 it was over.
B.E: And Haile Selassie comes back and basically takes control of the country at that point.
F.F.: In fact, his reign started in 1917, not immediately as an emperor himself. He was first Prince Regent. There was a queen, the daughter of Emperor Menelik, but the power was in the hands of Regent. At this time he was Ras Tafari, and he became Haile Selassie upon his coronation in 1930. But, in fact, when he was Regent, he was the one to rule the country, and his reign finished in 1974, which means he was the ruler of his country for nearly 60 years, one of the longest reigns in the 20th century.
B.E: So the British helped him come back in 1941, but they were also hoping to manipulate him and take control?
F.F.: Exactly, if not to colonize the country properly, at least to control everything. It didn’t work out because Haile Selassie was a very smart ruler and he had other allies, including the Americans and some European countries just to pull and push and fight against the British. By 1952, the British completely left the country.
B.E: Fascinating. During this period, from the Battle of Adwa in 1896 up until the time when Haile Selassie reconfirms his control in the 1940s, what has been happening culturally in Ethiopia?
F.F.: It’s deeply related to the victory of Adwa in 1896. As I told you, many countries sent ambassadors to Ethiopia. And it happened that the tsar of Russia sent an ambassador to meet Menelik II. And as a gift, he sent 40 brass instruments and a music teacher. Menelik decided to use them as his royal music. In this sense, the same thing happened in Ethiopia, a non-colonized country, as was happening in the rest of colonized Africa. The European colonialist introduced army bands because they were present. It was through the army bands that modern music started. First of all, they play marching music in the European style, but then the local musicians try to adapt their own music and musical culture with these Western instruments. And that’s the way, all over Africa, modern music, meaning local music played with Western instruments, started. Everywhere, you can see the same thing. Even in many other countries, in Asia, in South America. All this modern music is linked to military music. You find this in Jamaica. The Adwa victory was also a kind of starting point for the development of modern music in Ethiopia. The repertoire of the musicians at the time was limited to the marching music, national anthems of various embassies: France, Russia, America, England, etc. The teacher was probably a Polish guy; his name was Milewski. And this guy tried to teach the Ethiopians to perform marching music.
It was quite difficult, because, in Ethiopia, to be an artist, to be a musician, is something like to belong to a caste. The traditional musicians, known by the name azmaris are considered as a caste, as they are a bit outside of the society. An average Ethiopian will never play music, you see. Still, this type of caste exists nowadays. The way that they look at a musician is a bit despising. They have a very ambivalent position in regard to them. So, they like them for the jokes they can tell, the freedom of speech they have, the way they use double meaning in their songs. But they wouldn’t like their children to get married to such a musician. To set up this marching band, it was a bit difficult to find the right people to blow those instruments. They used to invite people from the Southern provinces, considered almost as slaves; very dark, black people, whereas the average Amharan or Tigrean, who were the dominant population, were quite light-skinned.
There was this kind of racism within the country itself. We have to wait about 20 years to see the development of modern music. In 1924, Ras Tafarai, before he became Emperor Haile Selassie, went on a diplomatic tour on Europe. His first stop was Jerusalem, because for Ethiopians, Jerusalem is a bit like Mecca for the Muslims. Every respectful Ethiopian should be a pilgrim to Jerusalem one day. So before he went to France, England, Sweden, Italy, and Greece, he went to Jerusalem just to go to the tomb of Christ. And he was welcomed there by a marching band of young Armenian orphans. This was a few years after the genocide of the Armenian people in Turkey. They were spread all over the region and some landed in Jerusalem.
Ras Tafari was amazed by these musicians and immediately made a deal with the Armenian patriarch in order to send them to Ethiopia to become the new royal music. And when he came back from his tour all over Europe, he took them from Port Saïd to Addis Ababa. These forty, again forty, young Armenian orphans became another royal music. Still nowadays, they are known as “Arba Lidjoch” in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, “the forty kids.” The Forty Kids had a music teacher, Kevork Nalbandian. After Kevork, other Nalbandians will come to teach Ethiopian musicians, and in the 50s, 60s, early 70s, the nephew of Kevork, Nerses Nalbandian, will become a core person to develop modern music.
B.E: In 1924, when these 40 Armenian children from Jerusalem come, what they really bring is not instruments but expertise, ability, and knowledge. Is that right?
F.F.: Yes, especially Kevork Nalbandian, and already his kids were much better than any other Ethiopian musicians when it came to playing marching music. But this music teacher, Kevork Nalbandian, also was the one to write the new national anthem of Ethiopia, for instance. From 1924 until 1974, during those 50 years, the Ethiopian National Anthem had been written by an Armenian. Kevork Nalbandian lived his whole life in Ethiopia and died in the late 50s or early 60s. Then came the Italian invasion, and everything was frozen again.
B.E: You’re talking about 35-41? So Nalbandian is recently arrived; he’s only been there, 8 or 9 years?
F.F.: Yes. They had an official contract of four years, while they were performing with this music director, Nerses Nalbandian. And other music teachers were also invited to come to Ethiopia, a Swiss by the name of Nicod, for instance. But with the Italian invasion, nothing could continue. Everything was disbanded. The very serious thing which will announce the blossom of the 50s started right after the war. After 1941, Haile Selassie started to reorganize all the military bands, inviting new music teachers to come. He developed Imperial Body Guard Band, the Police Orchestra, the Army Band. There were many, many institutional bands, all related to governmental institutions. Apart from the military music, they began to develop pop music, dance music, light music, and by the late ‘40s, we hear the emergence of pop music, traditional songs played with a brass section. The real blossoming of that would be 1955, because The Haile Selassie Theatre was inaugurated that year. We can say that from 1955 to the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, those twenty years were the golden years of modern Ethiopian music.
B.E: Did Selassie himself have a real feeling for this culture and music, or was this just a status thing?
F.F.: He wanted, just like every other African country, to have a marching band, just for demonstration. Also to welcome the various ambassadors, protocol for visits. But on top of that, he used to organize, in the palace, Western classical concerts. It happened that, between 1944 and 1948, one of these musical teachers who came from Europe, Alexander Kontorowicz, was a schoolmate of Jascha Heifetz, in the musical school of Vilnius in Lithuania—just to show the level of some of these music teachers. Before he came during these four years to reorganize the music of Ethiopia, he had been responsible for 12 years for the music of King Fuad in Egypt. So you see, there were very strange influences coming into Ethiopia’s modern music.
B.E: Do you think that Haile Selassie was consciously trying to manipulate the course of that music?
F.F.: It was totally under his control. Probably not what ended as Ethiopian pop, but he was totally responsible for the development of this military music firstly, and secondarily, light music. As I mentioned, he used to organize these concerts of Western classical music, but also the Haile Selassie Theatre, the Agher Feqer Theatre, which was a kind of national theatre of Ethiopia, started to develop popular music, with singers, which was something new for this country. In front of these big bands, Ethiopian singers started to sing. It wasn’t any more military music, instrumental music; it becomes Ethiopian songs, arranged by all of these music teachers, coming from abroad, teaching themselves Ethiopian arrangements.
So, little by little, the Ethiopian influence in this music was stronger and stronger. Also, we have to keep in mind that after the Second World War, in Ethiopia, like everywhere in the world, the biggest influence was the American big band, Glen Miller and the like. If you consider what happened in Europe, in France, in particular, everybody was listening to “In The Mood,” or these kinds of songs. Everywhere, you could see the development of these big bands, playing more or less American music, or local music with influences of jazz big bands. And because there’s this tradition of marching bands with big horn sections, the Ethiopian big bands appeared immediately. You had big civil bands with 10, 15, 20 players, incredible horn sections. This gave the real blend of modern Ethiopian pop music. Until the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, you could feel this influence of the horn section, coming from the jazz band influence from America post the Second World War.
B.E: Let’s return to the the azmari. We have singers emerging as part of this light music, this early popular music. Are these singers coming from the azmari background?
F.F.: Not at all. The azmari remains the azmari, all the time. They are wandering singers, minstrels. They come from the deep countryside, mostly the Northern Provinces, Gondar, Gojam, Welo. And they are wandering minstrels, just like we had in Europe in the middle ages. They have their own instruments—mostly a one-stringed violin with a bow—and they sing everywhere they see some people they can get money from. It can be a party, a wedding, a seasonal festival.
B.E: Like griots in West Africa?
F.F.: There are many similarities. When there is a market, every time there are people, they go and sing, praise them to get money from them. Or they can joke with them. They are very famous because, in this country, there’s a hierarchy, because it has been an empire for so many centuries. It’s a feudal regime, in fact. There is no special freedom of speech, and these azmaris, these minstrels, are the ones who are in charge of this freedom of speech. Under the conditions, their lyrics are not open; they must use double meaning in their critiques, for instance. They can criticize the king, the princes, the high people, but not openly. The most famous azmaris are the ones who find the nicest joke, the nicest double meaning. This is very important because we have to know that in Ethiopian culture, they don’t pay so much attention to the music itself. When I say music, I mean the melody, the sound of the instruments. They are fond of, first of all, lyrics. It was something very special, in this culture, to develop instrumental music, or big bands. The main thing, more than a great melody or a great voice, is what the lyrics mean. That is true still today.
B.E: In this period of the 50s, when this popular music is beginning to take shape, bandleaders are looking for singers. If they don’t turn to the azmaris at all, where do they look for singers?
F.F.: Almost everywhere. For instance, take the case of Mahmoud Ahmed. Mahmoud Ahmed was not born a singer. He did not belong to a family of azmaris. He was just working in a nightclub where his father had a small job. And it happened that one night, in the early 60s, the singer of the local band was absent, so he said, “Can I try to sing with the band,” and, immediately, the musicians said “Wow, nice voice. We’ll integrate him into the Imperial Body Guard Band.” So, it could go like this. Among the high people, there is one who is quite important. He was the famous General Tsegue Dibu, and the head of the police in the ‘50s, and he was a music lover. He himself played cello. And he wanted the Police Orchestra to have a great string section. So what he used to do was, in the street, seeing some kids without jobs, he’d ask them if they wanted to work. He’d take them to the Police headquarters, clean them, give them food, new clothes, and schooling, and he would try to intensively teach them cello, violins, things like this. Nobody was basically willing to become a musician in Ethiopia. It had to start with such ways. But the musicians were not recruited from the azmari cast. Not at all.
Azmaris always continued their role as improvisers, wandering in the villages, going up north, following the season of weddings and harvest. They always remained azmaris. Basically, an Ethiopian is a warrior. He will never prefer the job of business or commerce, or the job of a musician. So, even if you were not a pure azmari from ancient decent, but just a singer or guitarist or saxophonist, you were more or less considered an azmari—not a good person to marry one’s kids to.
B.E: So anyone who does take this step of becoming involved with music, either as a horn player, or singer, or even an arranger, they have to really love it, because they’re potentially identifying with something that has low status.
F.F.: Yes, of course. But also, keep in mind that all these bands were institutional, were depending on the will of the king, the emperor. All of them belonged either to the army, to the police, to the Haile Selassie Theatre, to the Imperial Guard, Police Band, Haile Selassie Theatre Band, Army Band. These people were on salaries. So it was quite a comfortable situation. It’s not everybody who used to have work, a job, payment, salary. When you are in such a band, you have security also.
B.E: So in that sense, these people had a higher status than the azmaris?
F.F.: Oh definitely, because they have a monthly salary, a quite normal job, even if it’s music. It’s only in the late 60s that independent bands start to rise. We still have to consider the period in time, post Second World War. It happens in Ethiopia what happens everywhere in the world, in America, in Europe, in Asia, everywhere. There is the baby boom generation, the generation born after the war who became teenagers in the late 50s, early 6os. Together with this generation, rock and roll came, along with electric guitars, rhythm and blues, soul music. It was a real musical invasion of the world. For the very first time, you could listen to more or less the same music everywhere in the world, even if the original music came from America or Europe.
So you could find some Ethiopian James Browns, Ethiopian Elvis Presleys, but always with a local blend, something special. They were not only simply copycats. Ethiopians are so nationalist, almost chauvinist sometimes. They are so proud of their culture they need to inject Ethiopian culture in with the Western influence. It’s not only Western influence that invades Ethiopia, it’s also Ethiopia who uses Western influences. And when you listen, for instance, to singers like Mahmoud Ahmed or Alèmayèhu Eshèté—who is probably the best example of this outrageously Western influence, when he sings like James Brown—there is always something deeply Ethiopian.
But it happened in Ethiopia what happened in Europe or in America. There are deep conflicts between generations, because this new generation, these baby-boomers, they crash in some ways, the traditional cultures of each and every country. This was also my generation, and I remember, when I was a teenager, the fights that I had with my parents. I didn’t want to listen any more to accordions or old French singers: Eddie Piaf and things like that. I changed my mind in the meantime, but at that time I was much more into Elvis Presley, rock and roll, rhythm and blues. Even if I didn’t understand anything that was sung in English.
B.E: Were artists like James Brown and Elvis Presley just freely played on the radio in the 50s and 60s in Addis? If you turned on the radio, would you hear all that?
F.F.: This started only in the late 60s. James Brown came in the picture in Ethiopia in the mid and late 60s only.
B.E: So does that mean at that time there was sort of a liberalizing of what you could broadcast on the radio, or was it just driven by public taste. I assume the government controlled radio.
F.F.: Yes, definitely. Well, it doesn’t change overnight. When the first singers of these institutional bands started some very Western influenced rhythm and blues and soul music, and blended this with Ethiopian music, it was not accepted immediately. It was not a demand of the audience. It was the new generation, the youngest of the musicians, who heard about this music coming from abroad. And there are many reasons for this. Remember, it was a time of the Peace Corps Volunteers. There were several thousand who come in Ethiopia, from the beginning of the 60s. Those youngsters brought with them their records, their guitars, their long hair, their bell-bottom trousers, many things like this. The fight between the generations was also through things like that—external to the music itself. But it was an ensemble of new ideas that was shaking the old society.
And there was another phenomenon. The Americans had a military base in Asmara [today the capital of Eritrea]. This military base had everything: clubs, bars, its own radio, its own TV. They used to receive weekly all the charts from America: from Frank Sinatra to John Coltrane, from country music to James Brown. Through this radio, all the musicians based in Asmara and around could benefit from these influences, which they’d bring later to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. Many GIs, many young American militaries were musicians, and they played either in the military base, or downtown in the nightclubs of Asmara. So, on one hand, the Peace Corps volunteers, on the other hand, this American military base, well-equipped in all types of Western music, up-to-date, plus the travelers, the Ethiopians who went abroad bringing back records. All of this used to feed the young Ethiopian musicians of the time. You find on some old records some funny covers of rock and roll, soul music, rhythm and blues. But again, in spite of this copying of American songs, musicians mostly developed something with a deep Ethiopian blend. One funny thing is, again, because they are so proud of their culture, so nationalist, so chauvinistic sometimes, generally about their own culture, their own country, they were completely closed to the influence of the African neighboring countries.
B.E: So you weren’t getting influence from Congo music, which was so big at that time.
F.F.: At that time, not at all.
B.E: Nothing? South Africa, nothing? West Africa, nothing?
F.F.: Nothing. I would even add, Haile Selassie was a political genius who made Addis Ababa the capital city of OAU, Organization of United Africa in the 1960s. It meant that embassies from all of Africa were suddenly opened in Addis Ababa. With this kind of diplomatic invasion of Ethiopia, we could think or expect that many influences from other African nations would settle and develop in Ethiopia. Nothing like this. Not at all. They were very reluctant to adopt other cultures. They felt much closer to American or European music. This must be pointed out. Until very recently there were no African influences in Ethiopia. You could never listen that much to music from lets say Zaire rumba, or highlife from Ghana and Nigeria, music from South Africa, from Senegal, Mali, nothing like this. This also is one of the very important reasons why Ethiopian music is so unique, so closed to itself.
B.E: I want to clarify two things. One: the young musicians in the 50s and 60s are getting Western music from Peace Corps volunteers, US military radio, visiting musicians, not at all from Ethiopian state radio, right?
F.F.: Little by little, it improved, mostly to answer the need of the audience. It was just young musicians who were real artists, I mean excited by creating new music.
B.E: That’s the other point I want to ask about. The audience did not at first demand this. It was the artist presenting this to the audience? Saying, “Listen to this.”
B.E: So it wasn’t everybody who knew about soul and stuff like that. In the late fifties, before you get to the late sixties. It’s only specialized people or people who’ve sought it out, and they are in fact changing the taste of the general public by presenting this new idea. That’s very interesting, because it is quite different from places like Zimbabwe where Western music was being played on state radio and audiences demanded local groups play rock and roll and jazz and Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and all that.
F.F.: There was not a blackout on such western music. Not at all. But it was not national radio that initiated the development of western influence. It was mostly this new generation who wanted to leave the institutional bands, and create their own orchestra of 4, 5, 6, 7, pieces. Never mind this huge big band of twenty musicians and more. They wanted to have a set up just like the Rolling Stones or an American soul band. They wanted to imitate this. And they were closer to that than anything else. They were real artists in the sense they wanted to develop, to create something. To present to the general public this new thing, you see.
B.E: Let’s talk about some of the key people who made this happen. And probably the person we should start with is Amha Eshèté. Tell us his story.
F.F.: Amha Eshèté is the patron saint of the modern Ethiopian musician because he was really the first independent producer to support private bands, and to create his own record label. We have to know even record production was in the hands of the emperor, in the hands of the authorities. You could not release an album, a disc, by yourself. It was normally forbidden. But at some point Amha Eshèté thought, “Oh, they will not kill me if I release this disc.”
B.E: So who was he? What was his background?
F.F.: He was a baby boomer himself. He had a music shop. He had started to import some of this rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul, James Brown, and the like, in Ethiopia. Even the import of discs was something not really allowed. You needed a kind of visa to import. So after a few years, he said, “Why don’t we make our own discs?” The officials who are supposed to import and record and manufacture discs, they do nothing. At least nothing for this modern music. So, he took Alèmayèhu Eshèté and recorded a few 45s, one song on each side. He sent his master tape to India. Why India? Because as in many African colonies, there were many Indian merchants in Ethiopia. India was and still is the biggest producer of discs in the world. The discographic industry there is huge. So through this Indian merchant base in Ethiopia he sent his master tapes to India, and after a few weeks he received his 45s. It was a big deal, because the officials started to wake up. I mean when this disc of Alèmayèhu Eshèté, his first one, AE 100, came in Ethiopia it sold like crazy.
B.E: And in what year?
F.F.: ’69. Possibly late 68, but early 69. ’69 is a key year for all of these new things. Amha Eshèté had some problems with the authorities, but finally, the emperor decided let this youngster go ahead.
B.E: He personally decided that?
F.F.: We don’t know exactly. But he used to decide everything. Of course the official head of the Haile Selassie Theatre and the like, went to complain and say, “What this youngster is doing is against the law.” And finally, after some turmoil, which you can understand through the press at the time, they decided to drop it. And little by little, other producers came, but he remains one of the key persons for the real new pop scene in Ethiopia.
B.E: Tell us about Alèmayèhu Eshèté.
F.F.: Alèmayèhu Eshèté used to be a singer of the Police Orchestra. Mahmoud Ahmed and Tlahoun Gèssèssè, used to belong to the Imperial Body Guard Band. They all wanted to leave these institutional bands, but they were paid by the Police Orchestra or Imperial Body Guard Band. Sometimes at night, they’d leave the barracks and go to a nightclub and sing for themselves before some hip audiences, which brought them some problems. You know, they might go to jail 1 or 2 days because of this. But it was not a big deal. You know, very soon, by ’74, this regime is finished and dead.
Usually, the end of a reign has a very developed night life. Many people call it decadence, but it’s almost the contrary. Little by little, the empire, the state, starts to lose its power. In December 1960, there was coup d’etat against Haile Selassie. It failed, but there are several attempts in the following years. We had student movements, we had the ’68 in Europe, but there is something like this also in Ethiopia. And so the whole society was in turmoil. And this has always been favorable to creativity. We can see in many ends of reign or regimes a very highly developed artistic life, night life. As we had swinging London, they had swinging Addis. It was unimaginable parties, incredible fun, where everybody was mixed—the royal family, the nobles, the rich merchants, the bourgeois, the prostitutes, the beauties. You had beauty contests, Miss Ethiopia, even Miss Swing, many, many daily or nightly events that gave a special cache to this scene. So from the mid 60s until the last fifteen years was something. I mean it would have been a dream for me to have been there, you know. (Laughs).
F.F.: Yes and it’s difficult for us to imagine that because we have such a miserable vision of Ethiopia. We see this country as a cliché. As a kingdom of hunger and famine.
B.E: Tell me what you can about some of these other important musicians. Take Muluqèn Mèllèssè.
F.F.: Muluqèn Mèllèssè was one of the most famous singers in Ethiopia. He started to sing in the Police Orchestra by the age of 13, 14. As I told you before, they used to recruit youngsters to be members of the band, to teach them an instrument—they even had workshops for songwriting, arrangement, even dance. So Muluqen started in one of these institutional bands before he became an independent singer with his own band. He recorded beautiful masterpieces. What is unfortunate for music lovers, but respectable from his point of view, is that by the early 80s he changed his mind about that, and he converted to Pentecostalism, and decided to stop singing pop music. For music lovers it was a big loss, and he remains a big artist who recorded classics in Ethiopia, kind of standards.
B.E: Let’s talk about another singer, Tlahoun Gèssèssè.
F.F.: Tlahoun Gèssèssè is the singer in Ethiopia, the voice. Big T big G. He started to sing at the Agher Feqer Mahber, meaning Patriotic Association. It was a kind of national theatre, and he was very young, about 16 or 17 when he starts to sing in this institution. But very quickly he was taken by Imperial Bodyguard Band and he became the main soloist there by the late 50s. Since then until nowadays, he has been the most beloved singer in Ethiopia. He is a kind of icon. Everybody loves him. There are many other singers. But Tlahoun Gèssèssè is a core singer, even if he is not the most easy to listen to for western audiences. He has such a big powerful voice that sometimes you think it’s too much for a Western ear. He had dozens of imitators of course, but none with such vocal talent as Tlahoun himself.
B.E: Maybe an interesting subject to talk about a little bit would be political messages. You talked about how the lyrics are so important and especially among the azmaris there is this tradition of saying things in round-a-bout ways, using words with double meanings.
F.F.: They have a name for this, sem-enna-werq, it means “wax-and-gold.” There is a wax meaning and a gold meaning. The wax meaning is the apparent meaning. Just a love song—you can take it as a love song. The gold meaning is something else. It can be a protest song. Somebody like Tlahoun, a member of Imperial Bodyguard Band, was in jail after ’60 because he had a song, a love song called “Altchalkoum,” that meant “I Can’t Stand Any More.” A kind of love story. “She left me I can’t stand any more”—in fact, I can’t stand any more of this regime. And after the failure of the coup d’etat, Tlahoun went to jail for a few weeks. Because by itself the Imperial Bodyguard was involved in the coup d’etat. All the heads of the Imperial Bodyguard were pushing the band to sing double-meaning songs, protest songs in some way. And if you are popular with this protest song, this double-meaning, you become also very popular. Because they could see through the way the audience received it, if the coup d’etat was popular, if they could go with the protest. If the protest song is popular, it means that everybody understands the protest of the singer. And there are many instances of this; this song is one of the most famous.
B.E: Let’s talk about instruments a little bit. There’s a very interesting Ethiopiques volume featuring a musician who plays a lyre believed to be a descendent of King David’s harp. Talk about that but also bring us up to date on the krar. Just in general, give us a bit of an overview on the lyre in Ethiopia.
F.F.: Yeah there are different kinds of lyres, especially the krar which is played mostly in the North, a lot in Eritrea, less and less in Ethiopia, unfortunately. But there is one instrument, which is unique to Ethiopia. It is the begena. The begena is a big lyre, something like one-and-a-half meters. This instrument used to be played by the nobility, by priests and learned people. It was high society. You could not say that a begena player was an azmari. This was an instrument related to religion and nobility. Nowadays the nobility has disappeared, but the begena continues to be played. It was almost destroyed during the revolutionary period because precisely it was related to the nobility which the revolution had abolished, and related to the church, which the Stalinest government did not encourage. So, it has come back slowly through brilliant exponents like Alemu Aga for instance. And nowadays, for the most important religious period of the year, like Christmas, Easter, the radio plays extensively this type of music. But it is not the kind of music you can play during the mass at the church. It is not the type of music you can play in the church. It is played in religious contexts, but it is not an instrument of the church.
B.E: And it’s thought to be extremely old. They call it King David’s harp. What’s the significance of that?
F.F.: It’s a kind of legend. It’s difficult historically to demonstrate it because it’s three thousand years. King David was supposedly a lyre player, you know, and as the Ethiopians claim they are descendents of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which is exactly 3000 years ago, it’s part of the historical legacy of the country. I’m not a historian but I’m not sure I would agree with this antiquity of the instrument. But it remains to be demonstrated on both sides.
B.E: And it’s in the popular imagination, the idea.
B.E: I know who we need to talk about. Mulatu Astatké.
F.F.: Mulatu Astatké is a very special case. It’s quite unique in the history of Ethiopia and Ethiopian music. He was not the first to be taught abroad, because 30 or 40 years before him, there was a lady who learned piano and violin in Switzerland. But as a modern musician, Mulatu was really the first to be taught abroad. He started his musical studies in England and then in New York, he attended also Berkelee College of Music in Boston. Later on, during his stay in New York, he was in touch with a lot of jazz men and Latin musicians. He was very fond of jazz and Latin music. He was one of the first Africans—this must be mentioned—to record modern African music in the early 60s. Before Manu Dibango, before Fela, and when he came back to Ethiopia in the late 60s, the modernist movement had started already. But he came in time to bring a special blend. Especially his jazz touch. He invented a style—Ethiojazz. But to tell the truth I’m not sure he was influential in terms of introducing Latin music to Ethiopia. I cannot say that the Ethiopian audience became crazy about Latin music, not at all. Again, they are so close to their own roots, if it is too much something from abroad they are reluctant to pick it. So we cannot seriously say that there was Latin invasion in Ethiopia, not at all.
B.E: But you can hear Latin flavor in Mulatu’s arrangements, and you don’t hear that anywhere else.
F.F.: No, definitely. That’s why I say he is a unique case. He is a special case because he was the first to be put in such a position. When he came back to Ethiopia he put this in his own composition in his own arrangement. But it was not followed by the other musicians, I would say. It remains that the music that he has recorded at the time is simply gorgeous, great music. Just listen to Éthiopiques, Volume 4, Ethiojazz. For me, it’s a total masterpiece. There are some other musicians on this CD, who we should mention. For instance one of my favorite saxophonists ever in Ethiopia, by the name of Tésfa-Maryam Kidané. Actually he’s living in Virginia now for many years. He left Ethiopia to study at Berkelee College of Music in ’72 and he stayed and settled in America but he’s still active as a musician and is a gorgeous saxophonist. It’s amazing the level of inspiration those musicians had reached at the time.
B.E: Who was the audience for Ethiojazz? Was it a small audience, a specialized, elite audience?
F.F.: I mean again, what I’m saying about Latin music, I would say it also about Ethiojazz. Ethiojazz is the thing of Mulatu Astatké, he is the inventor of this style, and I cannot say that there are really followers picking the concept and trying to develop it. It’s simple to understand because he was exposed to the jazz culture, but the other Ethiopians were not. So it was difficult to develop the same thing, parallel things, you see? But again it remains the musical works Mulatu left from this period are simply among the most beautiful productions of the time. You know Ethiopian audiences, they don’t pick everything you play for them. They make their own choices. Of course, he is very respected in Ethiopia, no question about this. I think Ethiopians respect the fact that he was educated abroad, that he was a taught musician, a learned musician, which is not the case for most of the others, who just know music because they were in an institutional band or taught themselves.
For instance, there is the case of the brilliant musician, Girma Beyene, who was a pianist, an arranger, a singer, a composer, a session man. It is unfortunate because he did not have the same destiny as Mulatu Astatké. He had to leave Ethiopia at the Dergue time, and he has a bit disappeared in the Ethiopian diaspora in America. But he left behind a huge collection of productions statistically, dozens and dozens of songs he had participated in the recording of as a singer, as a pianist, as an arranger. You know history sometimes doesn’t pay justice to everybody. I would say Mulatu, because of his background, because of what he has done remains one of the most respected musicians in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, somebody like Girma Beyene has been forgotten. But if you consider Éthiopiques, the productions where Girma Beyene is present, almost every piece is a masterpiece.
B.E: Mulatu also did a lot for popular singers. Probably that was the main thing he did to make money, right?
F.F.: Yes. In fact he has recorded very few albums in his own name. When he came back to Ethiopia he was more active as an arranger, and if you listen to Tlahoun Gèssèssè on Éthiopiques 17, I think it is, there are beautiful arrangements of classic songs by Tlahoun Gèssèssè, so he was very influential as an arranger. This is true.
B.E: Great, that’s great. Okay. Let’s see. Oh yes I want to talk a little bit about this other very interesting saxophone player, Gétatchèw Mèkurya?
F.F.: Gétatchèw Mèkurya. This is also a very special case. For me, it’s extraordinary. He started to play messenqo at first. And then when he was a teenager, he was recruited right after the Second World War with the Italians in the late 40s. He was recruited by the Municipality Orchestra of Addis Ababa. The Municipality theatre had also its own theatres and bands, and very quickly he started to play saxophone. What is brilliant according to me, he has decided one day to transpose with his saxophone tenor, to transpose a traditional vocal style, of war songs. And when you listen to these war songs, known as shellèla fukara, which are shouting, howling, until you lose your throat—he did that with the saxophone. And the result is it sounds a bit like Albert Ayler and the like. And he started to blow like this by the early 50s, by '53, '54. So when I found his recordings, and checked the dates when he invented this style of music, as I am a music lover, not only of Ethiopian music—I know free jazz, and many other kinds of music—I could compare. But he himself doesn't know who Albert Ayler is. And, by the way, he started to blow like him so many years before, almost 10 years before. So I thought it was good to point that out, how a traditional vocal style could lead to really modernist, avant-garde saxophone style. I think we have to pay homage to such blowers, because he has invented a form, in some way. He himself, again, has no jazz culture. He doesn't know anything about Albert Ayler and the like. And the Ethiopians themselves, they love this style of saxophone, not because it is free jazz, but because it reminds them of the vocal style, the war songs. The shouting style. Again, this is nationalism.
B.E: It's boasting, right? It is the warrior saying how great he is.
F.F.: Exactly. It's boasting. Boasting. And in the booklet of this CD dedicated to Gétatchèw Mèkurya, I have translated some of these war songs, some of these vocal, shelèlla songs. They are saying, "We will kill you. We will cut the balls off you. We will do this, and we will do that." And when he plays this, each and every Ethiopian can hear behind the saxophone the lyrics to that traditional, war song.
B.E: Now, he is still around, right?
F.F.: He is still around, and well.
B.E: Good. And by now, of course, he must have heard all of this free jazz. People have told him that his music sounds like that. What does he make of it now?
F.F.: You know what is funny? One of the collateral advantages, I would say, of Éthiopiques is that now, some of these musicians are invited to perform in Europe, or elsewhere. And it happened that recently, Gétatchèw Mèkurya has performed with a free jazz big-band in Holland, crazy people. A free jazz band. And they are simply crazy about Gétatchèw, and Gétatchèw feels at home with them. So sometimes, there are incredible meetings like this, and I'm very pleased that the release on Éthiopiques of his music drove him to meet such musicians. He really feels at home with them. He enjoys so much to blow. Who is the one who will boast the loudest? And musically, the result is incredible.
B.E: So, even though these artists have arrived at this place through completely different paths, they are able to really communicate and the artistic together, despite the fact that the road got them there is so different.
F.F.: Oh, yes. There is no problem. The Dutch, they play free jazz. The Ethiopians blows war songs. Aesthetically, formally, it's very, very close. So there is no problem to meet you. No problem at all.
B.E: That's amazing. Finally, I would like to ask also about this artist Asnaqètch Wèrqu, the so-called "lady with the krar.”
F.F.: Asnaqètch Wèrqu. She is a krar player, and a singer, but she started her artistic career as an actress, a theater actress, in the early fifties. At this time, to be a woman, and to go on stage, was worse maybe than to be an azmari. Just like in many cultures, including ours. In France, until the late 19th century, early 20th century, theater actresses were considered almost as prostitutes, you see? So she is a pioneer. She established that a woman could be on stage and be an actress. And also, she was a krar player and singer, very famous for her double meaning poems, even though she doesn't have an azmari family background. She belongs to this culture, and she knows how to handle the double meanings of the lyrics. And because of this, as I told you, the more brilliant you are using the double meanings in your lyrics, the more beloved you are by the audience. And she was very good at that. During more than 30 years, she is to be a very beloved singer and krar player. She still lives in Addis Ababa.