Ethiopiques at vol. 27: Francis Falceto interviewed
Francis Falceto does not really need an introduction. He has been credited with single-handedly bringing Ethiopian music to the forefront of world music consciousness through the éthiopiques series, although as he rightly points out, this is a task beyond the capacity of a single person. His contribution to the sharing and preservation of the unique legacy of Ethiopian music cannot be overestimated. Repeating the story of how he first got involved in Ethiopian music would be equally redundant as this has been well documented elsewhere. Instead we asked Francis about what we has up his sleeves for the next éthiopiques releases, about the ”azmari syndrome” and the contemporary music scene in Addis and what he thinks the future holds for Ethiopian music. Read his detailed and fascinating answers below.
The éthiopiques series has now reached 27 volumes. Do you see it as mission accomplished or are there still musical treasures in Ethiopia waiting to be discovered?
Such a “mission” cannot be really accomplished, cannot be absolutely complete and exhaustive, so rich and multi-facetted is the Ethiopian music heritage. The so-called mission is beyond the capacity of a single person. A lot remains to be discovered, specially among the recordings made before the shekla (vinyl) era.
At the moment, I am working on éthiopiques CDs devoted to the godfather of the great Oromo music, Ali Birra, + Kassa Tesemma and Muluqen Mellesse. I expect I’ll be able to release some more: Ayalew Mesfin, Frew Haylou, Abubaker Asheké, Girma Beyene, Tlahoun Gessesse’s shekla recordings with Imperial Bodyguard Band, a Tribute to Nerses Nalbandian, Italian 78 rpm shellacs of azmaris recorded in 1939, oldies of Wallias and Ibex bands, Bezunesh Bekele, Shegenewoch (Asselefech Ashine & Getenesh Kebret), and the last LP recorded by Mahmoud Ahmed on his own label in 1978 (actually the latest shekla ever released in Ethiopia). Also in the pipe are the recordings of brilliant Mursi music made by Jean-Baptiste Eczet and the amazing recordings and filmworks by Itsushi Kawase about lalibeloch.
Still many more artists or music cultures would deserve to be revived and brought to the world audience – I am mostly thinking about some veterans of Agher Feqer Mahber (like Assefa Abate, Shishig Tchekol, Etagegn Hayle a.k.a. Zerrafé, Getamessay Abebe and so on…), and Harari music, southern peoples music(s), Menzuma, etc. Anyway, I do intend to put an end to the series one day. Any marathon needs a finishing line. Other personal works related to Ethiopia too remain to be done…
Your effort to bring Ethiopian music to the attention of a non-Ethiopian audience has been
ongoing for now more than 20 years. What keeps you motivated in this work?
Fun and excitation first. As a basic music lover, it was a must for me to share with other music lovers such a good music unknown outside of its native frontiers. Writing articles only would have been nonsense. If it is possible to write about James Brown or Mozart, as almost anybody has personal references about their music, writing about an unknown or unavailable music is simple nonsense because this cannot give a proper idea of it. So, from the very beginning (1984), it seemed to me that the music itself had to be available outside of Ethiopia, through records or concerts. And I stuck to this strategy, constantly and unshakably. I had to wait for the fall of the Derg and, all in all, more than 10 incredibly long years passed between my first trip to Ethiopia and the release of the first ethiopiques CD.
Initially I had never thought I would have entered in such a long race. To my surprise and amazement, pretty quickly after the first releases, artists and producers asked me to be part of éthiopiques series. On another hand, the encouraging media response has been very helpful for me to go ahead. If it cannot be the media coverage alone that validates any work, it is always more gratifying to be actively supported than ignored or demolished. The open support of many Ethiopians (in spite of the “traditional” suspicion towards Ferenj and the ferocious meqegnanet) has been also essential for me to continue and develop Ethiopian music world exposure. I shall never be grateful enough to all these open-minded and positive Ethiopians who consider first the work done, more than an hypothetic personal enrichment (!!!). Suspicion and jealousy are just bad reflexes, not good advisers. All in all and beyond all kinds of headaches, éthiopiques undertaking is a great pleasure and lots of fun. (It may also request some masochist capacities, probably…)
As a searcher, I have to add that deep immersion into Ethiopian music(s) and their histories proved unexpectedly to be an ideal open door to start to understand at least a little of the Ethiopian society – a society so different from African as well as Northern societies, so challenging for an outsider, and so rarely and satisfactorily tackled.
Do you see your work on Ethiopian music as being one of preserving a unique musical legacy or one of changing the image of Ethiopia to the outside world? Does music have the power to do this in your view?
Again, initially, I would have never thought I were dealing with preserving a unique musical legacy. I just wanted to present to a general and world audience one of the last great music from Africa unknown outside of its national borders or outside of Ethiopian diaspora. It’s little by little that I understood I were dealing with Ethiopian heritage and its preservation, just by seeing the state of contemporary Ethiopian music, and realizing that there had a huge musical gap between before and after the Derg.
Historical and political circumstances (the dramatic Derg time) had brutally put an end to the post-World War II development of modern Ethiopian music. Almost overnight, Derg has closed and locked an incredible sequence full of explosive creativity and cultural innovation (not to mention each and every aspect of Ethiopian social life, which were crushed too). After the initial hope for a good change it had briefly brought in, this criminal regime turned to become the gravedigger of Ethiopian development at large. Suspicion and paranoia became the ground for defaming, imprisoning and murdering – people as well as values. Through permanent curfew (18 years non stop), censorship, compulsory propaganda, the modern music scene dynamism dried up.
Two technological innovations contemporary of this turmoil era have also amplified the musical crash: electronic keyboards and cassettes. These keyboards were supposed to replace the institutional orchestras that had been disbanded by the new regime… Of course, their crappy groove could not compete seriously with the Hayle-Selassie I Theatre Orchestra, the Imperial Bodyguard Band or the Police and Army Orchestras… And the cassettes (much cheaper than vinyl sheklas, needing no expensive appliances like electric turntables – as opposed to cassette players with batteries– , affordable for anybody anywhere in the countryside, not fragile, definitely “democratic”) became an extraordinary developer of the music market, AND simultaneously, at the end of the day, the tool for an extensive piracy that has deprived artists and producers of a fair reward. These two technological innovations, on top of the political situation, had heavily impoverished the music production, and then crushed it.
“I personally think that music has had a great contribution for changing the terrible and unfair image of Ethiopia inherited from the brainwashing media turmoil that started in 1984.”
Regarding the power of music for changing the image of Ethiopia to the outside world, this can be endlessly discussed… Even being mortified by foreign clichés, Ethiopians don’t seem to mind and take action about its image in the eyes of the world. Self-satisfaction, nationalistic pride and allergy to criticism (ethiocentrism in one word) still blindly rule too many Ethiopian minds. I personally think that music has had a great contribution for changing the terrible and unfair image of Ethiopia inherited from the brainwashing media turmoil that started in 1984. The country has gained a huge and favorable press coverage from its “Golden Age” music. And, as a matter of fact, in the past 15 years many “tourists” came to Ethiopia because of the music – partly, but definitely an unexpected side effect of ethiopiques. Some, musicians and non-musicians, ended up taking roots in the country, supporting the music development (or starting the profitable export business of old Ethiopian vinyls)…
I don’t see that this ferenj kind of craze for Ethiopia has particularly alerted the cultural authorities, inciting them to actively support Ethiopian music development (assisting local and international exposure, protecting consistently artists rights, or joining the international copyright association, etc.). It seems that musicians are still considered as second rank citizens (the azmari syndrome), definitely unable to represent Ethiopia decently. On another hand, the old-fashioned confusion between culture and tourism tends to exclude contemporary artists at large from the field of culture – they are simply not seen as part of the cultural heritage by Ethiopian officials…
Many Western musicians have been inspired by the éthiopiques series and have started to play ethio jazz – some of them in collaboration with Ethiopian musicians. But it seems that many of them – both the Western and young Ethiopian musicians – are just imitating the sounds of the golden age.
I seriously disagree with such an easy and extremist view. Of course, there are a lot of copy cats, cheap imitators and lazy adventurers. Too many. Let’s forget about them to focus first on the most encouraging sonic experiences. Better focus on, keep in mind, and promote the positive exceptions. I also want to point out a frequent confusion between éthiopiques (or, let’s say, modern Ethiopian music) and ethio jazz. Never Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete, Getachew Mekurya or any other such cult artist would say he or she is part of ethio jazz, which is the thing of Mulatu Astatke alone. Even young Ethiopian jazz musicians rarely refer to Mulatu or ethio jazz to qualify their music. (One day or another, the controversial status and significance of Mulatu and ethio jazz in Ethiopian music history will be done seriously and fearlessly.)
Actually, I have started a new CD series few years ago, ethioSonic, devoted to contemporary Ethiopian music. “Today’s Ethiopian groove, in all its forms and wherever it may come from – Ethiopia, the diaspora, or Ferenj”, as boasts the moto. The sixth installment (released early 2012) is a double CD presenting a collection of 28 bands from ten countries – Noise & Chill Out – Ethiopian Groove Worldwide. In my opinion, the variety of forms and aesthetic choices that are presented shows by itself that there are enough good reasons to keep some hopes in a brilliant future for Ethiopian music. We’ll see… But listening to these pretty radical music proposals should help, hopefully, to balance pessimistic and disappointed appreciations. More such abrasive recordings like Trio Kazenchis, uKanDanZ and Daniel Techane will be released soon.
Do you see any innovation and creativity in contemporary Ethiopian music? Do you think it
is likely that there will be a new golden age for Ethiopian music?
Trying to reconstitute the puzzle of the so-called golden age, trying to draw its history, doesn’t mean to revive at any cost the music of this prodigious era. The long and exhausting expectance of the music lover doesn’t fit necessarily with the chronicler or historian views. I generally tend to consider that the Ethiopian musicians that came into the picture after the Derg time (and after the vanishing of its three essential bands – Roha, Wallias and Ethio-Star) are a lost generation. They didn’t achieve anything substantial enough to be meaningful of a “renaissance”, and enjoyable worldwide. They could not even establish any momentous band, spending too much energy in power fights or for golden slavery, instead of focusing on reckless artistic projects. Right or wrong, I see four periods pretty equal in time in the post-war Ethiopian music development:
— 1941-1955, the reconstruction;
— 1955-1974, THE golden age, from the opening of HSI Theatre to the fall of the Empire;
— 1974-1991, the glaciation of the Derg time;
— The following post-Derg period is the lost generation’s one.
20 years are gone now since the abolishment of the curfew in 1992. The restart of intense nightlife didn’t really meet musical creativity and general fun, arrangers seem to be dead, and cassette and CD producers are endlessly digging the grave… Who knows if this period is really over?… Where are the Amha Eshetes, Kassahoun Eshetes or Ali Tangos of today? Hope seems now in the hands and minds of a younger generation, hungry and concerned enough for a real change (let’s say individuals like Jorga Mesfin, Samuel Yirga, Dagmawi Ali, Michael Haylu or even a dancer and stimulating person like Melaku Belay, to name only but five – there are more of course), backed up by many other individual talents, undecided returnees, ferenjis rooted in Ethiopia or talent-scouting back and forth. A great singer without a real backing band is almost nobody. A band means a clear musical project, a brotherhood of breath. Ketefa (easy-listening and ready-made music) is just ketefa.
At several points in history Ethiopian music has been affected by specific foreign influences,
first the Armenians, later American volunteers in the 60s. Do you see any new influences
affecting Ethiopian music today?
In our present times dominated by Internet, influences are flowing from everywhere, for the good and the bad, the better and the worst. It doesn’t concern Ethiopia only, but the whole world. It’s up to the smart ones to make their honey out of what they want, to transcend these influences and elaborate new things through their personal creativity. For my personal concern, in any case Ethiopian music has to stick a maximum to Ethiopian blend and specificities to survive in its country as well as to find its way worldwide. For instance, I have basically no objection to Ethiopian rap as long as it sounds Ethiopian enough (Amharic lyrics are not enough for the music to sound Ethiopian).
“Where are the Amha Eshetes, Kassahoun Eshetes or Ali Tangos of today? Hope seems now in the hands and minds of a younger generation, hungry and concerned enough for a real change.”
Among Westerners it is often the music of Alemayehu Eshete, Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud
Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke etc. that receives the most attention. But living in Ethiopia you quickly start appreciating the azmari tradition with its strong emphasis of the lyrics, the wax and gold phenomenon (as featured on éthiopiques vol. 2, 18 and 27). Why do you think that the azmari singers and musicians are not appreciated in the same way by non-Ethiopians as the famous musicians of the Addis scene in the 60s and 70s?
By understanding quickly that modern music owed a lot to the azmari tradition, for the lyrics as well as for many melodies, I had to consider closely this tradition in my study of Ethiopian music(s). I have to add that I have also a personal inclination for free speech in general, and for poetry in particular – and in Ethiopia, azmaris are the original masters for both.
Obviously, “azmari music” is less groovy than zemenawi music to the ears of non-Ethiopian audience. Modern Ethiopian music, specially the oldies, has many excellent arguments to please the “western” ears (actually northern): beautiful melodies easy to whistle and sing when you are under the shower, gorgeous voices, sophisticated arrangements, amazing solos, strong brass sections, danceable stuff, etc. Nothing like that with “azmari music”. In fact, as the latter is essentially a verbal art backed by a minimal mesenqo accompaniment, it excludes de facto non-Amharic speaking audiences.
Having been a systematic observer of azmari scene in the past 25 years, I have to underline and point out the big changes that this music tradition has faced. I am afraid that azmaris “according to the tradition” have almost completely vanished from Addis’ so-called azmaribets nowadays. Because of many factors (urban settlement when azmaris used to be wandering minstrels, increasing ferenj and returnees audience when it used to be strictly Ethiopian, clean “touristification” when it used to be dark corners, etc.), because of many factors, today’s urban azmaris turned to become ordinary entertainers, clever at emphasizing “traditional” Ethiopian flavor through costumes and cabarets decoration, against their basic original talents. Couleur locale is never enough to do justice to a mutant (if not dying) art. Because their final goal is to empty your pockets with enjoyment, azmaris had to adapt to this new situation and leave behind their traditional verbal art, focusing on fun only to please the new kinds of audience. Lots of fun indeed, but Tezeta and Ambassel seem now to put to flight the customers eager for jumps and shouts only. This is not a conservative statement, but just facts. And mutations are always worth the trouble to be observed too.
At the same time, when you are in Addis you can not help notice how rapidly the country
and especially Addis is changing. What role do you see for the azmari tradition in a modern
Bis repetita. There is a lot to say about the fast and drastic changes that traditional azmari culture is facing in the post-Derg time. (I am trying to complete with difficulty a paper about that. Tentative title: Azmaribet – From Neologism to Deculturation.) Nowadays and paradoxically, as I said above most of the azmaribet customers are foreigners or diasporas in vacation. Note that azmaribet is a neologism that came into the picture about twenty years ago only. It bears a contradiction in its term since initially azmaris were wandering minstrels and not attached to a specific place. They used to hang around and perform here and there, in tedjbets, tallabets, bars and other dark corners. It is only since the abolition of the curfew in 1992 that they have started to open
their own cabarets, and that this neologism has flourished. (There had very few such places at the end of the Derg, but this is another story…)
It seems like a paradox that at a time where Ethiopian music is becoming increasingly popular outside Ethiopia, it is very difficult to find legal copies of this music inside Ethiopia. How do you see this paradox?
An easily explainable paradox: original éthiopiques CDs used to be imported and distributed in Ethiopia until 2003 or 2004. Understandably, the importer stopped the distribution then because he couldn’t compete against piracy: the following day of éthiopiques availability on Ethiopian market, you could find cheap bootlegged copies in the music shops and in the streets.
A sad paradox too. How comes nobody else, Ferenj or Ethiopian, took care of this music heritage? All in all, it has been an uncertain and patient work to retrieve the original masters or original sheklas in audible condition and to restore them, an endless marathon to dig out historically accurate informations about musicians, bands, composers or arrangers, and to trace and find the entitled beneficiaries. A long and exhausting run.
Generally speaking, too often it seems that suspicion paralyzes any development in Ethiopia. “Better doing nothing than risking to bring to the light what or who deserves the light” seems the rule! And this strange and obscurantist rule doesn’t rule the music market only… There had several attempts in the past to manufacture and distribute legal Ethiopian versions of éthiopiques CDs in Ethiopia, at Ethiopian cost and sale price. All failed up to now. There is a new project of “éthiopiques for Ethiopia” in the pipe, which I do support (as well as the French records company). I do wish this one will come true very soon.