The golden age of Ethiopian music

For 17 years, Addis Ababa resounded to African rhythms, Western pop, and European band music. Now that heady mix is coming to the UK. By Andy Morgan
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The Independent Culture

Let's compare two snapshots of recent Ethiopian history. The first is from 1968, when Emperor Haile Selassie I ruled over the proudest and most eccentric nation in Africa, with its Christian Coptic church (that was already well established when the British still worshipped pagan gods), its feudal menagerie of princes, barons and serfs, its vast and verdant central plateau, and its pulsating capital city Addis Ababa, which was then one of the pre-eminent cultural, social and diplomatic hot-spots of independent Africa.

At this time, down in the Wube Bereha, the red-light district of central Addis, royalty rubbed its haughty shoulders with generals and gigolos, bar-room philosophers and peace-corps workers, diplomats and prostitutes, in an intoxicatingly illicit celebration of youth and freedom. Plush hotels resounded to patent-leather-clad feet dancing to the sounds of resident "soul" combos like the Ras Band, All Star Band, Zula Band, Venus Band, Wabe Shebele Band, Roha Band and Dahlak Band. The old guard fumed against youthful decadence and the unwelcome "foreign" influences that seemed to be invading the nation's cerebral cortex. The old order was dying, and those who could either afford or blag their way into the party were dancing like tomorrow would never come.

Fast-forward a mere 17 years to 1985 and the headlines were monotonously brutal: famine, corruption, Eritrean separatists, Live Aid, Bob Geldof, Stalinism African-style, starving children and flies crawling across the face of a desperate nation. Francis Falceto, a young music promoter from Poitiers in France, stepped nervously off an Aeroflot flight from Moscow and into the dark, empty streets of Ethiopia's capital, which had been cleared of all joy and nightlife by the midnight curfew imposed in the wake of the revolution of 1974.

The "swinging" Addis of the late 1960s had become a ghost-town populated by bristling armed patrols and legions of stray dogs. Fear and suspicion reigned supreme. The merest human initiative required a rubber stamp, a visa, a nod from the appropriate apparatchik or minister. Falceto had given himself one week to find two giants of the golden age of modern Ethiopian music – the singer Mahmoud Ahmed and the composer-arranger Mulatu Astatqe – and bring them back for a tour of France. The meetings happened, but the mission failed. It would take many more trips and years of research and frustration before Falceto could begin opening the ears of the world to Ethiopian music.

The tragic discrepancy between these two images of Ethiopia, and the urge to re-establish a just equilibrium between them, is at the heart of Falceto's 20-year-old devotion to the country and its music. Sitting in a hotel room in Camden Town hours before receiving a 2008 BBC Award for World Music for Ethiopiques, his epic CD reissue series, the Frenchman explains his motives while chain-smoking. "Until recently I couldn't start an article or interview without first trying to put things right. Now, I feel that I've spoken enough on that particular subject and that what you can hear or see through the Ethiopian music of that era is like a plea for us to revise the vision we have of that country."

Quite apart from breaking the simplistic bond that has yoked Ethiopia and famine together in the popular imagination, Ethiopiques has won numerous awards, scored a world music hit with its recent Very Best of Ethiopiques release, corralled a cosmopolitan fanbase and revived the careers of some of the leading lights of the golden age, which lasted a mere decade and a half from 1960 to the mid-1970s.

Ahmed is now an A-list attraction on the global-music circuit, saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya has penetrated new musical realms and audiences thanks to his collaboration with Dutch impro-punks the Ex, and the ubiquitous Astatqe travels the world, basking in the adulation of fans of leftfield jazz such as Gilles Peterson, who played host to him at a recent day of gigs and workshops at London's Red Bull Academy.

Now all three along with the singer Alèmayèhu Eshèté will be reunited to perform in a concert - their first ever together outside Ethiopia - in London next month. The 23 beautifully packaged and annotated CD volumes in the series have achieved something that even the Ethiopians themselves believed would never happen.

"When I first met Mahmoud Ahmed in Addis," Falceto explains, "he couldn't imagine, and Ethiopians in general couldn't imagine, that their music could appeal to foreigners. It took years and years of touring in the West for them to accept that non-Ethiopians could swing, groove, jump and love this music."

Cultural isolationism is a natural product of Ethiopia's unique history and geographical location. High up on their lush green plateau, Ethiopians have enjoyed a spiritual and political independence that has lasted thousands of years and was sullied only briefly by Mussolini and his delusions of imperial grandeur in the 1930s.

The earlier victory of Emperor Menelik and his general Ras Makonnen over the Italians at the battle of Adwa in 1896 brought diplomats and bounty-hunters from all over the world to the Imperial court. It also prompted the Tsar of Russia, impressed by the fierce resistance of this ancient Christian kingdom to European colonialism, to donate a full set of brass-band instruments along with the services of a Polish bandleader by the name of Milewski to Emperor Menelik. This is largely how an unorthodox love of European orchestral music was injected into the Ethiopian bloodstream.

By the 1950s, every imperial institution of note, from the army, the police and the imperial bodyguard to the Haile Selassie Theatre, had its own orchestra, comprising scores of disciplined musicians who enjoyed the tutelage of dedicated foreign bandleaders, such as the Austrian Franz Zelwecker or the Armenian Nerses Nalbandian. But it was only after the failed putsch of 1960, in which the imperial bodyguard and its orchestra were heavily implicated, that the strictly regimented system of institutional bands started to crumble and smaller, hipper, funkier groups began to forge a new sound that was both brazenly modern, with a sonic approach broadly synchronised to the soul, jazz and funk that spanned the globe, and resolutely Ethiopian at the same time.

Listen to any of the Ethiopiques CDs, but especially The Very Best Of... or Volume 1: the Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music, and this essential quality of alien familiarity hits you from the first note. It's as if Falceto stumbled on a kind of modern musical equivalent of the Galapagos Islands, where inbound musical species, immune to the Latin American, Arabic or Asian influences that dominate the rest of Africa's musical landscape, mutated into strange and wonderful hybrids, executed with a level of musicianship that could stand alongside the best in the West. The quavering vocal style of Muluqen Mellesse, Teshome Meteku, Seyfou Johannes or Alemayehu Eshete, and sparse jagged arrangements of Astatqe or Girma Beyene all provoke the same reaction in the receptive novice:" What on Earth is this?"

"There's nationalism, even at times a chauvinism that borders on the xenophobic, in the Ethiopian spirit," explains Falceto, "and it predates the colonial era by many hundreds of years. You feel that in the music. An Ethiopian will never slap you on the back and say, 'OK, mate, how's it going?' They look down at you and think, 'OK, if you're here it means that things are better than where you come from'. I find that very impressive, but it means that it's sometimes hard to work with them."

The payback for Falceto's obsessive perseverance has come not only in the shape of the international success of Ethiopiques but also the hard-earned respect of Ethiopians both at home and abroad, who have rejoiced in the reversal of the cultural surgery performed by Colonel Haile Mengistu Mariam and his Stalinist Derg regime after the revolution. Ethiopians in their fifties or sixties finally have hard evidence with which to convince their children and grandchildren that their homeland really did achieve musical greatness.

Ethiopiques in concert, 27 June, Barbican, London (020 7638 8891; www.barbican.org.uk) 'The Very Best of Ethiopiques' is out now

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