post Francis Falceto, Part I

February 22nd, 2008

Filed under: Music Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 14:59

Francis Falceto-Ethiopia: Empire and Revolution
Interviewer: Banning Eyre…. Part I


Francis Falceto is the creator of the 21-volume, and growing, Ethiopiques CD series on Buda Music. 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. The black and white photographs here come from Abyssinie Swing. Click here for Part 2 of this interivew, Ethiopia: Diaspora and Return.

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?

F.F: 1997.

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 Europeans 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 musicians, is something like to belong to a cast. The traditional musicians, known by the name azmaris are considered as a cast, as they are a bit outside of the society. An average Ethiopian will never play music, you see. Still this type of cast 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 welcome 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 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 “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 American 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 sometime. 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 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 Africa 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 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.”

F.F: Exactly.

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 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).

B.E: Incredible?

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 V. 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.

F.F: Absolutely.


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 Ethiopian blows war songs. Aesthetically, formerly, 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.


Part II is coming soon.

post The Untouchable Music

February 20th, 2008

Filed under: Video Forums — Lissan Magazine @ 00:18

Pamelia Kurstin: Theremin, the untouchable music

Pamelia Kurstin excavates a dusty artifact from the prehistoric strata of electronic music — and demonstrates how to squeeze soul from an instrument you can’t even touch.

The theremin, the first electronic instrument ever invented, was on the brink of historic oblivion when it was rescued from obscurity by director Steven Martin’s classic 1994 documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey . And while a few brave souls have sought to master this temperamental instrument since then, none have done so with more sly effervescence than Pamelia Kurstin.

From the rock-steady composure she assumes behind the instrument (necessary lest her breathing drive the sensors out of tune), one might presume a shrinking conservatory personality, but a quick glance at the MySpace page or website of the self-described “bird-punching rollerskating thereminist” will quickly dash any of these quaint notions. Far from being a quirky curiosity, however, Kurstin is a sensitive, emotional stylist capable of coaxing sublime melodic content out of an instrument usually doomed to B-movie sci-fi soundtracks. (And her walking bass imitation is pretty cool too.)

Born in Los Angeles, Kurstin currently resides in Vienna, and performs with acclaimed eccentric rockers Barbez, among many others. Her latest solo CD, Thinking Out Loud, was released in 2007 on John Zorn’s legendary Tzadik label. She’ll bathe your dog and give you a haircut (”if you’re daring,” she warns) in exchange for a six-pack.

“Eclectic barely cuts it. Like the more familiar chameleons, Josh Redman, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis and many others normally associated with jazz, electronica, even classical, Pam Kurstin represents the most recent version of the eclectic, improvising musician”

post Contemporary Ethiopian Art

February 19th, 2008

Filed under: Art — Lissan Magazine @ 23:50

Contemporary Ethiopian Art: The New, Exit Generation Artists
By: Esseye Medhin

“My goal is not to be an artist. My goal is to examine complicated feelings.” Daniel Taye, 2000


While many contemporary artists worldwide, particularly those from the southern hemisphere, are showing a fascination with issue-based art, where art, activism and media are fundamentally being intertwined more and more, in the works of new exit generation Ethiopian artists, committed or activist subject matter is missing. Many of these artists tend to get their creative satisfaction from the inherited artistic cocoons and mediums, and from their own artistic enclaves and do not seem to be interested in formulating an existential situation or statement from their social or real life experiences. However, it is believed that they are creating their work not for the benefit of the new generation of technocrats, bureaucrats and ethnocentric individuals. Rather, it is that their oeuvres, as a matter of principle, are directed at these individuals – not to amuse and entertain them but to create malaise and chagrin.

The forces and the mechanisms in the works of some of these artists generally emanates from what they see in Ethiopia: the parade of events such as societal confusion, the AIDS epidemic, poverty, and ethnic conflicts. The artist community as well suffered as much as the rest of society from these events. Many of their classmates, instructors and fellow beloved artists suffered and died during the 1990s and to this day. This situation exasperated and penetrated the minds and the creative spirits of some of these artists, and is transformed into spiritual treasure. Five of the outstanding earliest exit generation artists in the past decade who have come out with their signature styles and thus have gained both artistic and financial success are Daniel Taye, Meseret Desta, Mekbib Gebertsadik, Shiferwa Girma and Fikru G. Mariam.

Daniel, who initially wanted to live in Hammer Bako before he fled Addis Ababa and settled in Washington D.C. — and who in 2000 declared to the whole world that his goal is not to be an artist but to examine complicated feelings — was a highly sought-after society painter. All Addis demanded to be painted by him. At one time, Daniel talks of his dream to change the current building of the Defense Minister into a creative art center right in the center of Addis Ababa. His paintings are derived from live rather than imagined models. They are not the reflection of his external study only, but also reflect his mental pictures. His ability to blend and manipulate color and form ever more expressively through his passion and emotion endows upon his models a piercing look; his several self-portraits are unforgettable images of a suffering artist. His swiftly painted, petrified portraits of artists, authors, friends etc. are unforgiving, questioning, penetrating and analytical.

The artists Meseret and Mekbibe are a couple who live and work in Arlington, Virginia. The neighborhood environments Meseret creates on canvas with bits and pieces of rainbow colors are enchanting and radiant. She forms her tableau in a manner similar to that of most other contemporary Ethiopian women painters. Mekbib can be fully understood with a careful analysis of his vertical and horizontal bold brush strokes. His brilliant strokes are masterly. Figures shown dancing, gazing or doing other activities are usually engulfed with carefully picked colors.

Shiferaw, who lives in Las Vegas, is one of the most brilliant and imaginative painters. He collaborated with several other veteran artists and made a lasting acquaintance with the works of several artists of the 1970s. He meticulously and rigorously triumphs over the teachings of his instructors and has created his own unmistakable style. His fragmented, superimposed, inviting and tantalizing figures and faces seem miniatures against the sweep of the canvas in his semi-abstract and decorative and fantasy paintings; they have the flavor of all that is achieved in Modern Ethiopian art.

Fikru, who graduated from the School of Fine Arts in 1997, and who owns a studio both in Addis and Paris, stole the hearts and minds of his admirers by using what he observed — and distilled to his own advantage — from the works of his instructor. We see in his work the style of Waka, a wood sculpture monument on a gravesite of the Konso and the African masks. His models are mutilated and even shattered, but idealized; they somehow attract the sensibilities.

Just like several other artists of their generation and previous generation, the female models played as object and motivation for many of these artists. Their association of ethnic minorities or women with sensuality or primitive motifs became lavishly visible. It is believed this association is of purely aesthetic necessity. From these new exit generation artists, who have come out with this trend and style include: Abera Mehari, Addis Gezehagn, Assefa Gebrekidan, Baye Lakew, Benyam Eyassu, Bereket T. Michael, Berhan Asmanaw, Berhanu Mekonnen, Bharu Jemal, Daniel Asfaw, Dawit Abebe, Debebe Tesfaye, Elias Sime, Elias Worku, Emac Eshete, Engdaget Legesse, Eyob Tefera, Girma Kifle Meskel, Hailemariam Dendir, Kerim Ahmed, Matewos Legesse, Matiyas Lulu, Mekasha Haile, Merid Tizazu, Merikokeb Berhanu, Mihret Dawit, Mulugeta Gebrekidan, Naizgi Tewolde, Nebyou Tesfaye, Nigatu Tsehay, Seyoum Ayalew, Sisay W Giorges, Solomon Assefaw, Tamrat Fekadu, Tamrat Gezahegne, Teferi Teshome, Tegene Kunbi, Tesfahun Kibru, Tesfaye Legesse, Tesfu Assefa, Wondwossen Beyene,Wondwossen Tadesse, Yared Wondwossen, Yenatfenta Abate, Yohaness Tesfay, Yosef Kebede, Zeinu Mudeser, Zeradawite Abate, Zerihun Seyum, Zerihun Workineh .

In reshaping their future, these artists have chosen a much different strategy and approach than their predecessors. They are successfully entering the millennium due in part to an unprecedented interest in art shown both by younger-generation Ethiopians and by Ethiopians residing and returning from abroad. The number of art dealerships and art galleries provide connections to new clienteles and bring great possibilities to these artists. They are perceptive enough to garner support in order to send out their work for shows or to obtain travel visas. The new, exit generation artists are in a different situation from their predecessors in that they go frequently in and out of the country and are not isolated from the dynamics of art marketing or from current contemporary art world trends.

Just like contemporary artists anywhere, the new, exit generation artists live in a linear art culture. Unlike the era their predecessors lived in, the new generation artists live in an era where every point in the globe is thoroughly interconnected. They will not go on repeating and emulating the visions and experiences of others before them. They simply cannot afford to remain interested only in the aesthetic pleasure that can be derived from their works. Their goal is not to be artists in the traditional sense. It is rather to examine complicated feelings and create aesthetically, socially and technologically meaningful and significant work. As it happens, Ethiopian artists are the least likely to be indifferent to human issues and conditions. It is hard to imagine that their higher levels of education would not have helped them confront the threats facing them and society - become sensitive of human conditions - as opposed to only art in and of itself —the kind of art usually produced now by retirees, housewives, amateurs who fancy themselves as painters, kindergarten children and even four-legged creatures.

Some may argue that committed and activist art — art that convinces, inspires and reminds — will lead to unwanted or even passé forms of artistic expression. But it is also impossible not to believe or suspect that contemporary Ethiopian art helps maintain the status quo by idealizing, mystifying and distorting the facts. Whether contemporary Ethiopian art’s activist commitment is its strength or its weakness is a matter of subjective judgment. It has, however, become an increasingly complex matter, if not pure idealism or wishful thinking. Art, indeed, is not a savior, a redeemer or anything else that has been said about it. If it were so, the millions of iconic and decorative works in the valleys, mountains and plains of Ethiopia would have saved the nation from every catastrophe it has experienced. Beyond and above its intended purpose, ancient Ethiopian art did certainly help alleviate suffering by reaching into hearts and minds with hope and compassion. To believe or hope now that contemporary Ethiopian art can help alleviate suffering, incite action, or awaken, disrupt, provoke or change the public and the authorities perception of life may be valid for the individual artists’ commitment and their patrons.

The art of the 1960s and 1970s of Ethiopian activists and social critics includes subject matter that goes beyond merely the story that the painter wants to tell. They were not illustrations, but art that consciously intended to emphasize the self-respect of Ethiopian men and women, often under deprivation. They suggest much concern for the human condition. To this day, their subject matter and results manage to keep us engaged, and they feel timeless despite the fact that they were painted over 30 years ago. In fact, just like the Zemenay artists — some of the important activist artists of the 1970s showed great creativity in a number of their pictorial devices. Many of their artistic solutions ultimately formed a practical guide and approach for others, including the new and exit generation artists — their students. It now becomes only an afterthought —or even regarded as marginal — it will not be so much because it reflected the horrors of the city, the shabby streets, the famine-stricken mothers and children. Nor will it be for its inferior quality or its passé forms of representation, or because it lacked intellect, continuity or other aesthetic and psychological factors. It is in part because of the influential and overwhelming popularity of the Zemenay formal approach, with audacious concepts and the influence of other, more effective mediums.

Incidentally, what makes the leading Zemenay and their works still significant and important is not their trivial, trendy and ephemeral successes but their character and involvement. They were committed to communicating a philosophical and activist intent, and reflected the Ethiopian spirit aesthetically as well as its political strife. They were never accused or suspected despite their radical theory and involvement by the establishment or the public. Just the opposite; they were acknowledged as heroes by all sides. Even those artists of societies that nurtured all kinds of technological and scientific achievements and those involved and influenced by the ‘isms’ of the last century, the modernists, are acknowledged and admired not for their aesthetic or philosophical approaches alone, but for reflecting their deep-felt concern for the human condition and for their art that convince and inspires.

So far, no one has claimed with certainty if anyone from the new, exit generation has succeeded in making any kind of artistic originality or activist commitment. Perhaps it is that so many cultural activities are more effective in getting more attention, that visual art noise is irrelevant, inconceivable and incompatible in this postmodern flattened world.The major development in the dynamics of the art market is one crucial factor where the new exit generation artists are a step ahead of their predecessors. Without their financial success, none of their achievement would have been noticed. Despite the fact that the buying potential of the Ethiopian public for art is still in its infancy, it seems likely that as we move into the new Ethiopian millennium, these homegrown artists will somehow push and transform their artwork into a breadwinning strategy. No matter what, without effective training in art skills, art theory and art history, any kind of artistic originality is inconceivable.


post Being Landlocked

February 19th, 2008

Filed under: General Issue — Lissan Magazine @ 23:02

A Landlocked Economy: (Being Landlocked).
By Agerachinen Inadin / TG

Geography matters for developments. Ethiopia is located in an area of political fluidity and changing alignment that it is a logical object of international and regional attention. The Geo-political environment, the Arab Israeli conflict, the opening of the Suez Canal, the strategy of making the Red Sea an Arab Lake, the OPEC cartel and oil politics, growing religious fundamentalism, American and Israeli strategy in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, etc. has always affected Ethiopia. In most cases on the negative. This means Ethiopia for generation finds itself in a passionately contested political, economic and religious questions causing armed conflicts, frequent wars and acute tensions. In the midst of all these, Ethiopia since time immemorial trying to keep its access to the sea while others tried to deny it and control the costal line. In addition internal conflict and power struggle as well as the dynamics of neighboring countries like Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia (three Arab and Islamic League countries) and recently Eritrea have affected the outcome of Ethiopia access to the sea. The lack of access to the see will have a strong impact on Ethiopia’s economic, political and strategic interest, economic welfare and prosperity, its alliance and support system in the international forum, access to trade, technology and military equipments.


Eritrea is no more the external trading outlet for Ethiopia. Landlocked Ethiopia relies on Djibouti port for about 98% of its international trade, although such heavy dependence leaves it vulnerable to factors beyond its control. Moreover, the two countries remain in dispute over several issues, including Ethiopia’s request for “through-bill of landing”, to give cargo more straightforward and quicker passage to dry inland ports. Djibouti had previously promised to implement the scheme, but has delayed doing so because of pressure from its own traders, who fear being excluded from their profitable middle-man role. To try and reduce reliance on Djibouti, Ethiopia reached agreement with neighboring Somaliland in 2005 for increasing the use of Berbera port. Somaliland is the relatively peaceful northern part of Somalia that has declared de facto independence, although this is not recognized by the international community. However, Ethiopia and Somaliland legalized bilateral trade in August 2003 and established customs posts. Berbera will be used for both goods and fuel—the port has an oil terminal—although the quantities are likely to remain small in the short term, pending new investments at the port and in the limited road network linking Somaliland with eastern Ethiopia. Ethiopia has also started using Port Sudan and has just finished the construction of a high grade road that connects Northern Ethiopia with Sudan leading to Port Sudan. This will also have a significant geo-political and economic impact in the triangular relations of Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea.

Being landlocked clips around half a percentage point off the growth rate of a country (Jeff Sachs). 38% of the people living below poverty line are in countries that are landlocked. However, being landlocked does not necessarily condemn a country either to poverty or to slow growth, eg. Switzerland, Austria or Luxembourg or Botswana. Landlocked countries incur much higher transport cost. The transport costs for a landlocked country depends upon how much its coastal neighbor had spent on transport infrastructure. This means landlocked countries are hostages to their neighbors. Ethiopia currently is to Eritrea. Zimbabwe’s access to the sea depends upon South African and Mozambique’s infrastructure, whereas Ethiopia’s access to the sea depends upon Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti or Somalia which makes the difference. If you are landlocked with poor transport links to the coast that are beyond your control, it is very difficult to integrate to global markets for any product that requires a lot of transport. This impact negatively on manufacturing – which to date has been the most reliable drive of rapid development.

Being both resource-scarce and landlocked, along with having neighbors who either do not have opportunities, Ethiopia is pretty well condemned to slow lane of growth due to lack of access to the sea and massive external import-export transportation in the long run. . This marked development harder.

So what can landlocked Ethiopia do?

a) Increase neighborhood growth Spillover:
Cross border trade by improving transport infrastructure on both sides of the border with Djibouti, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia. Develop regional trade and eliminate regional trade restrictions

b) Improve Neighbor’s Economic Policies - better integrated economy with neighbor

c) Improve Coastal Access
Improve joint transport infrastructure and joint policy decisions with Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan.

d) Become a haven for the region: Working to become the regional business service center. Create a good policy environment. Make sure that Ethiopia set policies clearly superior to those of its neighbors, to attract these sources and export them, around the region. Explore the possibility of becoming the center of regional goods that are highly policy sensitive such as finance. Continue working on Djibouti in investing to service Ethiopia’s external trade. Use Mombassa to serve the Southern Part of Ethiopia. Use Berbera to service South Eastern Ethiopia and continue to use Port Sudan too for North and northwestern Ethiopia even if is not totally reliable due to frequent change of alliance and possible sabotage from EPLF.

e) Don’t be air locked and E-Locked: Air transport is much more important than it used to be. Explore region wide low cost air service in a form of cross cutting companies with others.

f) Have the potential to deliver rapid economic growth for the region by being both competitive and cooperative. Eg. work on twin pillars of being competitive in E-service and having good telecommunications infrastructure that can service the sub region. Develop hydro electric potentials that can provide sustainable and reliable energy to the countries in the sub region. Provide skilled man power by producing high skilled workers through intensive training. Southern Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and even northern Sudan can be effective markets.

g) Economical remittances: Ethiopia is experiencing substantial emigration. This can be turned into some advantage through enabling and encouraging the Diaspora to send large remittances by way of investment as well as support to family members. Maximizing remittances depends upon several steps. Keep educate people in the Diaspora so that they are employable in higher income economies rather than simply as unskilled workers. Make your banking and exchange rate system competitive.

h) Create a transparent and investor - friendly environment for resource prospecting. - Host country’s governance of the economy and resources .

By Agerachinen Inadin / TG

post Haile Gerima

February 17th, 2008

Filed under: Who is Who? — Lissan Magazine @ 16:13

Haile Gerima is an independent filmmaker of distinction who has served as a distinguished Professor of film at Howard University in Washington, DC since 1975. Born in Ethiopia, Haile is perhaps best known as the writer, producer and director of the acclaimed 1993 film Sankofa.

Haile Gerima: Writer, Director, Editor

This historically inspired dramatic tale of African resistance to slavery has won international acclaim, awarded first prize at the African Film Festival in Milan, Italy, Best Cinematography at Africa’s premier Festival of Pan African Countries known as FESPACO and nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film festival where it competed with other Hollywood films. In addition the film captured the imagination of huge audiences across the United States, many who waited in long lines and filled theaters for weeks on end. In so doing, the film defied the notion that signing with mainstream distributors was the only option for filmmakers to have the public see their films. Guided by an independent philosophy, Gerima practiced an innovative strategy in distribution whose success remains unprecedented in African American film history.

What inspires this filmmaker is a tireless devotion to the art of independent cinema and the vision of a uniquely innovative cinematic movement that stresses a symbiotic relationship between African Diasporan artists and community. The success of Sankofa has allowed Gerima to begin to create an infrastructure to pursue this vision. His film center, located in the heart of the African American community at 2714 Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC, represents one of the real manifestations of the dream he has for independent African American cinema.

Sankofa (Klick here to order the DVD.)

While a number of productions are currently in production, two documentary films have been completed since Sankofa’s distribution and the center’s opening in 1996. In 1997 Haile co-produced, with his partner and confidante Shirikiana Aina, Through the Door of No Return. Its focus is the emotional journey Africans in the diaspora make to Ghana to reclaim the lost memories of a distant traumatic past and the experience of a Pan African consciousness inspired by Kwame Nkrumah’s open invitation after that country’s independence. Work on the second in the series with a focus on the history of the Pan African movement is presently in progress.

In 1999, Haile completed the first in a series of documentaries commemorating Ethiopia’s 1897 defeat of Italy at the Battle of Adwa in Adwa: An African Victory. It has had enthusiastic screenings at the Venice Film Festival, the London Film Festival and Sithengi: The South African Film and Television Market. This film has also had screenings in Washington, DC, New York and San Franscisco as well as other cities across the United States. The second film in the series, The Children of Adwa: Forty Years later, presently being edited, recreates the Emperor Haile Selassie’s stoic defense of Ethiopian sovereignty in the face of fascist Benito Mussolini’s brutal attempts to avenge his country’s earlier defeat.

Haile is also at the development stage with a five-part series on Maroons, inspired by audience questions about the role in of these African freedom fighters in American history and as portrayed in Sankofa.. He believes this exciting work will address a glaring omission in the knowledge and thinking of Africa in the Americas and will utilize the expertise of international scholars, thinkers and filmmakers in its presentation.

Gerima’s latest dramatic film is TEZA set in Ethiopia and Germany (2004-05). This film, currently in production, chronicles the return of an African intellectual to his country of birth during the repressive Marxist regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu and the recognition of his own displacement and powerlessness at the dissolution of his people’s humanity and social values.

In addition to his work on films about Africa and the Diaspora, as well as fulfilling his responsibilities as a full Professor of Film at Howard University, Haile Gerima also lectures and conducts workshops in alternative screenwriting and directing both within the United States and internationally. He has also conducted numerous workshops in the new South Africa and in 1995 he was invited to the British Film Institute to serve as a fellow. He is generous, giving his knowledge and expertise to a large population of students and is heavily invested in the notion that the filmmaker must be engaged in a constant process of self-reflexivity and learning along with the community he serves.

Haile Gerima’s training as a filmmaker can be said to have begun in Gondar, Ethiopia, the place of his birth, where he sat around the fire engrossed in the tales told by parents and grandparents. His father, a dramatist and playwright who traveled across the Ethiopian countryside staging local plays, was perhaps his greatest influence, nurturing a love of the art in young Haile. In high school he would himself direct his classmates in end of semester productions before leaving to study at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago and later at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

It was at UCLA Haile recognized film as a medium which could help communicate some of the social and political ideas he and his peers were exploring at the time. During the late 1960s, social protests and revolutionary fervor in the developing world and African American struggles for civil rights would challenge young filmmakers and other artists alike to make their education and their works of art take on social relevance, especially in their own community’s struggle for social justice. While the teaching establishment ignored their concerns, their activism, fueled by intense study and critical discussion in study groups would forever shape Haile Gerima’s lifelong vision to create films that raised the social, political and historical consciousness of African people. It was also where he developed a keen interest in experimentation with the formal elements of the art form. His first film Hour Glass (1972) is the story of a young basketball player contemplating his fate as a gladiator. Child of Resistance, completed in the same year, was inspired by a dream he had of Angela Davis’ incarceration and the challenges she posed to African Americans to sustain the historical continuity of resistance against white supremacy.

Community concerns are again the inspiration for another powerful yet intensely poetic film set in urban America. In Bush Mama, completed in 1976, Dorothy, an African American woman living on welfare in Watts, California, struggles to raise her daughter while her partner is unjustly imprisoned. The film’s political aggression provides audiences with a cinematic experience that is hard to ignore prompting The Washington Post to insists “‘Bush Mama’ is a picture that must be seen…This film crackles with energy. Fury shakes every frame.” Twenty years later The Society for Cinema Studies would celebrate this film, convening a special panel to discuss the importance of its cinematic style.

The same year after the completion of his thesis film, marked the release of Harvest: 3000 years, a film that gained the distinction of being selected as a Critic’s Choice for screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Following the festival the film would go on to win the George Sadoul Award. The film’s international reputation was again celebrated when it won the Silver Leopard (Grand Prize) at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and the Grand Primo Award at the Festival International de Cinema at Figueroa da Foz in Portugal. In the USA it garnered the Oscar Micheaux Award for the best feature film at the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Variety magazine describes the film simply as “remarkable”. Set in Ethiopia, Harvest is the story of peasants exploited by a wealthy landowner and their dignified struggle resist the feudal overlord. The filmmaker’s experimentation with form is clearly evident for a film that lasts 150 minutes long. The magazine journal Cineaste comments: “Gerima’s camerawork in Harvest is at its most lyrical. The hypnotic images of fields and valleys, and the slow panning shots of the land and sky, evoke a sense of viewing an epic silent documentary”. Yet Gerima’s interest in cinematic form is not restricted to drama. His foray into the documentary in 1978 with the film Wilmington 10, was as intense an exploration of form and content as his treatment of the fiction film. Looking at the ongoing persecution of political prisoners and the American justice system, the filmmaker’s approach views the cases of the accused within the socio-historical and economic disenfranchisement of African American peoples and their relationship to national and international struggles. In a review of the film “The Black Collegian” described Haile Gerima as “…a powerful filmmaker, gifted at inciting emotion and riots in the guts of his viewers.” In dramatic form, this documentary captures the humanity of a people who have been under constant siege for generations and passionately shows how this present generation locates their place in the historical struggle.

Adwa: Documentary

Again the engine of history provides great impetus and becomes a legitimate source of healing for the lead character in Ashes and Embers, a Vietnam veteran who suffers from post war trauma. Of the 1982 film “The News World” in New York described it as “…a soaring film…a harrowing portrayal of one former soldier’s struggle to leave the war behind” and the Village Voice proclaimed Gerima “…as among the most interesting and original narrative filmmakers on the current scene.” He would later be honored two years later with a retrospective of his films at the Festival De La Rochelle in France, alongside older, more seasoned filmmakers.

After Winter: Sterling Brown (1985) is Gerima’s documentary tribute to the famed poet and literary critic. Made in collaboration with students from Howard University who served in major roles, “Gerima’s film lets its illustrious subject take the viewer on a journey laden with literary landmarks and historical anecdotes” says New Directions magazine. More importantly, the poet laureate of Washington D.C. serves as oral historian, and represents an archive for future African American generations much as the filmmaker himself perceives his role.

Throughout his career Haile Gerima has always used his films as critical lessons for his own personal growth and creative development. His concern for people of African descent is evident especially where the representation of their images is concerned. His belief is that his cinematic expression should counter stereotype-laden classical Hollywood films and this guides the evolution of his socially relevant cinema. Many of his films therefore have been made utilizing either community support, institutions supporting independent cinema or sources outside of the United States. This has had a strong effect on both the content and form of his films

Sankofa represents a watershed period in terms of Gerima’s experimentation with form. From its initial screening at the Berlin Film Festival in 1993 to the critical reception of the film’s commercial release in South Africa in 2003, this film has thrilled critics and audiences throughout the world. Yet any assessment of the success of the film Sankofa would be incomplete without considering his previous films, their funding and the strong ties Haile Gerima has developed with the African American community. The latter is responsible for the formidable presence of this community at the box office for the film when every major distributor in the United States ignored it. Soon after the successful independent distribution of Sankofa was completed, Gerima undertook the BBC commissioned film “Imperfect Journey” in 1994, exploring the political and psychic recovery of the Ethiopian people after the atrocities and political repression or “red terror” of the military junta of Haile Mariam Mengistu. The filmmaker questions the direction of the succeeding government and the will of the people in creating institutions guaranteeing their liberation.

This idea of identity and liberation is perhaps the defining goal for Haile Gerima and his vision for an independent cinema. To tell one’s story is to place one’s name on the map of history and to do so while honoring the struggle of ancestors is critical to ensuring future generations have the documentation to create their own blueprint of survival. The history, culture and socio-economic well being of all peoples of African descent is his primary concern but above all the preservation of their humanity is the greatest motivation for this filmmaker. At this point of his career Haile Gerima acknowledges that the goal of reclaiming story in the battle of ideas remains his most enduring passion. That passion and the philosophy that guides it are also articulated in his writings on cinema. He is the published author of numerous essays and articles and is the author of a forthcoming book on the making of Sankofa.


post Race through Fear

February 14th, 2008

Filed under: Sports — Lissan Magazine @ 12:40

Kenya’s Runners Race through Fear
By Thilo Thielke in Iten, Kenya

The world’s fastest long-distance runners normally train in the Kenyan highlands. Since the outbreak of ethnic unrest in the country, two athletes have been murdered, and many feel threatened. Yet, they remain. And they run — afraid.

Kenyan runner Sammy Karanja. The country has some of the best athletes in the world.

At 6 a.m. it is cold up here in Iten, a mountain village 2,400 meters (7,874 feet) above sea level in the Kenyan highlands. Thamer Kamal Ali laces up his running shoes and pulls his hood over his head, as if trying to conceal his identity. He is slightly built, 19 years old, hardly more than a child. A hurdler, Ali has several kilometers of road ahead of him today, a route that takes him past roadblocks, burned-out cars and the ruins of houses. The ethnic violence in Kenya reached Iten six weeks ago. Ali is shivering, but not just because of the cold. He is afraid.

Iten is one of many training centers
for Kenyan long-distance runners. It lies about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Eldoret, a city in the western Rift Valley. World champions and Olympic medalists have trained in Iten, a legendary place in the world of professional runners. The Kenyans are proud of this village and its inhabitants, who run in small groups through the darkness. Nowadays, Ali only trains very early in the morning. “It would be too dangerous later in the day,” he says. “That’s when people with machetes rule the roads.”

Birth of a Disaster
The catastrophe descended upon Kenya in late December, when it was revealed that President Mwai Kibaki had come to power in a rigged election. Within days, barricades were burning throughout the country and, in Eldoret, people were burning, too. They were members of the Kikuyu ethnic group, which Kibaki belongs to. For five years he has ruled this country. His cabinet is considered one of Africa’s most corrupt, and his associates are notorious for having brazenly filled their pockets and given preferential treatment to members of their own ethnic group — in a country with more than 40 tribes.

After the election, members of the Kalenjin tribe set fire to a church in Eldoret. Thirty people, mostly women and children, died in the blaze. Most of the residents of the Rift Valley are members of the Kalenjin tribe. Many Kalenjin, who consider themselves the true masters of the country, feel besieged by members of the Kikuyu tribe who have settled in the region. Many runners also belong to the Kalenjin tribe.

Since the fiery death of the 30 Kikuyu in Eldoret, the unofficial death toll in Kenya is 1,000, though the real figure is probably higher. The victims have been hacked to death with machetes, killed with poison-tipped arrows or shot by the police. There are 300,000 internally displaced people.

Despite the danger, Ali completes his daily training regimen. A specialist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, he brought home two gold medals from the 2005 Asian Indoor Games in Bangkok. He is ambitious. He runs at six every morning, shivering and afraid for his life.

‘Giving Up is the Worst Thing to Do’
“Should I tell him: Go home, neglect your profession, drop everything and leave it alone?” asks Ali’s coach, Yobes Ondieki. Discipline, says Ondieki, is the only way to overcome one’s own fear and concerns about one’s family. Ondieki, a former world-class runner, was the first man to run 10,000 meters in less than 27 minutes. That was in Oslo on July 10, 1993.

Ondieki is sitting in the restaurant of the Kerio View Hotel drinking a Coca-Cola, facing an enormous glass wall. Perched on a cliff, the restaurant offers a magnificent view over the tops of acacia trees and of the broad valley below. Ondieki looks down. In the grasslands below, bush fires are burning. The milky-white smoke, typical of a bush fire, looks like fog. The smoke from house fires is dark, almost black. Before now, no one in Kenya would have paid much attention to the color of smoke.

Ondieki has received anonymous text messages, too, disparaging him for being a Kalenjin — and a murderer. “The country is in ruins,” he says. “There is no longer any security anywhere in Kenya. The police are even shooting at children with live ammunition.” It is virtually impossible for the runners to focus on their training here. Kenya’s national Olympic trials would normally be held soon, and the season of major marathon races in Europe and the United States begins in April.

“Giving up,” says Ondieki, “would be the worst thing to do now.” He tries to preserve at least the appearance of normalcy, hoping to keep the runners from becoming discouraged, even as everything else around them falls apart.

Bad Time to Be a Hero

Kenya is famous for its long-distance runners. Like most of their countrymen and women, the runners have not been able to escape the violence. Here, mourners carry the coffin of runner Lucas Sang, a champion relay runner, who was hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob.

In Eldoret, Moses Tanui has barricaded himself into his Hotel Grandpri. The former 10,000-meter world champion has hardly even ventured into the street since the evening of Dec. 31, when his best friend, 400-meter runner Lucas Sang, was murdered. Sang and Tanui were close friends, almost inseparable. They met in London in 1985, shared the same manager and trained together in the highlands.

Sang got mixed up in a Kikuyu riot. They hacked him to death with machetes. “Everyone knew Lucas,” says Tanui. “He was a hero.” Sang and Tanui are members of the Kalenjin tribe, which can be a death sentence in the new Kenya.

Tanui is also well-known in Kenya. Tanui also has money.
But his wealth can’t protect him. On the contrary, money is one reason why Kenya’s top athletes live in fear. There have been rumors that Kenyan runners are funding tribal militias, including a group called the “Kalenjin Warriors,” and that the athletes use their money to buy weapons, transport the weapons in their big cars and allow the militias to meet in their large houses. “There are people who claim that my hotel is a meeting place for groups of killers,” says Tanui. “But that’s nonsense. We are athletes. We want to run, not fight.” Then he locks the door and glances over at the street. “We are on the path to civil war,” he says. “It is a war between one tribe and the rest of the country, and it will be terrible.”

The ethnic violence in the Rift Valley
has worsened in the wake of the murder of an opposition politician by a police officer two weeks ago, and there is no end in sight. In a place where public order no longer exists, old scores are settled and long-forgotten rivalries are suddenly reignited. The conflicts get so caught up in each other that you can hardly separate one from the other. Each side has its dead to avenge, and each side fears the revenge of others. This is not an African phenomenon. The situation was no different in the Balkans.

The disputes are about clan allegiances. About land. About money. Envy plays a role, too. Where chaos reigns, the underprivileged are quick to turn to violence. There is a vast divide between rich and poor in East Africa.

Source: Spiegel Online

post Germany’s UNICEF Crisis

February 7th, 2008

Filed under: News from Germany — Lissan Magazine @ 01:26

Donors Flee, Criticisms Mount Amid Germany’s UNICEF Crisis

As donors increasingly flee Germany’s troubled UNICEF chapter, Chancellor Angela Merkel joined a growing chorus of luminaries calling for action in response to accusations of mismanagement. UNICEF Germany acknowledged that some 5,000 of its 200,000 regular donors have pulled their support from the charity in response to reports of funding abuses and mismanagement at its highest levels.

Critics are asking whether enough UNICEF donations are going to help the needy.

The national chairwoman of UNICEF Germany, Heidi Simonis, resigned on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2008, after blowing the whistle late last year on the alleged waste of donor funds collected by the body. Heide Simonis, a former Social Democrat politician, conceded that her departure after two years in the post was in part due to a bitter row with the head of management at UNICEF Germany, Dietrich Garlichs. She accused Garlichs of failing to face up to allegations of mismanagement. Pressure on Garlichs mounted on Tuesday, Feb. 5, after the press revealed a petition signed by volunteer workers, including the wife of the mayor of Munich. The petition demanded a crisis meeting to deal with the problems.

Simonis (left) stepped down amid a tiff with manager Garlichs (right)

Anger over wages for UNICEF hire
“The leadership has to stop its siege mentality and its diversion tactics,” the press quoted the petition as saying. Critics accuse Garlichs of wearing contradictory hats: He is the head of UNICEF Germany, but also sits on its supervisory board, which makes independent oversight difficult.

Television presenter Nina Ruge was among those who signed the petition. She told Bild newspaper co-workers were concerned about the generous salary of a UNICEF worker who was earning 850 euros ($1,244) per day on a two-year contract. “People have a hard time understanding this,” Ruge said.

Independent audit found ‘irregularities’
An independent audit carried out last year found no evidence of personal enrichment at UNICEF Germany, but mentioned negligence and irregularities in the running of the organization.
For example, auditors noted that management had in some cases failed to draw up proper contracts for co-workers, relying instead on oral agreements.

Garlichs is currently facing a preliminary investigation for abuse of trust, led by authorities in Cologne where UNICEF Germany is based. Meanwhile, early on Wednesday, Garlichs admitted to the press that he had made mistakes. There had been “sloppiness” at the management level, he said. And he acknowledged that self-imposed regulations had been broken. Still, he insisted to Die Welt newspaper: “No laws have been broken.”

Chancellor Merkel urges clarification
Merkel’s spokesman Thomas Steg told news agencies that the chancellor implored all parties “to shed light on these accusations in order to protect UNICEF Germany’s reputation.”

UNICEF Germany is one of the biggest contributors to the UN body’s budget. It has taken in around 100 million euros annually for the past two years. Also on Wednesday morning, Germany’s ambassador to UNICEF, television-news personality Sabine Christiansen, loudly criticized Garlichs’ rule-breaking. She demanded changes in UNICEF’s organizational structure and said she wouldn’t rule out personal consequences for specific board members.

Prominent figures demand change.
Other prominent UNICEF representatives lent Christiansen their support. The manager of the German national soccer team, Oliver Bierhoff, told Bild: “An organization like UNICEF Germany, which takes in 100 million euros per year, has to be led in a professional way.” UNICEF representative Toni Schumacher, onetime goalie for the German national team, demanded the resignation of both the management and supervisory boards. “The people who are responsible should take responsibility and resign,” he said.

A spokeswoman for UNICEF, Veronique Taveau, said from Geneva that it was vital to restore supporters’ trust in the German chapter. “We hope that we can put the crisis behind us and move on,” she told the AFP news service.

Source: DW staff (jen)


By presenting this article we are by no means trying to degrade the positive deeds that the UNICEF accomplished in its long history as an organization for children of the world. We hope that the organization will find a way to redeem its reputation by replacing those who are responsible for this mess. Lissan Team

post ad-campaign, UNICEF Germany!

February 6th, 2008

Filed under: News from Germany — Lissan Magazine @ 12:20

UNICEF Ad Campaign Uses White Children in Blackface to Portray “Uneducated Africans”
by Malena Amusa

This is an actual ad-campaign by UNICEF Germany!
This campaign is “blackfacing” white children with mud to pose as “uneducated africans”.

The headline translates “This Ad-campaign developped pro bono by the agency Jung von Matt/Alster shows four german kids who appeal for solidarity with their contemporaries in Afrika”


The first kid says:
“I’m waiting for my last day in school, the children in Africa still for their first one.”



Second kid:
“In Africa, many kids would be glad to worry about school”

Third kid:
“In Africa, kids don’t come to school late, but not at all” (!)


Fourth kid says:
“Some teachers suck. No teachers sucks even more.”

Besides claiming that every single person in “Africa” isn’t educated, and doing so in an extremely patronising way, it is also disturbing that this organisation thinks blackfacing kids with mud (!) equals “relating to African children”. Also, the kids’ statements ignore the existence of millions of African academics and regular people and one again reduces a whole continent to a village of muddy uneducated uncivilized people who need to be educated (probably by any random westerner). This a really sad regression.

Bottom lines of this campaign are: Black = mud = African = uneducated. White = educated. We feel this campaign might do just as much harm as it does any good. You don’t collect money for helping people by humiliating and trivializing them first.

Unfortunately, if it was clear to the average German that this is wrong, UNICEF and the advertising agency wouldn’t come out with such a campaign.

Please write your opinion and help make clear and explain why it is wrong to use “blackface with mud”, and write to UNICEF at as well as the advertising agency at with a copy to Black German media-watch-organization what you feel about this campaign and why. Please include a line that you’re going to publish your mail and the response.

By the way, the slogan of the advertising agency who came up with this, reads “we communicate on eye-level”.

Noah Sow


*This campaign of the UNICEF Germany was in Aug. 2007. After huge protest from various African communities and human right activists, the organization was forced to take these degrading pictures from its site. But the very fact that such a campaign has been launched by UNICEF is something that shouldn’t have happened at all.

UNICEF Germany is lately deep in corruption and mismanagement allegations. Heide Simonis, the president of UNICEF Germany has resigned recently protesting against the nontransparent management of the donation and the dominant bureaucratic methods. We will follow up this case and inform you in the next days. Lissan Team

post Alfred Ilg

February 5th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 12:16

Foreign Involvement in Ethiopia’s Progress
By Richard Pankhurst

Alfred Ilg was a Swiss craftsman, who emerged as Emperor Menilek’s principal diplomatic adviser, and ranks as one of the most important Europeans in Ethiopian modern history.

A. Ilg travelled to Ethiopia with Three Compatriots.

In the meantime we can say that Ilg was born in Frauenfeld, north-east of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1854, and studied at the local Zurich Polytechnic. Later, in 1878, he set forth for Ethiopia, in the company of two of his compatriots, by name Appenzeller and Zimmermann. They came at the request of Menilek, then King of Shawa, who had asked a Swiss trader at the port of Aden to find him some European craftsmen able to act as engineers and train Ethiopian workers.

On his arrival in Shawa, Ilg, we are told, was asked by Menilek to make him a pair of shoes. The young Swiss dutifully complied with this request, and Menilek was enchanted with the visitor’s handiwork.

Emperor Menelik II, photographed by Alfred Ilg in 1880

Menilek, who doubtless recalled
how his predecessor and sometime master Emperor Tewodros had persuaded European missionaries to cast him cannons and mortars, then asked Ilg to make him a rifle. The Swiss, like the above mentioned missionaries, protested his ignorance of gun-making, and declared that an imported weapon would be much superior to anything he could himself produce.

Like Tewodros
Like Tewodros before him, Menilek, however, insisted. He declared that he wanted to see what Ilg could do. The latter accordingly did as he was asked, and duly made a passable rifle. This greatly pleased the monarch, who ordered it to be given an honoured place in his armoury. Ilg had thus gained Menilek’s good-will, and was never to lose it!

Emperor Tewodros

He was therupon appointed a craftsman, attached to Menilek’s staff, and was granted a monthly salary, payable in Maria Theresa thalers, of seven or eight pounds Sterling per month. He was soon engaged in all sorts of work for Menilek.

Bridge-building: One of Ilg’s first achievements was building a modern bridge over the Awash River, in 1887. Describing this work, he writes to a friend: A few weeks ago I completed the first bridge… It spans the river Awash. The beams had to be carried 15 kilometres on human shoulders. For the bridge-heads I had to square up the stones on the spot. I even had to burn charcoal in order to forge the nails, rivets, screws and bolts required. Add to this the tropical sun with all its dangers, heavy rains with resultant dysentery, intermittent fever, cyclones which almost pulled out my beard and carried the tent in all directions. At night the hyenas almost stole our leather pillows from under our heads; jackals and other rabble plundered the kitchen and obliged me to obtain respect with strychnine”. A few years later Ilg erected a palace for the monarch at his then capital, Entoto, situated, as most readers know in the mountains above present-day Addis Ababa.

Piped Water: Later again, in 1894, Ilg installed the water installations for the Emperor’s palace at Addis Ababa. This created something of a sensation, as the water, obtained from a spring in high Entoto, had to flow down to the Addis Ababa plain beneath it, and then make its way up again to the Palace compound, which was located on a smallish hill. People in the capital had never seen anything like this, and could not believe that water could ever, under any circumstances, flow upward. Menilek, however, was a great believer in innovation, and insisted that Ilg should proceed with his project, if only to see whether it would work. When the great day for inauguration arrived, the tap was turned on - but nothing happened. A European “friend” had secretly stuffed cotton into the pipe, as Ilg later discovered. This obstruction was duly removed, after which Ilg - and his project - were widely acclaimed. At least two Amharic poems were composed in honour of the event.

One declared:
“We have seen wonders in Addis Ababa.
Water worships Emperor Menilek.
O Danyew [i.e. Menilek] what more wisdom will you bring?
You already make water soar in the air!”

And the other ran as follows:
“King Abba Danyew, how great is he becoming!
He makes the water rise into the air through a window.
While the dirty can be washed, and the thirsty drink.
See what wonders have already come in our times.
No wonder that some day he will even outdo the Ferenje {i.e. Europeans].”

The Railway Project: Menilek himself was so pleased with his Swiss technician’s success that he granted Ilg a concession, on 9 March 1894, to build and operate a railway line from the French Somaliland port of Jibuti via his capital (Entoto) to the White Nile, on the western borders of the realm. The railway project faced almost insuperable difficulties, technical, financial, political, and diplomatic, but Ilg eventually succeeded in establishing a railway company, which constructed the line from Jibuti to the then new town of Dire Dawa (reached in 1902), after which a successor company continued the line to Addis Ababa. The latter town had by then replaced Entoto as Ethiopia’s capital. The projected line of the Nile was, however, never built: why don’t we build it now?

The Addis Ababa Palace: Ilg also helped in the construction of Menilek’s main palace at Addis Ababa, which was begun in 1897. Testimony of his involvement is provided by a contemporary British traveller, Mrs Pease, who reported seeing “many signs of Swiss work”, including paintings of a Swiss lake, and William Tell’s chapel.

Expeditions: Ilg accompanied Menilek on several of his expeditions, including one to Tegray, in 1889-90, and another to Lake Zway, in 1893. He also attempted, though without success, in 1887, to purchase bullet-making machinery, and equipment for a mint. He likewise travelled to Rome, in 1891, where he met members of the Italian Cabinet, and then, after a second visit in 1894, warned Menilek of Italian ambitions to annex Ethiopia.

Diplomacy: After Menilek’s historic defeat of the invader, at the battle of Adwa in 1896, there was a great expansion of Ethiopia’s diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and the outside world. Menilek appointed Ilg as a Chancellor of State, and gave him the exalted title of Bitwoded, or Beloved. He was made responsible for Ethiopia’s foreign relations. His duties were to interview foreign diplomats arriving in the country, and to conduct correspondence with foreign Powers, and envoys, on Menilek’s behalf. Ilg was linguistically well equipped for this work, as he was able to write in German, French, Italian, and English - and also in Amharic. He corresponded, over the years, with several important Ethiopians. Besides Emperor Menilek and his consort Empress Taytu, these included Negus Takla Haymanot, the king of Gojjam; Ras Makonnen, Menilek’s governor of Harar; Abba Jifar, the semi-autonomous ruler of Jimma; and Abuna Matewos, the Coptic head of the Ethiopian Church. Ilg also exchanged letters with such prominent Ethiopian personalities as Ras Gobena Dachi, Dajazmach Mashasha Workie, and the renowned interpreter Ato Yosef Negusie. Ilg, in his diplomatic capacity, played a prominent part in the negotiations with the Italians, leading up to the post-Adwa Peace Treaty, of 26 October 1896 (in which Italy recognised Ethiopia’s full independence), as well as with the subsequent treaties with Britain and France, signed on 14 and 20 March 1897 respectively. And subsequent agreements with other Powers, including Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

Trusted: Though a foreigner Ilg was well trusted by Menilek, who was of course fully aware that Switzerland was a small neutral, and land-locked, country without colonial ambitions. An essentially safe country to do business with! Ilg served Menilek, with loyalty and devotion, for twenty years, but retired from the Emperor’s service in 1906, just when the monarch’s health was beginning to fail. After he left Addis Ababa his house, situated near the Emperor’s palace, was for a time used to accommodate Ethiopia’s first modern school, the Menilek II School, which was founded in 1908, but soon afterwards removed to its present site at Arat Kilo.

Ilg meanwhile returned to his native Zurich, where he lived on until 1916. He died that year of a heart attack on 7 January: Ethiopian Christmas Day.

post A Youth Ambassador?

February 3rd, 2008

Filed under: Who is Who? — Yohannes Birru @ 20:08

A Youth Ambassador?
By: Yohannes Birru*

He came to the United States of America as a toddler in 1995 and today he’s a 16 year old social entrepreneur. Yes, this teenager is Samuel Gebru, a talented Ethiopian living in Cambridge, Massachusetts who has probably done more for Ethiopia in his young life than many adults.


Who is Samuel Gebru and why is he important? Samuel plans to be a catalyst for change. He heads an American nonprofit, The Ethiopian American Youth Initiative, which strives to promote Ethiopian culture in the US, unite Ethiopian and American youth to raise funds for Ethiopian developmental projects concerning women and orphans, as well as to serve as a platform for networking between Ethiopian and American youth as a means to find the “inner leadership” that Samuel is convinced hides in everyone.

Mr. Gebru is an avid Ethiopian, concerned with Ethiopia’s social, political, economic and youth affairs. He shows his concern through the many websites that show his work including his very own blog and his work through African Path, an online African portal for bloggers. Interestingly enough, Gebru’s article on Ethiopia’s land policy gained the attention of Mr. Michael Strong of Flow Idealism in his post: Gebru vs. Sachs, who wrote a commentary on Gebru’s views on the land policy and Sach’s recent visit to Ethiopia in January 2008.

He’s already garnered the attention of Ethiopians throughout the world. Through his youth work, Samuel simply amazed Mr. Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister and Mr. Kassahun Ayele, the former Ethiopian Ambassador in Washington, DC. Samuel proposed an idea which would bring all Ethiopian youth together, disregarding the political, socioeconomic and religious boundaries: The Worldwide Youth Embassy of Ethiopia. His plans for the Youth Embassy of Ethiopia are unprecedented - which includes that the Youth Embassy of Ethiopia should be headed by an official Youth Ambassador and if this plan materializes, Samuel is slated to become the world’s first official youth ambassador.

“The Ethiopian Youth Embassy could be that connection that the youth and the government have never had. In September 2007, a few days after Ethiopia’s new millennium, the Prime Minister held a series of meetings with Ethiopia’s youth in order to ‘heal wounds’ between the government and the youth.”

He continued to state that Ethiopia’s youth have always had horrible relationships with Ethiopia’s Governments since the 1960s. “During the time of Emperor Haile Selassie the youth were the ones who engineered calls for political reform, this eventually led to the fall of his government and the rise of a military administration that would plague Ethiopia,” he adds.

“However, it was also the youth that engineered the downfall of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam’s Marxist government.”

Samuel refers to the EPRDF, Ethiopia’s ruling party, as part of the youth-led movement which ended in Mengistu’s downfall, “the EPRDF emerged from the TPLF, which was established by high school and college-aged Ethiopians from the northern Tigray province….but what distinguished the EPRDF from the other political fronts and organizations which had their roots in the young population was that it was able to mobilize its members quickly and it garnered the support of the peasants, who to this day remain the essential backbone of that party.”

When I asked Samuel Gebru about today’s political arena, he seemed to be more conciliatory than his previous articles and posts over the internet which usually condemned political parties. “Ethiopia is diverse, and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve all heard that! However, we have over 90 political parties and it is impossible to create unity with so many different views and ideologies. Hence, it’s better for political parties to either merge into coalitions or into unified political parties therefore creating less of an array of political parties because many Ethiopian political parties are similar in their objectives but they’re too reluctant to unify. I believe I’m just reiterating what was said by Ethiopia’s former Minister of Defense, Siye Abraha.”

He was disappointed that Ethiopia’s main opposition coalition was in disarray, “Let’s remember that the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the CUD, was formed shortly before the May 2005 elections. In such a rushed environment, the parties which formed the coalition did not hammer down all of the important factors, party due to the short-sightedness of a few officials who had their own agendas�It’s unfortunate that the CUD has become divided to the point where I can’t even begin to tell you who the Chairman of the party is: is it Ayale Chamiso, Temesgen Zewdie or Hailu Shawel?” While he chucked when asking such a question that he categorizes as rhetorical, Samuel acknowledged, “there are elements in every political party in Ethiopia - EPRDF, CUD, whatever it may be - that are hell-bent on destroying Ethiopia for their own purposes and I think as Ethiopians we cannot let that happen to our motherland. From our elected officials and rebels, both good and bad sides exist, and what we must do, as a nation, is bring out the good so that national reconciliation can actually happen and not simply be a framework for utopianism.. For instance, opposition parties are given a field day every month for 30 minutes to set forth anything they wish on the agenda. How is 30 minutes in one month going to be effective, at any rate for political parties? The system must be accommodative because I cannot foresee any benefit from a mere 30 minutes.

Gashe Ephraim Isaac, an Ethiopian elder and renowned scholar, has a motto he introduced to the world which I continue to use to this day: ‘Hidasse Ethiopia, Ethiopia indegena teweled.’ This short and simple phrase means a lot; Ephraim is calling for the revival of Ethiopia, an Ethiopian Renaissance!”

In the past, Samuel has been criticized for a few statements he’s made with regards to Ethiopia’s war in Somalia and Ethiopia’s politics. However, he stated that he believes that those criticisms helped him reach out to the other ideas and to understand than to annihilate. “Life is a learning process! Yes, I took hard-lined views on certain things, however, I also opened up to find a mutual ground to talk with people who have different views than my own - this is the key to tolerance, or as we say in Ethiopia: ‘mechachal’.”

His advocacy of the Worldwide Youth Embassy of Ethiopia and the support he’s garnered notably from Ambassadors of Ethiopia and experts on Ethiopia has helped enhance ‘the campaign for youth voice’ as he calls it. “I was appointed by the Cambridge City Manager in March 2006 to serve on a council chaired by the Mayor: the Coordinating Council for Children, Youth and Families. As a voting member I am introduced to new perspectives which help me formulate ideas to represent the youth of Cambridge to the council.”

Gebru believes that youth are catalysts for change and believes that unless due attention is given to youth and their grievances Ethiopia will just see more riots and revolutions. “We call Cambridge the ‘People’s Republic of Cambridge’ because it’s a leftist city - we’re a very liberal and secular city and because of that, we’re noted as being Marxist! Cambridge respects its people and gives so much attention towards us youth that I cannot even begin to describe it. The Kids’ Council is just one avenue the government gives attention to the youth; and through my activeness in such a city that gives due attention towards youth I begin to list similarities and differences between Ethiopia and Cambridge and this gives me another reason for advocating for the Worldwide Youth Embassy because, simply put, Ethiopia does not give due attention towards its youth in the nation and abroad.”

Through the Worldwide Youth Embassy, Samuel hopes to create a lasting communication between the youth and the government in order to facilitate economic, social and political growth because “the youth will drive Ethiopia forward tomorrow, like it or not, we’ll be taking over!”

Samuel Gebru, with a clashed personality of Ethiopianism and Americanism, is the ideal Ethiopian to head a youth-led revolution; however, instead of taking up arms, Samuel plans to have youth take charge of their own lives and become leaders in Ethiopian society. As for now, he’s waiting from the official response from the Ethiopian Government as to if his plan can materialize. To enhance his idea, Samuel was invited as a Special VIP Guest of Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, in which he met with the Foreign Minister and Ethiopia’s State Minister for Youth and Sports, Mr. Abdissa Yadeta, two youth associations and paid a visit to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.

“My business trip to Ethiopia in August 2006 certainly helped me gain attention, and ever since then, I’ve been using this attention to emphasize the fact that we youth all are leaders and regardless of what’s next, I will continue to push for a youth-led revolution of Ethiopia’s political and social culture. I encourage dialogue and enjoy when people contact me because I am also able to learn their side of the story. The time has come for change, and youth are, what we call in Cambridge: change agents!

And there you have it, the 16 year old Ethiopian you might be calling “Mr. Prime Minister” sometime in the future.

*The author can be reached by email at Samuel Gebru’s email is

Yohannes Birru, M.B.A.

Statements and opinions expressed in this article herein are those of the authors. Lissan Magazine accepts no responsibility whatsoever for the content.

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