March 20th, 2008
Francis Falceto-Ethiopia: Diaspora and Return
Interviewer: Banning Eyre
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 two of their conversation, a companion to the Afropop Worldwide, Hip Deep program, “Ethiopia—Diaspora and Return.”
B. E: I want to talk about Ethiopians living in diaspora. After the Ethiopian revolution, there was this enormous movement of people and culture out to other places around the world. I think you first visited Ethiopia during the ‘80s, when this process was well underway. Mengistu Haile Mariam and his brutal Dergue regime were at the height of their power. What was it like?
F. F: I arrived in a county that was under military and Stalinist dictatorship. For me, it was something extraordinary, unimaginable. The most visible thing was military everywhere. No nightlife, because of curfew. Ethiopia had this regime known as Dergue, which installed a continued curfew from 1974, the year they overthrew the emperor Haile Selassie, until the fall of the dictator in 1991. In fact, it was in 1992 that the curfew was cancelled. But imagine, 18 years of curfew in a big city, in a capital city like Addis Adaba. Imagine your city, New York, Washington, a smaller city, for 18 years. No nightlife from 8, 9pm—even if the curfew started at midnight—until 6 in the morning. Nothing. Nobody in the streets, only armed military, and hundreds of dogs also.
Right after the beginning of the revolutionary period, the music scene was destroyed completely. It was difficult to make a living through music, because you could not perform at night. There were almost no more nightclubs. The only nightclubs that were allowed were the big hotels, just on Saturday night, mainly for the diplomats. NGOs and the like. But average people, they could not attend these nightclubs in the big hotel. And you could stay the whole night, locked inside the hotel.
So, you land in a country just to meet the musicians and you fall in the middle of such an incredible landscape. Nothing was possible. In one week I could meet one musician, because it was so difficult to meet the people, to go from one place to another place, police everywhere, suspicion everywhere. That’s the way it started. So after this trip, I made another 2 or 3, and it was the same failure—impossible to finalize anything. In fact, I realized quite quickly that everything was under the control of the government. They wanted to control each and every aspect of the social life, including the music. Even when a friend comes to invite an artist, even if he is a superstar in his country, they want to control it and preferably, they wanted me to invite an official artists, a propaganda artist. That wasn’t my cup of tea at all. That’s why the first three times I went, it was a total failure. In fact, I couldn’t invite who I wanted to until the early ‘90s, after the fall of the dictatorship.
During the Dergue regime, there was no possibility to express yourself, or to make your living as a musician, so many tried to leave, to emigrate, not only because it was impossible to have a job on the musical scene, but also because the situation was terrible. There was not any more freedom, and many people left because they were in danger. So there is a big, big, big immigration. Mostly to America. If you go to Washington DC nowadays, and the surroundings, Alexandria, Virginia, and all these places, you can find little Ethiopia. Many of the brilliant singers of the “golden age” have defected to this region. You can find the great saxophonist, Tésfa-Maryam Kidané, singers like Teshuma Metequ, Muluqèn Mèllèssè, Nawayda Bebe, Tela Guebre, Mogo Sapte, many, many musicians.
B.E: Ethiopians have created strong diaspora communities in the U.S., haven’t they?
F. F: Yes, but Ethiopians are a very special immigrant. Shall I say they are not very good at integrating themselves in the country. They just re-create a kind of little Ethiopia, staying together. And you can observe that since the beginning of this immigration, 30 years back. There is not at all a crossover of Ethiopian music produced in America for the American audience. The Ethiopian musicians stick together, and many of them have even abandoned the scene and are doing other jobs. But a lot of the veterans of the golden age are now based in America. A lot in the Washington, DC area, in Los Angeles, in Texas, in Colorado, in Philadelphia and Chicago. Toronto also, in Canada. In a way, it is a bit of a disaster, because the best elements have left. Most of them did not return after the end of the revolution. They are not in such a good position, living in exile in America. The Ethiopian scene in America is not in very good health, I would say. Unfortunately. Even if there are still a lot of good elements.
B.E: Do these artists perform within the community?
F.F: Only among the community. If you go to 18th Street in Washington DC, you will see dozens of places. Restaurants, nightclubs.
B.E: I have been to some of those places. But do you see great performers like the ones you were naming? I personally have not experienced that.
F.F: Sometimes, but it is more and more rare to meet the giants of the golden age.
B.E: Might you find them at a big concert at a hired hall in the hotel, or something like that?
F.F: Weddings. Weddings are very important for Ethiopians. A wedding can gather hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. It is a demonstration of power and wealth. If you have a big wedding, and you invite 2000 guests, you invite the most famous singers, even from Ethiopia. It is a big thing.
B.E: So that’s when you might see Mahmoud Ahmed?
F.F: Mahmoud Ahmed used to sing many times. And Tlahoun Gèssèssè. All of the Ethiopian singers, on one day or another, perform for these huge weddings. This immigration, by the way, continued after the end of the revolution. There was a kind of—I don’t know what to call it—an exile syndrome and Ethiopia. As I see it, it is something of a disaster, because the immigration syndrome is, “I am going to El Dorado.” And it is not El Dorado. The style of life is different. You need to work very hard to make your living when you are in America. So many things are different from Ethiopia. It is not a success for many of them. The dream of an immigrant is to come back to his country one day, once he is rich. He can come back and buy house or plan a business, and show off his beautiful car imported from America. It’s very rare the one who can do that, especially among the musicians. Many of them left a good career over there, and have not found a very good life here. This is very sad to observe. I was in DC recently, and I met many of them. It’s sad to see pop stars, knowing how big they used to be, and here they are stuck among themselves. Very often, they fight in clans. It’s a bit of a desperate life. This is not unique to Ethiopian immigrants. It can happen to any immigrants. But it is particularly sad that this music did not crossover, did not reach the American audience in general.
B.E: Well, one artist to tried to do that was Aster Aweke. And she had some success, didn’t she?
F.F: Yes, yes. She was living in America. She is still living in America, but she was invited by a British producer, actually, to produce something to be exposed to the general audience. And she made two brilliant records on Triple Earth records, Aster (1989), and Kabu (1991, Columbia).
B.E: Then what happened?
F.F: I think we should ask her. But I think she has needed to take her career in her own hands, and produce her own material.
B.E: So she has continued to record, but more within the community, is that it?
F.F: This is an important point. What about the Ethiopian productions in America? We should speak first about Ethiopian production in Ethiopian nowadays, I mean in the past 20, 30 years. It is a pure disaster. It’s the one-man band. A synthesizer playing all the lines. It’s very cheap production. Many musicians are discouraged. In the Ethiopian diaspora, in Canada and America, Sweden and England, all the productions are cheap as well. The rule is the keyboard. Apart from the very rare case. There are some Ethiopian producers who have tried to make real bands with real musicians. But it has been discouraged because the market is very small here. Of course, there are several hundred thousand Ethiopians in America, but it’s not big enough to make a market by itself, so the tendency is to make very cheap productions. And this definitely cannot crossover. Did you hear some of the CDs and cassettes that are released here and America?
B.E: Yes. The production is certainly disappointing.
F.F: Even if you listen to Aster’s recent productions, I mean it cannot compare to what she has done in England. And I’m very sorry about that because of course, I am a fan of the golden age of Ethiopian music, but I would like to see this music today very alive, not continuing what the veterans have done, but being still stronger than them, because this is the challenge. They don’t have to imitate the older generation. They have to be better than them. But there is a lack of producers, a lack of arrangers. There is not any more arrangement. When you listen to the old recordings, the ones you find in Éthiopiques, if you listen to the horn lines, for instance, how intermingled, how sophisticated they are, how groovy it is—I don’t see anything comparable nowadays. That’s why I say it’s very sad to see… It’s not decadence. But it’s a bit long to wait for a renaissance. It’s now been 15 years since the new régime came. The musicians can express themselves. They can play the music that they want, produce what they want. Nothing seriously innovative has happened. I see nothing seriously innovative in the picture. Nothing.
B.E: Let’s talk a bit about your Volume 5 Tigrigna. What do we need to know about this music?
F.F: Tigrigna music is one of the most important musics in Ethiopia. You know, Ethiopia is a meeting of several cultures, several populations. Tigrigna is also a language; it’s a language spoken in the Northern Province of Ethiopia, Tigray, and in most of Eritrea, which became independent Eritrea. And in this music the beats are very different from other regions. You have on one hand this Tigrigna music but there is also an Oromo music. Also a people of . Very important, very strong culture, and also different from the music of the Asmhara. The Asmhara used to be the ruler of Ethiopia for a very long time, for some centuries. They were dominant. But apart from them, there are other musical cultures. Not to mention any of the musical cultures of Southern Ethiopia, which are brilliant, incredible, but the access to this musical culture for the capital city Addis Ababa is very little, very reduced. But it shows that in Ethiopia there are many different musics. Tigrigna music is remarkable for its strange beat, very different music from the rest of Ethiopia.
B.E: Now a lot of music that is on that CD Volume 5, it’s mostly from the 70s, some of it a little later. Is this music being recorded in Addis now?
F.F: It has been recorded in Addis, because, I mean, the people from Addis could listen to the music from the North, also. At the time different people from different cultures used to live quite in a good mood altogether. You know Ethiopia is basically a Christian Orthodox country, but there are also a lot of Muslims in Ethiopia, and as they used to listen to music from every corner of Ethiopia there was often a very good mood between Christians and Muslims. It is something which has a bit disappeared, a remarkable mix of different cultures, different languages, different religions, different music, and there was something exceptionally harmonious at the time. This is something which has disappeared now. There are more conflicts. It goes with the time everywhere, but at the time anybody could listen and enjoy Tigrigna music. Like they could enjoy music of the Amhara culture, or another one. Statistically you can read, and you can understand through the record productions that Tigrigna music or Oromo music was a minority in the production.
B.E: And you mentioned that the azmaris were mostly from the North, so is it more of a possibility for the azmaris to enter into the musical production when we’re talking about Tigrayan music?
F.F: There are some azmari also in Tigray, singing in Tigrigna. In Tigrayan they are called something different, called watta. But it’s the same meaning. They use the same instrument, mostly the masenqo, this kind of one-stringed violin, played with a bow. They used sometimes the krar which is a lyre with six strings, but the status of an azmari in the northern provinces of Ethiopia or in Tigray, is the same. Their role is the same.
B.E: What about the music going on with the azmaris today in Addis? These are the traditional minstrel musicians, and from what I hear on Ethiopiques, Volume 18, Aseguèba, there is some interesting music happening there.
F.F: It is very important to mention the azmari, because they’re the only ones who are alive at the moment in Addis Ababa. The azmari musical scene is the most alive musical scene there. I myself, I’m very reluctant to continued to go to nightclubs, to attend and listen to new singers, new bands, one-man bands. It is simply boring. It’s really boring, I am sorry to say. Again, I’m very sorry as a fan of Ethiopian music, I’m very sorry that I don’t see the renaissance coming. I wish it would come one day. But 15 years is a bit long to wait. But you know, we had the same case in Europe. If you look at what was the situation of French music after the Second World War. They had a kind of an invasion of American bands, you know, the big band with cowboy songs. It was several years before chanson francaise became something strong, and adopted by the audience. We had 18 years of the dictatorship. Now it’s been 15 years of… I don’t know how to call it. But obviously, it did not yet bring a new renaissance of the size and strength of the sixties and early seventies.
B.E: And from what we have seen so far, it is not happening in the diaspora either.
F.F: Small-market. Cheap production. No innovation. No provocation I would say. Because an artist should invent. Provoke. He has not to follow the expectations of the audience. An artist is someone who brings things, an innovator. I don’t see anything like this. There is a kind of general laziness, and sluggishness in this production. Probably because the market is so small that they cannot invest seriously in normal and good productions. But, on the other hand, they could think about crossover, and try to develop the audience for this music, but being innovative, investing in more sophisticated production. Maybe it will happen. I wish. But I don’t see anything like this until now. There are some exceptions, of course. I cannot say that all the productions are garbage. Not at all. From time to time, you have a beautiful thing in the middle of all this nowhere and nothing. But not enough to consider as a renaissance.
B.E: All of this really makes one reflect on what a rare and amazing period that was in the sixties and seventies, doesn’t it? And I have to say, the world owes you quite a debt for making all this visible with the series the way you have.
F.F: I’m just a music lover. You know? And my sickness is when I love something I want to share it. This is something that was very difficult for the Ethiopians to understand when I started working on this music. All of them used to tell me, systematically, “But do you think the foreigners will like our music? They don’t understand the language. Why would they like it?” And I would tell them, “Look, I myself. I don’t understand the language. And I love the music. I’m sure it can be adopted by the Western audience. My target is to introduce this music to the Western audience, to expose it to a non-Ethiopian audience, just because it deserves to have a larger audience than the national audience, you see?” By the way, thank you for inviting me. At least that means I have achieved part of my goal, if you like this music, and if you support what I have started. And I wish many other people would come into this musical field, because there are still a lot, a lot of beautiful things to bring to light.
The Éthiopiques series is a small thing compared to the mine that is sleeping there, almost thrown away sometimes, forgotten. There are beautiful tapes in some corners. They have to be brought to light. For me, it is a great thing, and it has been a totally unexpected adventure. I did not start to do this for 20 years. Even when I started Éthiopiques, I thought I would release 12, 13 CDs. And in the meantime, other musicians, other producers came to me. Even singers. They came to me and said, “We would like to be in Éthiopiques. What can we do?” This is welcome. This is great. There is real support from some musicians. There is also a lot of suspicion. Because it’s not easy to be a foreigner when you are in Ethiopia. You are not from the country. What are you doing? Are you making business? It’s always difficult. Even if I’m basically a historian more than a music businessman, sometimes I have to heavily explain what I’m doing. But fortunately, I cannot complain. Many musicians are very supportive of what I’m doing.
B.E: You’ve also put together this wonderful book, Abyssinie Swing: A Pictorial History of Modern Ethiopian Music (Shama Books). It contains wonderful images of the golden age in Addis, and before. Do you think the images and sounds you’ve been working with are alive in the consciousness of today’s Ethiopians, especially in Addis?
F.F: In fact, very little remains, especially in the memories of the people. Imagine that you’re a teenager in 74, the moment that the regime of Haile Selassie falls. Let’s say that you are seventeen, and you want to cruise in the nightclubs, to be a teenager. You cannot, because the revolution comes, the curfew is here, you can do nothing. When this is finished 18 years later you’re 35. Nowadays you are 50. It means all the Ethiopian under 50, which is 9/10s of the population, they have no souvenir at all of the pre-revolutionary period. It is completely out of their memory. There was a photo exhibition of this time, with the elegance of these big bands, with the beautiful swinging Addis. When the youngsters came to see this photo exhibition of the end of the empire, they simply couldn’t believe it. They had no idea this could have happened in their country. So this has totally disappeared. You don’t see any more big band in tuxedos, for instance. Terribly elegant. Not to mention the singers. People simply cannot imagine what it was like in that period, and since then, after the fall of the revolutionary regime, nothing like that has risen again.
B.E: Does this story get told to young Ethiopians now? Is it mentioned on television? Are the songs on your Ethiopiques albums released there, and are they played on the radio?
F.F: This music is still played on the radio. Even nowadays you can listen to the music of the 50s, 60s, 70s. It is very alive. You can find most of this music on cassette in very poor condition because of piracy. Do young Ethiopians find this music interesting? It’s difficult to say. The music in Ethiopia nowadays is completely different. It’s mostly one-man-bands. There are some technological aspects which have terribly influenced the music, not only in Ethiopia. Two are very important. One is the keyboard, electronic keyboards, not only in Ethiopia but in many countries in the world it has totally spoiled the music because keyboard is mostly used as imitation of acoustic instruments. With an electronic keyboard they think they can have horn section just like a real horn section, a string section, bass, a drum, etcetera, etcetera.
So this technological innovation was very influential in destroying the music of the old days. Another technological phenomenon is the arrival of cassette. All this happened about the same time. The first organ synthesizer arrived during the 60s and was dominant throughout the revolutionary period. And cassettes started in in the mid 70s. Even before the end of the empire you had the first cassettes. Okay it’s a cheap, democratic medium to sell music that anybody can do in his kitchen, in his loo, wherever. But with piracy and the bad technical quality of recording and duplication, it’s worse. Piracy also means the producer doesn’t get his income, the artistd don’t get their income. Hence the poverty of the musicians. All that has contributed to killing this music and the musical world.
B.E: Maybe to end on a more positive note, we should recognize the contribution that the Either/Orchestra is making, because that’s something that could make a mark, when a band comes from the other side and then brings Ethiopian music to its home audience.
F.F: This is one of the nicest consequences of the work I started through Éthiopiques. You can find now in many corners of the world musicians, music fans, taking some Ethiopian tunes, just to give their own version, playing covers of Ethiopian tunes. This is done with each and every music, all over the world. Anybody can play, for the good and the bad. It was through the first edition of Ethiopian Groove CD (now, Ethiopiques Volume 13) that the Either/Orchestra picked Ethiopia. By chance, and through one musician of the band, an American band, Morphine. He brought back this CD from France to Boston, and immediately Russ Gershon, the Either/Orchestra band leader, fell in love with this music and started to play some covers.
But what I like in Either Orchestra, on top of the fact that they’re real music lovers, and great musicians one by one, is what they did out of Ethiopian classics. It’s simply great. Okay, there is a specific jazz blend, which is American. But you can recognize Ethiopian music. And I didn’t intend originally when I invited the Either Orchestra to play at at an Ethiopian music Festival in Addis Ababa in January 2004, I did not intend to include this live concert in the series. But concert was great. The response of the Ethiopian audience was great. incredibly emotional. The recording was not bad, and more than not bad, I would say excellent, enough to be released.
B.E: Thanks so much, Francis. You’ve taught us a lot.