post Ethiopian Identity in Germany

April 9th, 2008

Filed under: Behind Adoption — Binyam @ 19:54

My personal Ethiopian identity in Germany!

This article is meant for all Ethiopian children and students who are adopted by a German family and all other people who are interested in getting to know the point of view of one Ethiopian-born in Germany. More than that it should be focused on the general question whether and how an adopted child from Ethiopia should be confronted with his or her historical background. It will not concentrate on blaming parents that appear to be having difficulties in educating a child from Ethiopia neither should it evoke a feeling of pity in every person that reads that article as an objector. It is just made up to inform you how one could see the main issues of an adoption in general and also in some ways specified.

In this respect the opinion of most of the Ethiopian Germans that live in Germany should not be taken too much in account because as there are many problems in the Ethiopian community most of them would rather recommend the children just to avoid getting into to much contact with the so called “Habeshas”. But my personal question is if these considerations are as relevant to a German Ethiopian who could not be as easily involved in the inner conflicts. Let us compare the main issues of an Ethiopian child and then return to this point.

At first glance it seems as if there is no difference between adopted children who grow up in this country and German ones except for their outer appearance. In addition, many adopted youth deny taking any considerations in matters of their origin. However, I take the guess that there has to be an inner conflict in every child that experienced the destiny of losing its parents and being educated in a new and different world. At the beginning of the German education it is no secret that adopteds especially that ones that grow up in rural areas, may be faced with the same kinds of racial discrimination like all immigrants. Of course, this problem cannot be contested in general but must be specified in special regions and areas (e.g. some parts of the Eastern Germany). But what is special about this discrimination is that an African who has their family with them can always be consoled by his or her comrades that experienced this racism in the same way. In the contrary for an adopted child that feels and thinks like a German it is at this point really difficult to defend itself because it considers itself simply to be German. If it was the fact that the adopted was an immigrant it would have possibly distanced from the Germans as being an immigrant, but how is it with the ones that have no other cultural background?

The identity of a human being in a society plays a very important role but my question to these children is if they really have an identity that is comparable to the Germans or to Ethiopian-born immigrants? Most of them speak German fluently and no Amharic; they act, talk and think German but, however, their outer appearance is different. Although most of the people in their surroundings don’t mind this difference it still exists and somehow disturbs the development. The great conflict is e.g. that in the surrounding of family and friends and relatives the child is a German and outside this circle it is an immigrant that is faced with all the same features and problems like the other immigrants. So is there is a mixed-identity? And do the children that got used to being just German really want that? Especially the pressure from outside may be very irritating for someone who tries to be German but just manages to be it in 80 %. On the other hand what is about the country one derives from? In the Western countries the majority considers Ethiopia to be solely one of the poorest countries of the world that suffers from Aids, diseases, sicknesses, war with the neighbours and so on.

The first step after deciding to follow the tracks of your roots is the question what is supposed to be the best way to get along with the Ethiopian people in Germany? I would recommend to the Ethiopian adopted that are interested in getting to know Ethiopian people not to let themselves be confused in matters of religious and political issues because we as German raised will probably never really understand the actual problems. In addition many Ethiopian Germans people tend to mistrust each other because they fear from enviousness and rumors that are afloat concerning their behaviour and way of life. That’s usually nothing interesting for adopted children because there is no inner family structure that is comparable to the Ethiopian one and enviousness is less important for them. So the adopted do not have to be afraid of negative influence if they are friendly and outgoing and constantly pay not too much attention to problematic issues. Me, personally have never experienced that often portrayed bad behaviour of Ethiopian Germans against myself because I just enjoyed my time with them, put up many questions about culture and honestly asked them for help in matters of my language skills. Although I still do not understand every cultural aspect in some ways I know that politeness and respect just as religion and cultural aspects is very important for the people in contrast to the German mentality that is sometimes set up upon a critical honesty (whether it is sometimes inappropriate or not). Furthermore, I would claim that a freshman does not have to try to understand and discuss every issue and controversial matter but sometimes just has to accept that things are like that although he may think that this is weird at first glance. Moreover, it will always be helpful if he concentrates on cultural questions like the coffee ceremony, the eating habits, literature, art and music that are very variable fields.

The first impression of me when I met Ethiopian people in restaurants and on the street was completely different from the facts I got from the media. Despite the illustration of some media which still uses to present a folk that is supposed to experience nothing but despair and problems these examples seemed so friendly and outgoing. This aspect may not be interesting for those Ethiopian adopted that had much contact to their comrades during their upbringing. But for someone like me who first came in touch with these people after the age of 20 years it is and was important. The Ethiopian mentality and behaviour like the history of the country cannot and must never be compared to other Africans and is in this respect very special. However, this must not lead an inexperienced adopted to participate to some extreme views of Ethiopians that feel superior to other African nations or even to other inner tribes. Never forget that we adopted were raised in a sheltered German home and never participated in the war and the sufferings of many Ethiopians. If you stick to that rule you may get to know many cheerful people that will help you to find out about the Ethiopian “bahel” and way of life. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend to everyone to visit Ethiopia as soon as possible in order to really understand what the Ethiopians here are talking about. There are so many things one cannot imagine without experiencing them and feeling them by oneself. It is therefore important to carefully organize a travel to Ethiopia in advance in order to see also the countryside out of Addis Ababa, the rural areas and different cultural places. If the German parents are not willing to join the travel you will have to convince them kindly that it is important for every human being to get to know about his or her origin although there is always a risk of confusion. Being in that wonderful country the ones adopted that may have always lived in doubts about the fact whether there is no progress and happiness in Ethiopia will discover hoe he had been taken in. Of course there is much poverty visible and there are these problems that the media portrays but the way you are treated over there, the hospitality, the warmth, the taste of food and the happiness will show you another Ethiopia that is not mentioned in the German every day life, at all. And you should never forget that Ethiopia is three times bigger than Germany, which means that you probably will not experience any border conflicts with the neighbouring countries and political issues.

In addition, it is important to explain that adopted children do never have to worry of being rejected by the Ethiopians because of the fact that they grew up by German families. In fact the people are curious about their destiny and they are always ready to help them and sympathize with your difficulties and plans.

The last question I want to deal with is the task of the German parents. As most of the people either react with pity or with words like “you must be very thankful about what your parents did for you” you should just ignore these comments to avoid getting confused or angry at them. Of course an adopted child is always thankful and this must not be pointed out by other people neither the parents because it may impose a feeling of guilty to the adopted child. Secondly parents must never forget that the outer appearance (in the respect the dark skin) always plays an important role in a society apart from language skills and the slowly abolishment of racial problems in Germany. Therefore an adopted child must always have the opportunity to stick to his or her culture and it is in the responsibility of the parents to provide an atmosphere out of prejudices and fear from other cultures. That does not mean that families have to travel to Ethiopia and confront them with that country at every time, which probably leads to an engorgement and the negative effect of disinterest. There are always some children who simply see no importance in getting to know their origin but the door to that decision has to be open the whole time of their life. Parents must never worry that closer contact to the origin people means a loss of feelings towards the German family. How can they ever forget what they did for them and how they cared for them but, however, to complete their search for our identity they require the contact and experience about our origin in order to gain and keep a special self-esteem. Being faced with the fact that one will maybe never know their parents is hard but on the other hand the new life in Germany offers many chances and opportunities that are not available in our country. However, we adopted should never forget where we come from; never forget that many children unfortunately will never have any chance or parents to console them. Don’t you think that it is somehow in our responsibility to share our luck with them?

Anyway, if you had contact to mixed Ethiopians who often suffer from the same inner conflict, you would see how nice and also difficult it can be experiencing two cultures at the same time and feeling at ease at many places at the same time. For me it was and is nothing but an enrichment to my personality and this article should egg on every adopted who feels like me. So all in all, I recommend to those children who have no contact to Ethiopian people to enlarge their mind in favor of this country. Our ideas and different point of views may be useful to improve the situation in and out of Ethiopia. We must not be afraid of anything since our trust in God led us safely to a new life here and since we have not been better or worse than other Ethiopians and Germans. But according to our different skills we may construct a new bridge between two completely different cultures. Let us in the name of God try our best to be an ideal to both peoples.

Binyam-Tedla Hecke

post Tourists on Ethiopia I

April 3rd, 2008

Filed under: Tourists on Ethiopia — Admassu @ 01:08

The best way to know about ourselves and about our country is to listen to what foreigners say after they visit us. We might be emotionally offended upon some remarks. But objectively seen, we also have different opinions about other countries. Opinions are the result of various circumstances. Depending on one’s state of mind, maturity and daily experience, opinions can be full of contradictory views and interesting assertions. We learn a lot if we perceive them objectively. Opinions usually doesn’t reflect the whole truth about the reality. But opinions can reflect a fragment of the whole truth.

Hereby we present five travel journals by tourists with completely different views on Ethiopia.


Journal I



To start with have to say there is a stark difference between the Ethiopians and the Sudanese, the Ethiopians are cheating, stealing (I will come to that later), rude people. The country however is fantastic stunning lush mountains, and great lakes. There is a lot that we got to see in Ethiopia, so I will be brief.

Didn’t have a vast amount of time here as we spent much f our only day there trying to organise a flight to Axum, I won’t bore anyone with the details, lets just say it was time consuming for a number of reasons. We finally managed to spend a couple of hours looking around the castle which is apparently the Camelot of Ethiopia, it was Ok but I don’t imagine that Arthur would have been all that impressed by it. Or by the irritating shadow people who hang around outside.

We departed Gonder early and were in Axum by mid morning. Now what we hadn’t realized was that there was a huge religious pilgrimage hitting town at the same time as us, which meant that flights out and hotel rooms were at a serious premium. We eventually managed to secure both a hotel room and a flight out. However the hotel room was to turn into a bit of a nightmare, the second night were there the hotel told us that they had double booked and that we had to move somewhere else, initially we were happy to help them out, however when they took us to see the alternative hotel we found building site with no windows, or running water, so a rather long and nasty argument broke out, and it ended up in us staying in a Voluntary counseling and treatment centre for AIDs (actually very nice), spent that night getting drunk and trying to see the funny side of what had happened. Early in the night a group of flute (word used loosely) players came in the bar and started to drape grass all over us, very surreal and just the laugh we needed after the days ordeal, even if the music was awful.

As for the sights in Axum, we got to see the stele fields and the church of Mary of Zion which allegedly houses the arc of the covenant, which they wouldn’t let us see though we did get to see the doors to the room and the only man who is allowed in the room with it (apparently a rare treat)

After the hotel debacle in Axum it was a relief to check into a classy place and treat ourselves to some much earned R&R. We spent fair amount of time going on little hikes in the surrounding mountains which are beautiful. Also we visited the rock hewn churches, Ethiopia’s answer to Petra. They were stunning and quite the architectural feet, they were built by king Lalabella so that people wouldn’t have to go on such long pilgrimages they even have a river Jordan.

Had some great food and some not so great drink. The local home brew is called Tej, it is a maize beer, and it is rank. It was served to us from a kettle and we drank it from scientific beakers, it looked like of orange juice and had the same consistency. Heather soldiered on with her portion and managed half a beaker, I managed a couple of sips, and you will never guess which one of us had gut rot the next day!

Baha Dahr
Errrrm nice fruit juice, piss poor water fall!

Addis Ababa
The girls decided that they were going to have a girly day and treat themselves to a spa and cocktails so I went to the Merkato with some of the boys. The Merkato is a vast market area where you can find pretty much anything, it dos however have a very bad reputation for thieves and pickpockets. We had managed about 20 mins in the market before Pete took off after a guy shouting thief, so we all set off in pursuit, I managed to catch the guy and pin him against the bus, and much to the delight of the locals who all clapped and cheered (they apparently don’t like thieves either). With in seconds there was a policeman on the scene who started proceedings by giving the guy a clip around the ear. The policeman led us and the bad guy to the police station occasionally stopping to explain to people what had happened and giving the little shit a few more clips. In the police station we gave our statements while the Ali Baba was sat on the floor next to us, several different policemen came in and asked where we were from and what had happened, after they asked this they would shake their head at the criminal and give him a good kicking. Have to say it was quite the experience, especially as the guy hadn’t actually managed to take anything out of Pete’s pocket; Pete was just incensed that the guy tried. Also should mention that we are gluttons for punishment so went back to the Merkato we stayed long enough to have two more attempted robberies, and then decided to leave before anything else could happen.

For my girly day we tried to go to a spa for a massage, unfortunately they were fully booked and we realized we had forgotten our guide book, so now we had no plan or map!! We also ended up at the Merkato but our experience was far less exciting, we just shopped and had a nice lunch. One of the girls needed to use an ATM and after lots of inquiring we discovered that the only ATM is at the Sheraton. So poor us, we had to go to the Sheraton, it was heaven on earth. It was decorated beautifully for Christmas and we totally splurged and had cocktails, and we all used the bathroom twice. It was a great day in the end.

And we all knew it had to happen sooner or later, I had an accident… Our last night in Addis I was cleaning out the truck and I had my hands full and ended up missing the top step of the ladder coming out of the truck and fell. Don’t worry I did manage to hit every rung of the ladder (hard) on the way down. One of the guys had quite a fright when he found me in a heap at the bottom of the ladder surrounded by garbage, but I was lucky and only ended up with severe bruising, mainly on my arm and the biggest bruise of my life on my bum. That made riding in a bouncing truck a little painful. And everyone has agreed on the truck that I’m no longer allowed down the ladder with anything in my hands so I can use the railing.

We went to visit the king, but after smashing one of the truck windows on the drive through the thick forest we found out that the king wasn’t in. Not to worry had a very pleasant evening playing Frisbee and football with the princess and princess of Konso.

All in all Ethiopia was a lot of fun and very interesting, but it is not an easy place to travel and it can get very trying.


Journal II

Ethiopia the Truth


Having only seen the stereotypical images of famine and drought on the media, we didn’t know what to expect when our plane landed at midnight in Addis Ababa. Leaving the airport we were surrounded by hoards of dodgy looking hooded men. We felt relieved to be dropped of to our hotel in one piece. Addis Ababa has got more flash cars and bangers than any other 3rd world Capital. The people wear stylish and clean attire and are mostly very friendly. Food is available in abundance. Not the Ethiopia portrayed abroad, but a pleasant surprise. The people were easy to deal with compared to India and most people can speak English.

Ethiopia is a very ancient country, devoutly Christian. Men and women whether walking or in thier cars bow going past the churches. Virtually everyone fasts wednesdays and fridays eating vegetarian food once a day and this worked out to be a great advantage to us as we could easily order “fasting food”.

Having heard about the ancient Christian monuments in the north we had a choice of using local buses or flying to get to them. Flying being out of our budget and local transport being a way of experiencing local life we got onto a bus at 5am. Before half way through our 12 hour journey we had decided to get on the next plane to South Africa! Dodgy smells, puking women, extremly bad roads and stops for hours for no apparent reason made up our minds.

However, we still had to wait for a few days before our flight left for Johannesburg. So we decided to head to the Southern lakes this time. We decided to hire a car with a driver; a decision we were later to regret. The people in the south were friendlier than the northern folk and we had a really good time exploring the region.

As we spent more time in the south and thereafter in Addis Ababa we realised that the strange country that we had entered with great caution was relatively safe and the people seemed to have the fear of God. Sipping gourmet coffees for less than 10p, melt in the mouth pastries and the best spring rolls we had ever tasted was cool. We really enjoyed our stay and look back on Addis as a friend. These people really won our hearts and if we ever gt a chance to go back again, even for a few days, we wouldn`t think twice about it.


Journal III

Harar! We’ve Been To Harar


In order to keep us sweet and stop us carrying on the trip without a truck, it was suggested we spend a day in Harar, a walled city in the east of Ethiopia. It was agreed that as long as we are going places and seeing new stuff we didnt mind. So we set of Monday morning at 9am. Another 9 hour drive ahead of us seemed like a nightmare but it was actually really good. The scenery was really nice with mountains bushland and wetlands all along the way. We were driving in the mountains for a long time and it was rainy and we were driving on windy roads through the clouds which was a bit hairy. The animals have started to appear as well which is what we came to see, and most of them want to cross the road and get in the way so I’m starting a list of animals that block our path.

Got to Harar too late to do anything. It was a really dingy hotel and only our room and Brendan & Marie’s room (who have hooked up on the trip by the way) had decnet toilets and showers so everyone piled in ours.

The next morning we hired a guide to take us around the walled part of the city, which is 1 square kilometre and in it it has 362 alleyways and over 80 mosques. It also is weird because Christians and Muslims all live within the walls without fighting. It’s still really poor here and loads of kids follow us and find us “Farenjis” (foreigners) really odd.

In the evening we had the highlight of the trip so far and saw the Hyena men feeding the hyenas at the gates of the city. We had a go too! fed them meat with sticks on our mouth! Never realised how big hyenas are and how big their teeth are unless there bearing down on your face!! Paid 40 Birr (about 2.50 in english money) Got an encore in the hotel at night as well with hyena giggles out the back all night!! Had several close ups with vultures outside the window in the mornings.

On the way back to Addis saw some wild boar having a mud bath and a herd of about 50 camels drinking at the lake. Saw lots of trucks overturned as well one was still smoking from where it had crashed and caught fire while we were in Harar. Got back to Addis about 7.



Journal IV
By Alex Stonehill

A Night on the Road


We stood in the pre-dawn glow of the streetlamps, greeted by intoxicated heckles from the previous night’s most diligent drinkers. A battered, extended cab Toyota Hilux pickup pulled up, carrying a mound of mysterious goods under a green tarp and bearing faded Ethiopian Red Cross decals on its doors. Seeing that there were already three passengers inside, I almost threw in the towel right there and sent my colleagues Ernest and Julia on without me, motivated as much by the practicalities of fitting so many people into such a tiny space as I was by the thought of my still warm bed waiting for me just down the block.

I’m still not sure I made the right decision in allowing my backpack to be haphazardly strapped to the top of the green mountain, and folding my legs practically against my chest so as to wedge myself into the cab.

Though I’d never met any of them before, I knew the man seated directly in front of me — who’s heavy briefcase was now wedged under my arm — to be Salihu Sultan, a regional director for the Red Cross, who’d offered to take us on a quick tour of the water issues in the South on his way to distribute medical supplies in a remote region called Arero. The driver and middle passenger hadn’t been introduced, adding to the enigmatic feel of our 3am departure, though they were later revealed to be Salihu’s two brothers.

At first my sleepiness got the better of me and I settled in almost comfortably, but even before the asphalt road disintegrated just past Awasa, the pressure of six bodies, five bags and an inexplicable electronic keyboard inside the Hilux began to take its toll on me.

Luckily, I soon had plenty of time to stretch my legs as we changed two punctured tires in rapid succession, the second requiring Salihu and his younger brother to venture ahead on the bus to the next town to get the tubes repaired, while we waited, sharing awkward smiles with the locals who lived there along the road.

We ate “lunch” in Hagere Selam, though it was already close to sunset, and as we drove on up the winding, verdant road, it started to sink in just how far away from anything recognizable, and how powerless over my own situation I was. I felt a gnawing panic. When, and where would we finally arrive, and how would we eventually retrace the mounting kilometers of jagged roadway leading back to Addis?

Salihu had informed us that it was at least another 200km to Negele, which was the nearest place we could spend the night if he was to make it on to Arero in time to start his screenings and distribution of supplies the next day. My faith in the Hilux and its four worn tires had been deteriorating in step with the road conditions, especially after watching a teenage mechanic back in Hagere Selam stuff three or four scraps of old rubber tubing inside one of them as padding.

The fear slowly eased out of me as the sun set, blazing an orange trail of clouds across the horizon, past the expansive lowlands spread out below us.

I woke up to a frantic moaning from the front seat. We’d stopped, and Salihu’s brother was beating his own forehead with a closed fist, as a group of wailing, shrouded figures pulled him from the car.

We were parked in the moonlight facing a large dimly lit tent between two rows of mud buildings. As the silhouettes outside the cab embraced, I recalled Salihu mentioning earlier that his grandfather, who lived in Adolla, was very ill. He must have died just before we arrived; all of the hurrying, the driving through the night hours and the rushed meals along the way that had seemed so uncharacteristic of Ethiopian culture as I knew it started to make sense.

Ernest, Julia and I just sat frozen in the back seat of the truck in the darkness, not wanting to make a burden of ourselves as guests in the middle of the crisis. We began contemplating how Salihu and his brothers has put on such a show of hospitality and friendliness for us over the last 18 hours, even with the imminent death looming over them.

In our culture, a family emergency is the ultimate excuse to disengage from obligations. But here Salihu had insisted on honoring his commitment to bring us with him even though he had no responsibility to help us in the first place, other than a cultural sense of hospitality that seems to overcome the good sense of most Ethiopians.

After a time, he emerged again and hurried us inside the tent. A dozen men in keffiyehs and robes were reclining on mats at the far side of a tent, surrounded by scattered, leafy branches.

Even through my exhaustion, it didn’t take long to realize that I was finally laying eyes on the plant that I’d heard so many rumors about as we’d researched the East Africa project back in the States. In recent years, the DEA has declared khat illegal in the US and they’ve deported several of Somalis from the Seattle area for importing it from East Africa. I’d also heard many Somali’s bemoan the financial drain that the drug is on their country, as it is hugely popular there, but only grown in neighboring countries like Ethiopia.

We were invited to sit with the men, and before long I was chewing away at my first mouthful of the fresh shoots from the top of the branch I’d been handed. The taste was bitter and tannic enough that a swallow of water washing it down tasted as sweet as Coke by contrast. It seems to me that that psychotropic effects of khat have been overstated, although the mere fact that I was able to remain conscious at that point may be a testament to its potency as a stimulant.

Despite everything, Salihu remained anxious to cover the final 100km in order to reach Negele that night, so I filled my pockets with some of the remaining leaves, and we piled back into the cab.

Somehow the mood in the Hilux lightened once we left, as if the hour of intense public mourning between Salihu’s family had been enough to acknowledge the death of the patriarch, who at about 65 years had lived a long life by Ethiopian standards.

It was 3am again before we finally reached Negele. Contemplation of the cultural differences in mourning practices quickly gave way to weary frustration at the growing welt on my shoulder as it was methodically beaten against the truck door, and fantasies of the warm bed and shower that might await our arrival.

We arrived to a town much smaller than I’d guessed from the glow of its lights on the horizon, and a hotel where the taps had all run dry. Still, a full 24 hours and 600km after we’d departed, it was hard to think about much more than sleep.


Journal V
By Ernest Waititu

A Night in the Bush


When our four-wheel-drive pickup truck vroomed off the town of Negele I knew I was in for a giant adventure. Well, I must quickly clarify that I was not here for adventure; Negele is of course not one of those places you go site-seeing. I was here to work, following stories on water scarcity and how it had impacted the people of Southern Ethiopia.

But work or no work, I had to steal some moments and have some fun. For how could I close my eyes, ears and soul to the beauty of Africa? How could I possibly not be moved by the expansive fields and the distant hills of Negele, which carried me back to my childhood as I took care of my family’s cattle in the plains of Kieni in Kenya? While drier, this part of Ethiopia had more similarities with Kieni – the place where I grew up — than any other place I had been.

I was compelled by this alikeness to take a psychological journey back to my boyhood. In the small, bare-footed, parched-faced boys who were following dozens of their cattle, I revisited my childhood. I saw myself in every one of these boys. My eyes opened up to the wild, to the large birds I had trapped for food, to the deer I had hunted with my dog Simba and to the joy of carrying loads of wild meat in the evening when I accompanied my family’s cattle home for milking.

These experiences had brought me to a dreamy sense of being and completely banished from me the troubles of the journey — the bumpy and rugged roads that had completely exhausted us on our first day of travel and made our 600 km journey from Addis Ababa to Negele a 24-hour nightmare.

I was jolted from my reverie by a round burst underneath the car. The devil himself had visited terror on us again. By this time, the fifth time we had heard this sound, it was unmistakable — we had another flat tire to fix. But the most depressing thing about this experience was not changing the tire but the fact that we had exhausted all the spare tires we had. When we had left Negele we had decided to take a risk, bringing one spare tire and hoping the road would be better. Until this time, 150 km into the trip, it had worked okay.

But now there was no chance of finding a tire. The Red Cross chief of the Borena zone who had hosted us for the tour, Salihu Sultan, observed that we were now deep into the lion country and that the tire-changing exercise had better be done fast.

Curdled Milk
We quickly and nervously changed the tire and hopped back into the car. A few miles down the road we came to a small town called Hudet — a village of mud-walled houses lined in each side of the street where our host unsuccessfully sought ways and means of getting a new spare tire. While we could not secure a tire from here, we were able to get some food: a piece of the delicious Ethiopia bread, a cup of tea and glass of curdled milk made the Borena way.

Having eaten, we were ready to get started again. Immediately after hitting the road, a lump tightened in my stomach perhaps as a result of the fear of losing another tire and spending the night in the bush. Judging from the past day, we needed nothing short of divine intervention to protect all the four tires from the jagged rocks that dotted the road.

And still, the lump in my stomach tightened. I am usually not given to premonitions but something deep down in my tummy felt terribly amiss. But still I hung on to hope, we had covered more than 200 kilometers. We had less than 40 to go. We could do it. We surely could.

When it came, the bursting of the tire sounded just like the previous five: a loud puff and then a stream of gushing air. In unison, as if premeditated, we all muttered a muffled gasp of despair and rolled out of the car.

Some silence followed, and then rather foolishly I decided to enquire about the status of the lions to a Borena man we had picked up and given a ride from Hudet – our last town. The man, having grown up in the area and being well versed with the terrain was the best person to consult on such matters. The lion was not exactly here, he said matter of factly, but it would be found a little further, perhaps a kilometer or so up the road. Good Heavens, I have never been more scared in my life!

The Fire
Some more silence, and then a refreshing thought came to my mind. “How about making some fire?” I asked. The Borena man made a quick cracking fire from the dry woods that littered the bush nearby. While growing up, I had been taught that fire was a good way to scare away wild animals. I hoped to myself that the wisdom of my people would ring true even here in the bush of Ethiopia.

The fire was a good idea but in our tiredness we soon got fed up with it, and some of my colleagues retired to sleep in the car. We were right in the middle of the bush – more than 30 kilometers each side to the nearest town. There was no way anyone was going to walk to seek help. Our one hope, Salihu told us, was a vehicle coming from the direction we had come, which could help us ferry the tire to Arero for repair. In Arero, we could get a Red Cross ambulance to ferry the tire back to where we had been trapped. For a long time we kept looking up the bushes for signs of beams of light from an oncoming car.

Presently, our Borena friend being more in tune with the bush way of life started clearing up a spot on the ground and conveniently retired for the night. Unlike me, he was a seasoned bush traveler who had chosen to be more practical in the face of the current realities.

In the back of my mind the thought of the lion showing up when I slept would not leave. In a split of a second, I thought the whole attack through, even picturing what the headlines in the Kenyan newspapers would say: Kenyan Reporter Killed in Ethiopian Bush, or even better: Kenyan Journalist Mauled by Lion.

Close to three hours later, when all my hopes were drying up, some streaks of light shot though the trees — help was on the way. When the Isuzu truck arrived, it was full of people in the back, but the driver kindly gave our driver a ride. He took along the tire. His drive to get the tire repaired would be approximately 70 kilometers round trip on a bumpy road, which allowed you to drive at 25 kilometers per hour at best.

I knew it was going to be a long wait, and I was right. The night wore on, the car had not returned, and my fear for the lion swelled.

It was therefore tremendously relieving when Salihu suggested that we could all, the six of us, try to fit in the car for it would be risky for us to remain out the whole night. We quickly shoved ourselves in the front and back seats of the double-cabin Toyota Hilux and soon almost everyone went straight asleep. For some reason, I could not sleep a wink. I could not bear the temperatures and the stuffiness of the car in which six people were locked in their sleep, breathing and snoring. A few minutes into the experience, my allergies kicked in and I started sneezing. I walked out of the car for some fresh air. To my relief, my colleague Alex Stonehill came with me. We shared our nasty experiences inside the stuffy car and decided we would not get back in, wildlife notwithstanding.

Buffalion Dream
We looked for ways to get ourselves comfortable in the bed of the truck, foregoing the security of the enclosed cab, which came along with tremendous discomfort. At this time, after having slept a maximum of three hours the previous night and after being out in a turbulent car most of the day, not even the fear of the lion could stop me from falling asleep. I was tired. Soon after getting at the back of the open truck, I fell fast asleep.

And then, the buffalo came. It looked more like a lion than a buffalo: mid-sized, brownish and aggressive. Alex and I jumped of the back of the car and broke twigs from the dry branches as we desperately tried to repulse the buffalion. It was such a scary task, we had to do it to survive. Our desperate and frantic attacks from both ends seemed to bear fruit momentarily. With his long swinging hands, Alex was doing a better job of attacking the monster than I was. I had to try harder. The beast would retreat fleetingly before charging. And just in one of those moments when I was huffing and puffing from the charging beast, Alex shook me from my sleep. It was just one of those rare dreams that brings you as close to reality as you can ever get. It was 3:30 in the morning. We were still sprawled in the bed of the truck. But our driver had just returned with the mended tire.

Finally, we were set to begin the last leg of the journey to Arero.

Fifteen hours, 250 miles, and two flat tires after Negele, we arrived in Arero. Salihu booked us what was supposed to be the best hotel in town – a line of mud-walled rooms each with a bed at the edge. Its state not withstanding, my bed that morning was the one bed I had appreciated most in my life. It was and I had to make maximum use of the precious bed. In two-hours time, Salihu would be waking us up to start our next trip through the wilderness.


Journal VI
By Julia Marino

A Night at the Yabello Motel


The white Toyota Hilux glowed as it pulled up in the middle of the unrecognizable night to what was the small, destined village of Arero. In my comatose daze, I was astounded by the reality of our arrival, our minds and bodies unscathed, curious, and ready for a warm bed and an Aspirin. At that moment, I realized that part of me believed we would navigate the nebulous, jarring road forever, the truck jerking to and fro rapturously, repeatedly, sending our bags up in the air before stopping urgently to change another bald tire. Such an experience erases all consciousness of time, all understanding of place. Yet, once the moment sinks in, its unfamiliarity can create a sense of peace even amid chaos.

In the darkness, I was led to a place where I could sleep. The room was a shadow cast by a single candle that dripped wax onto a makeshift chair wobbling on the dirt. Dawn must have been approaching, for as I finally began to fall back into sleep, the first beams of sunrise streamed through the holes of the wooden door, casting fingers of thin light onto the walls. Outside, a rooster called steadily. Dogs howled and the hum of insects harmonized with the abrupt yelling of men in their native language of Oromifa.

I gave up on the prospect of sleep as the orchestra of sounds invaded my consciousness.

Unrefreshed, I found Ernest, Alex and Salihu in a similar room across the compound. We began an early breakfast of roasted goat tibs in a broth over a coal-fed fire. It was then time to talk about our goals, our ethics and our hopes as researchers, storytellers and journalists.

Salihu had been immensely helpful to us, and I respected his knowledge, compassion and eagerness to assist us in our work. Without his generosity, we all knew we wouldn’t be traversing the remote villages of Borena. He had led us to invaluable information and insight, helping us gain access to others who could inform us further. But after hundreds of kilometers from Addis, and many adventures lived already, we knew it was time to seek out the best location to do our reporting on our own. So, it was decided we would have to part ways so we could travel to Yabello, a central location for researching the lives of pastoralists and water-walkers

Traveling Through the Bush and the Brave Borena Woman
Before we left for Yabello, we set up a spot in the dirt pathway to interview Habiba Boru Gutu, an internally displaced Borena woman the Red Cross truck had picked up in Negele. While we roamed the rocky road to Arero the previous day, I decided that I would join her in the back of the truck. Salihu couldn’t understand why I would possibly want to sit in the pickup with the Borena woman.

“But it might be too cold! You’ll be more comfortable up front!”

I insisted that it would be fun, that I wanted to get to know the lone woman, and wanted to feel the cold wind on my face.

He eventually relented, and I found a spot on top of the dusty, green tarp covering our many bags next to Habiba, who like many Borena women, wore a brightly colored scarf around her hair that draped onto her shoulders. The truck took off on the road and jerked us toward the back of the cab as the sunset began to set behind us, the trail behind us narrowing until it disappeared into the horizon.

Despite a rather large language barrier, Habiba and I communicated with hand gestures and facial expressions, her unidentifiable locution lingering in the air. She spoke several dialects of Oromifa, as well as Kiswahili and Amharic. I, on the other hand, only knew maybe five words in Amharic.

I later discovered that she had lived in Nairobi for a few months, and so could distinguish a Kenyan any day. Upon learning that Habiba spoke Kiswahili, Ernest conversed with her greatly, learning details about her life I couldn’t grasp in the back of the truck.

Now in the dirt hallway of the humble inn, Alex and I set up and handled the video camera while Ernest interviewed her in his native tongue. Ernest explained how she had to flee her home once the Guji people massacred her village, mainly made up of Borena people, because of conflict over resource scarcity. I learned that she had once had a very productive business, and was able to afford to fly her children from Kenya to Ethiopia. After the massacre, she said that she lost everything - all her wealth, the basic necessities she needed to help support her family, and her home.

Despite being internally displaced and dealing with the harsh consequences of such conflict, Habiba spoke calmly, as if the experience had forced her to strengthen and placidly overcome the challenges around her. I knew at that moment, that I had a lot to learn from her bravery.

Mirages and the Governor’s Clothes
After we interviewed Habiba we said our goodbyes. We promised to see Salihu again in Addis, and he and Habiba gave us warm hugs. We hopped in the back of a Red Cross Ambulance, another Borena woman sat in the back next to us, offering us a sip of the cursed, curdled milk that we tried the other other night.

As we drove, we came across tiny villages with thatched huts. The women wore distinct, ebony braids and children carried large sticks, spears, sometimes even guns to help protect their cattle. Dust whirled into clouds as we passed the staring natives. The truck drove precariously in a gust, infinity ahead of us.

And just when we thought our flat-tire days were over, the truck came to a sudden stop again. Our sixth stop in the middle of the bush; this time felt more like a dream than reality. The scene appeared to us like a mirage. After all, the earth stretched as far as the eye could see on all sides, the sun coating our every breath. Only dust, a couple thorn bushes and two trees were within sight. All speculations aside though, we were all happy to know we had a functioning spare tire. We learned the hard way that you can never have enough spares in southern Ethiopia.

The changing of the tires was now clockwork, and before we knew it we were on the road again. Not too long afterward, what seemed to be another pseudo-mirage approached us. It was a paved road! The bumpy surface we were so used to bearing was now a calm, smooth pathway leading to Yabello But about six feet before the truck hit the pavement, the car thumped again, and we were almost sure we had lost another tire, stuck just feet away from safety. At that moment, we held our breath so tight that as soon as we made it across the paved road, we all let out a sigh so immense, the truck almost tipped over.

We drove to find the friend Salihu had set us up with - Abdulqadir Abdii.

Little did we know that Abduliqadir was the Provincial Commissioner, a similar role as governor. “PCs in Africa have so much power,” Ernest said, matter-of-factly. Our driver stepped out of the car asking random people if they knew where Abduliqadir was - that’s how small of a town Yabello was.

We finally found his home and sat down on small wooden stools near his front yard. We discussed our plans for the next day, where he agreed to help us find a driver and translator to take us to the town of Dubluck, a small pastoralist village famous for its singing wells about 70 km away. Another area we were planning on reporting in was an even smaller village around 200 km away named Dillo, an area with the most dire water scarcity in the entire region.

The Motel and The Buzzing Commissioner
After being stranded in the middle of the elusive bush, and experiencing the morning nap in the dusty room in Arero, we were all fantasizing about a clean bed, and more importantly — a shower. Hot, warm, frozen, it wouldn’t matter. At the advice of our handy Lonely Planet, we pulled into the Yabello Motel, a place the book described as “clean and comfortable.” Although the toilet and the shower were outside, it was nice to finally find a place to unpack and unwind.

The next day, we had a scheduled meeting with the Province Commissioner to discuss plans to visit pastoralists in Dubluck and women who carry water long distances around the area of Dillo. He picked us up at the motel, sunglasses glistening, shoes polished, his face with a serious look that meant business. As the PC approached our table, the waiters stared, the manager gawked, the birds chirped curiously from the tree branches, and the receptionist from that day forward became mysteriously more polite.

We entered Abduliqadir’s office to find it adorned in polished wood, shiny leather, and an assortment of documents stacked in his bookcase. The room smelled of cleaner and cologne. We sat in the conference area, his overstuffed, black leather chair asserting the head of the table. The ironical juxtaposition of his luxurious office to the thatched huts and outdoor toilets in the town made me a little dizzy. Although Abduliqadir was a generous man, this dichotomy showed the extreme gap between the wealthy and the poor, those with power and those without.

Between different phone calls, the PC would hang up his phone and then assertively press a giant button on his desk.

“buzz. buzz.”

The sound was piercing.

His secretary would then peak her head in the doorway, nod her head as he spoke and close the door again.

Two minutes passed. “Buzz, buzz.” The secretary peaked her head in again, nodded, closed the door. “Buzz, buzz.” The same would repeat.

He told us he would find us a driver and interpreter to help us in our reporting in the region. However, finding an interpreter might not be an easy task, he said.

“English is a problem in Ethiopia, not like in Kenya,” he said smiling at Ernest. Ernest let out a loud guffaw, the kind of laugh he makes when he’s both amused and speculative at the same time.

But at the last buzz, we were on our way out, accompanied by the PC’s personal assistant Atanach Tolcha, who would interpret for us in the pastoralist village of Dubluck.
Cattle, Camels and Pebbles In My Sandals

The drive to Dubluck was rather short in comparison to our other treks, the truck letting out a large puff of dust with every bump in the earth.

As we approached the village, we observed a wide dirt road lined with mud homes serving as the center. As we opened the doors to the truck, little kids with no pants and snotty noses approached us wildly, pointing their fingers at my face and exclaiming, “you, you, you, you, you, you!”

We found the deputy chief Galgalo Dida at this center, and he guided us to the desert-like pastures and singing wells.

The ground was as dry and expansive as a deserted planet, with layered sand stretching for miles on all sides. A thin layer of dust grazed the surface of the ground as hundreds of cattle, goats and camels dotted the landscape. Cattle were being herded toward us and behind us and by our side toward a trough for a drink of water, or toward the horizon to graze or to the town to make fresh milk.

After a short interview, the chief led us to one of the traditional wells — its deep walls resonating with the low chanting of men, their beaming baritone steadily bouncing off of the well walls and into ears with each approaching step. The men’s singing is a ritual dating back centuries that helps them endure hours of long, laborious work under the scorching sky. The singing men bent down and then reached forward with such ease and steady deliberation, never missing a beat or a refrain.

At the “hauuuyauuuh!” of a pastoralist, the cattle stampeded down toward the well to drink water, scattering the ground with dung and mud at every step of their hooves. Women and men rotated buckets back and forth as they poured fresh water from the earth into a canal of water.

As Alex and I handled the video cameras, taking turns experimenting with new shots and angles, Ernest worked his interviewer-magic. The chief and a dozen pastoralists surrounded us as he asked about the struggles of the community to maintain a healthy livestock and livelihood in such a resource-scarce region. They talked about the importance of the wells in order for the cattle and the people to survive, especially during the dry season when it would cease to rain.

I began to imagine harmonizing with them in a hand-dug well, strengthening every muscle as I scooped out more cold, refreshing water. I tried to picture myself exerting hours of labor each day just to receive enough water for my family to live on. Of course, it was somewhat a difficult task to fully realize a life lived in a village in Dubluck - a place so distant from my own sprinkler-running, Aquafina-drinking environment. But now that I have come to know the beauty and struggle of these pastoralists, I am certain that water will never again taste the same.

With the approaching sound of the next cattle stampede, I was snapped out of my thoughts and motioned back toward the truck. As I walked away from the well, I could hear the distant echo of the men singing, the water splashing, the pastoralist shouting, and the cattle mooing - its distinct rhythm and unfamiliar pattern, somehow, resembling peaceful chaos.



more journals to follow…

post Photo Journal: Wood Collector

March 27th, 2008

Filed under: Photo Stories — Lissan Magazine @ 13:42

Ethiopian wood collector
by Penny Dale, BBC Africa Live

Two days’ food
As the Nobel Peace Prize highlights the environmental role of women in Africa, Amaretch, 10, from the capital, Addis Ababa, tells of her daily struggle.


My name, Amaretch, means “the beautiful one”. I am the youngest of four children in my family. Today, I spent from 0300 to 1500 collecting the branches of eucalyptus trees which people use as firewood. I will sell this big bundle at the market for about $2. This will feed my family for a couple of days


This is one of the hills that I have to walk up with my bundle of wood, which I have collected from the big Entoto mountain, which overlooks Addis Ababa. It is very steep and and it is very far from where I live. I get very tired. Sometimes, one of my brothers or sisters will get up early in the morning to collect firewood instead of me.

No chopping trees


This is my friend Aregash Bayesa. The eucalyptus leaves are used by people in the fire as they cook their injera bread, which Ethiopians eat at every meal. What she has collected today will buy her some coffee and a bit of cereal for her children. Sometimes she goes to collect the leaves every day, sometimes only once a week. It depends on whether her husband has managed to get work. We don’t chop down the trees because we are not allowed.


Business loans


This is Etensh Ajele, 36. She used to carry wood for 12 years until she got help from the Former Women Fuelwood Carriers’ Association. She now runs this group and helps other women who were forced to carry wood because they were so poor and did not have enough education to do anything else.

“We train women in other skills and gives them loans so that they can start a business. We sell what they make in our shop,” she says.




“Weaving is one of the things that we help former firewood carriers with,” Etensh says. “Most women know how to weave but do not have enough money to buy materials. So we provide that and we also help them with new and different designs so that they can sell the shawls and dresses that they make more easily. Some Ethiopians buy our goods but mostly they are bought by tourists when we take them to a monthly market.”




These are the children of women who used to carry firewood. They are taught by members of the Former Women Fuelwood Carriers Association. They say it is nice to be able to go to school to get an education while their mothers are at work.




I don’t want to have to carry wood all my life. But at the moment I have no choice because we are so poor. All of us children carry wood to help our mother and father buy food for us. I would prefer to be able to just go to school and not have to worry about getting money.

Photos and interviews by Penny Dale, BBC Africa Live


Source: BBC

post Kebra Negast

March 20th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 23:59

Samuel Malher, a religious scholar from Strasbourg who has written the first unabridged French translation of the Kebra Negast, a sacred Ethiopian text. by Jennifer Brea


The Kebra Negast, or the Glory of Kings, is considered sacred not only by Orthodox Ethiopian Christians, who comprise 65% of the country’s population, but many Jamaican Rastafarians who believe it predicts the last Ethiopian King was God incarnate. It documents the lineage of the Ethiopian monarchs, who are said to descend directly from Menelik, son of the Israelite King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen Makeda, otherwise known as the Queen of Sheba. It also tells the story of how the Ark of the Covenant was taken from Israel to Ethiopia, and how the Ethiopians became God’s new chosen people.

In the interview, Malher explains how he first became interested in Ethiopian Christianity in 1998, while studying theology at the University of Strasbourg.

One of his professors, an African, noted that African Christianity was often imported by Western missionaries, but questioned if that was true for all of Africa.

I realized that Ethiopia, where Christianity had already arrived by the third century, deviated a bit from the rule, Malher says.

Malher decided to go to Ethiopia to learn about the Queen of Sheba, the Ark, and a dynasty of emperors who ruled Ethiopia from the 13th century until 1974, all deriving legitimacy from their professed Solomonic lineage. He found an Ethiopia that was “deeply religious as it was proud of its history, always independent. A unique history still visible in its grand cities.”

Makeda, Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant
Makeda means “the beautiful” in Ethiopian. When she first heard about the wisdom of Solomon, she could not [wait to meet him]. She set out with her caravan, bringing along many precious stones, incense, things to bring to honor King Solomon, who already had a great reputation in the region. The meeting was to take place in the palace as soon as she arrived. But she also had time to see the country, the Gaza Strip, for example; different places are mentioned in the Kebra Negast, and one can find these places, it’s true.

This famous queen met King Solomon and gave him a descendant.

What is astonishing is that this queen did not stay afterwards with someone who could have been a consort, a husband or a life partner. She returned to her own people in the Kingdom of Sheba, whose location is very difficult to locate. It was probably smaller than present-day Ethiopia, and without a doubt was concentrated in, was limited to the high plateau of Abyssinia, north of Ethiopia.

The Political Origins of the Kebra Negast
Malher explains that the Kebra Negast was likely written sometime between 1200 and 1270, when two dynasties were vying for power in Ethiopia:

…it was a time when two dynasties were competing for power, one the dynasty of King Solomon, and the other the dynasty of Agrées. There were two peoples claiming power in Ethiopia. And so there is in the Kebra Negast the famous Isaac the poor who is of the Salomonic dynasty side and who would have compiled the Kebra Negast not only from biblical quotes but also from oral traditions, and he wrote them down undoubtedly first in Arabic, then in Coptic, before being able to translate and publish them openly in Ge’ez.

The Kebra Negast established the Solomonic dynasty’s divine origins, and thus their right to rule over Ethiopia:

It is a model [where] power is transmitted with a blessing, with the idea of selection, and that is very important. Many countries have had this tradition, up until the moment they arrived at the idea of democracy, and the idea of monarchy was, little by little, pushed aside.

And also to repel foreign invaders:

The Kebra Negast is really known in Ethiopia; it was emperors’ primary book for administrating their country but also for wocomparing themselves to other countries. By calling themselves descendants of King Solomon, by attaching themselves to noble origins, [Ethiopians] had something with which to confront those countries that perhaps wanted to invade Ethiopian territory.

The Ark of the Covenant, the Chosen People
Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and the rule of its Kings were supported not only by their claims of Solomonic ancestry, but by their possession of what they believe is the Ark of the Covenant, built by Moses in the Old Testament to house God’s Ten Commandments, and brought to Ethiopia by Queen Makeda and Solomon’s son, Menelik–without Solomon’s knowledge.


The Kebra Negast is a collection of writings which describe the history of the patriarchs, and the queen, but also story of the Ark of the Covenant, which is currently sitting in a church in northern Ethiopia, and the prophecies surrounding the selection of the Israeli people [as the chosen people] which would then be transfered to the Ethiopians with the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Exodus and in the Book of Kings, where Moses was commanded to fashion a box from Acacia wood and cover it in gold. The two tablets on which the ten commandments were inscribed would be placed iside. This Ark also interested the Ethiopian people because it represented God’s presence among the people. Wherever the Ark was would be sanctified…It represents the presence of God and the selection of the people of Israel, because the Ark had a great power, it freed itself almost on its own from the will of the Israelites to accompany the Ethiopian people on their voyage.

And today you find a reproduction of the Ark in each church and copies which represent the ten commandments. It’s a little like how the Host represents the Body of Christ.
Today, the Ark of the Covenant has become something of an object of curiosity among journalists and scientists, but at the same time it is protected by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which preserves it in the famous cathedral of Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.

I think that it’s really a question of faith. When an Ethiopian priest response: “If you want to prove that the Ark isn’t there, then go ahead.” And the journalist inverts the question, asking, “Is the Ark is really there? Whether it is there, is for you to prove. Whether it is not there is for you to prove!”

Kebra Negast and the Bible
Like most non-canonical texts, the Kebra Negast was not included in the Bible and some translations were even destroyed by the Church.

It’s the story of the Apocryphas. The Church has always had a priority to keep a collection of texts which is called the Bible. There are many apocryphas which were in effect cast aside, which were already ignored by many followers and were not very correct in terms of what the Church wanted to say. There were writings concerning the life of Jesus, the life of a prophet, the life of a patriarch, that should the human side of these men and women, and the Church wanted first of all to pass on the message of God, of justice…There were certain reasons not to use these texts.

However, the Kebra Negast relies strongly on certain Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, according to Malher:

The later chapters of the Kebra Negast…talk a lot about Christ, of the New Testament of the Bible, but also a lot of the old…the Ethiopians took important versus from the Old Testament, such as those of the prophets Jeremiah, Zachariah or Hosea…which are not widely read…

The Kebra Negast blends together the stories of the major Israeli patriarchs into one, great patriarch and incorporates Old Testament prophecies about a Messiah which, “will come, build his house, and save his people.” Malher says these are words of forgiveness for all people, but that according to its own tradition, “Ethiopia is the chosen country, the favored country. For the other peoples, there is an idea of pardon, of reconciliation. I think that it is very important for the people of Africa, for people around the world to be able to read these promises, these prophecies.”

Malher also says that the Queen of Sheba’s story is told in the Koran, but there she is responsible for Solomon’s downfall, for tainting his behavior. The Bible on the other hand emphasizes the queen’s decision to submit to the God of King Solomon and bring the religion of the Israelites back to her own country.

On Rastafari Beliefs
Roots and Culture also asks Malher about Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, whom Rastafarians consider an incarnation of God. Malher disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the divine blessing described in the Kebra Negast extends to all of Ethiopia’s kings, not one in particular.


The Kebra Negast stops after 117 chapters of praise and glory, it stops with Christ.These are prophets, kings, entities but nothing is mentioned about the last emperor, Haile Selassie.To put it simply, the blessing accorded to Ethiopia and the various kings, without having known the God of Israel before, they suddenly turn to him at the moment that Sheba and Solomon meet.
Nothing predisposed them to submit to this God.
They took the path that gave them this blessing. That’s what it says at the end of the Kebra Negast. It was Haile Selassie who relied on this relied on this text to legitimize his descendents, his ancestors; and so he has a legitimate power.

I met Rastas in Ethiopia, at Shahamenie. We talked, and we agreed on many things.
Sometimes it’s also a prejudice, divine election, I think that every person is blessed, every person can be chosen, Emperior Haile Selassie is not the only chosen one.
This blessing extends to all the Rasta; each is considered by the Almighty God, who looked upon Ethiopia.

Why Translations Are Important
The last French translation of the Kebra Negast was published in 1915, and included just ten chapters detailing only “the most romantic elements of the encounter with the Queen of Sheeba.” His translation from Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, is unabridged.

Malher says this translation is very important, particularly now that other forms of Christianity have taken root in Ethiopia.

Among the 65% [who are] Christians there are naturally also churches which are very recently arrived: the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, and a Church from an American community, which implant themselves in Ethiopia. There are many concessions, different communities…

…Many religions develop or take an important place in the lives of the Ethiopian people. It’s important to be able to have a dialog.

As many religions have books, the Bible is translated into many language, Ethiopia is uniqu ein having the Kebra Negast, a millennial text which deserves to be known by foreigners, by those who visit Ethiopia, to dive into the culture a little bit and into Ethiopian literature. By translating the Kebra Negast into French we are already taking a great step in that respect…


Photographs: Kebra Negast by Samuel Malher; the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia, which houses the Ark of the Covenant (Wikipedia); and Haile Selassie I, the last King of Kings of Ethiopia (Library of Congress)

source: globalvoicesonline

post Francis Falceto, Part II

March 20th, 2008

Filed under: Music Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 15:59

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.

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 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 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.

post Jesuits in Ethiopia

January 22nd, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 21:20

The Jesuits in 16/17th-Century Ethiopia

The Christian kingdom that controlled the Ethiopian high plateau suffered a series of very deep political, economic, military and religious crises in the period between the late 15th century and the expulsion of the Jesuit missionaries in 1633. The Somali and Afari armies led by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim, called the Gragñ (or “left-handed”) seriously threatened the very existence of the Christian state from 1529 to 1543, when they were finally defeated by the Abyssinians with the help of a small Portuguese expeditionary force sent from Goa, India. Subsequently, parties of Borana and Barentuma Oromo pastoralists began raiding deeper and deeper into Abyssinian territory and, by the end of the 16th century, many had settled in Gojam and Shoa and had become the main adversaries of royal power in Abyssinia.

The Ethiopian king meets the Catholic patriarch Afonso Mendes.

The Portuguese military collaboration with the Christian Ethiopians served their own strategic interests in their regional rivalry with the Ottoman Turks for control of the trade routes in the Red Sea and the north-western sector of the Indian Ocean. But the Portuguese rulers, together with the Pope in Rome and the head of the Company of Jesus, had the additional intention of establishing a mission in Ethiopia to encourage the population to switch from their Orthodox faith to Catholicism – an intention that made sense in the light of the Counter-Reformation concerns in Southern Europe.

A Jesuit mission led by Father Andrés de Oviedo first entered the country in 1557, only to find that the conversion project was too utopian. They began visiting the royal court, where they participated in a number of theological discussions with the Orthodox clergy. But they were eventually persecuted and expelled to Tigray where, in May Gwagwa, they preached and gave support to the Portuguese community that had stayed in Ethiopia in the wake of the Gragñ wars. As the years passed and the Portuguese either dwindled in numbers or converted to Orthodoxy, the mission became almost extinct.

By the end of the century, when Philip II, the Emperor of Spain, inherited the Portuguese royal crown, he decided to revive the Jesuit mission in Ethiopia. A new priest, Father Pedro Páez , was sent from Goa. Once in Ethiopia, he forced his way into the royal court. Other priests joined him and together they gradually gained the favour of the new Ethiopian King Susneyos and, very importantly, converted his brother the Ras Sela Krestos to Catholicism.

In 1621, Susneyos publicly announced his adherence to the Latin faith, a strategy to reinforce his political power and his independence from the influential Orthodox clergy. A consequence of the public conversion of the king was the arrival of a growing number of Jesuit priests intent on rapidly introducing Catholic reforms into Ethiopia. In 1626, the Catholic Patriarch Afonso Mendes imposed a number of changes on the ancestral religious practices of the Ethiopians. Social unrest and civil war followed and Susneyos was forced to resign. His son Fasiladas, who succeeded him, rejected Catholicism upon his accession to the throne and, in 1633, expelled or killed all Jesuit missionaries.


post Addis Ababa Art Scene

January 20th, 2008

Filed under: Art — Lissan Magazine @ 16:38

Addis Ababa Art Scene Revisited
by Esseye Medihin

//untitled, by: Ayele Assefa, oil on canvas//

Three decades ago, the art scene of Addis Ababa was dominated by the three maestros: Afewerk Tekle, Gebre Kristos Desta, and Skunder Boghossian, recipient of the Haile Selassie I fine arts award. Afewerk was important for his contribution as the first to introduce contemporary techniques to Ethiopian subject matter and content, Gebre Kristos for being responsible for introducing non-figurative art into Ethiopia and Skunder for trying to give the linear-graphic ancient Ethiopian art a new image. All three were European-educated, which was typical at that time. Many others did not achieve that status in imperial Ethiopia, and even today are not honored and recognized by their compatriots, as they should be.

//Bale Gariw, by: Behailu Bezabeh, oil on canvas//

At the beginning of this century, the Christian Ethiopian painting that had flourished for hundreds of years in the churches and monasteries of highland Abyssinia was fading and giving way, leaving behind a unique form of art for a new kind of artistic representation. The forerunners of this new genre of painting were the many church-trained dissident painters and other self-taught artists, some of whom enjoyed commissions for their works. These artists, along with those whose art education was in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, brought about a new tradition in the visual arts culture in modern Ethiopia. By the 1930s, the members of this new class of painters were hired by the government and recognized as professionals. And by the 1960s, the number of painters following the first graduating class of the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School, and those coming from abroad with a new kind of painting, (known as international style) grew steadily. As a result, three main traditions of painting developed.

//Black Sun, by: Getachew Yosef, oil on canvas//

The first is the realistic or naturalistic style that describes both Ethiopian pathos and glamour. Like the literature of the time, the subject matter of these paintings was based on a new reality–Nationalism. Second is the myth of Abstractionism, Expressionism and Surrealism, the inquest of spirituality in the style of the Western avant- garde movement, which, in most instances, turns out to be an assertion of Ethiopian/African identity through the visual arts. The last is represented by an impressionist, expressionist and social realist style intended to be sentimental and political in nature with its depictions of the cluttered, shabby streets of the cities, urban scenes and the downtrodden masses. These three main artistic traditions existed side by side until 1974 with the overthrow of the emperor.

In 1977, when the country mobilized its professionals for a cause, the newly organized Ethiopian Artist’s Association show opens at the Addis Ababa City Hall Gallery as a testament to its solidarity with the “Ethiopia Tikdem” motto of the Derg. Out of nationalistic feelings and hope for a better future, even such figures as Maitre artists Afewerk Tekle and Gebre Kristos Desta submitted their works to the show. With few exceptions, all artists were involved in one way or the other in the dubious future of the socialist revolution and were therefore producing an Ethiopian style of socialist realism in painting and sculpture. This kind of artistic practice dominated in the late 1970s and 1980s. The very few who adhered to the previous artistic tradition were the odd men out. Either they were not understood or were left to practice their passion alone. Thanks to their political astuteness and knowledge of how to survive, artists like Woku Goshu , the late Tassew Chernet , Zerihun Yetmgeta ,Teshome Bekele, and Tebebe Terfa risked their lives in their quest for individual expression. However, they were fortunate to be able to show their works frequently to keep the tradition of the late ’sixties and early ’seventies alive. With the exception of lesser-known artists’ shows, which were taking place here and there in Addis Ababa, supporters of socialist realism were not interested in showing their works, but were instead encouraged to conform by a system of rewards and privileges through commissions. Many, like the respected artist Abdel Rahman M Sherif saw this sort of compensation as a “fulfillment, genuine enough, of their professional ideals.”

//Coffee Ceremony, by: Tesfaye W. Selassie, oil on canvas//

Although explicitly political art had been created in Ethiopia since the end of the Italian occupation, it reached a peak during the Derg era. The military government of was the first to try systematically recruiting and training artists for propaganda and other specifically political purposes. The comrade militants, who believed that art would help advance their principles, advocated an artistic language that would deny and overlook the complexity of the country and the peoples’ collective psychological make-up. Later, the Ministry of Culture became the mobilizing force. With the help of the socialist-oriented Ethiopian Artists Association, it tried in vain to instill socialist realism in the artistic culture. The artistic freedom and experimentation that flourished during the imperial government was discouraged. The concept of religious, spiritual or historical values and the subjective psychology of the artist were totally rejected. The result was a body of work that was merely hot-headed and pompous. The only works worth mentioning from this period are the murals in Debre Ziet at Gegnoch Amba by Afewerk Tekle, Besrat Bekele and Demissie Sheferaw, which are, of course, too political for the artistic tradition of the country but in accord with general aspirations of the time. All said, any truly artistic approach did not come directly from above in the form of governmental instructions or policy, but from peer pressure at the sides. After the formation of the Workers’ Part of Ethiopia in 1984 and the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in 1987 North Korean artists took over the primary role of the Ethiopian Artists Association at least tacitly. They set about immediately to embellish the image of Mengistu Hayle Maryam–the party leader on all of their work.

Today, not even a decade later, these propagandistic art works are considered as nothing more than archeological or historical objects, far from inspiring the masses as they were intended. The artistic situation of the late 1970s and 1980s has dissolved once and for all. However, since the new generation of artists is affected and was even a result of the tumult of the recent past, the mind-set as to what to do and how to define what is done still lingers. Nonetheless, the creative force of freedom seems to have taken the upper hand and transformed the artists for the better. Themes, techniques and subject matter repeat themselves in endless yet lively variation in an attempt to gain a sort of approval and recognition. The urge and the passion to match the efforts of the past, to catch up with lost time (not so much vis-a-vis the international art movement–but as painter Taddesse Mesfin puts it vis-a-vis the time wasted during their own “self-imposed slavery”) is so evident that most found it essential to regroup and find comfort and reassurance within themselves. Since 1993, the silence of the Ethiopian Artists Association has forced many young artists to defend their profession on their own. Artist/painter groups are sprouting up in all forms like never before.

//Galler Wise, by: Geta Mekonnen, mixed media on paper//

These groups are not specifically formed to enhance one type of art style, approach or artistic philosophy. Instead, they are simply alliances of artists who have something in common–social problems and situations that in themselves do not encourage or foster artistic activities. Without sacrificing their individuality, as a group they hope to be more visible in order to approach cultural centers, or institutions for help and sponsorship of exhibitions and exhibition spaces. As a group they also hope to be taken seriously in their attempt to teach the people about art. Among the many artist groups formed in the last seven years, the most visible are the FOWA, the Point Group and the Dimension Group. Addis International which was one of the first groups to be formed, organized a show of the works of about 40 artists in 1991, but has since curtailed its activities while newcomers like the Double Blue group are becoming increasingly active.

FOWA (Friendship Of Women Artists), with its motto “We are more than one,” informally named 36 Ethiopian women artists in the early ’90s as members, the first group of its kind in the country. At present, it is left with only 12 members. In September of 1997 it released a 40-page Amharic and English language catalogue which contained a kind of manifesto. The Royal Netherlands Embassy in Ethiopia, Pact, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, the British Council and Goethe-Institute and numerous individuals helped finance the publication of the catalogue. It includes color reproductions of all 12 members’ works and their pictures, along with a fascinating interview with each artist. Each one has a sensible and contemporary outlook about art in general and about the role of Ethiopian women artists in particular. As indicated in the catalogue, the purpose of the group is to encourage and enhance the opportunities of underrepresented women artists of all ages. The group’s objectives are to promote Ethiopian women artists in any way possible, nationally as well as internationally, and elevate the artistic awareness of the Ethiopian female.

Members of the FOWA group include
: Embet Aweke (b. 1955), exhibition expert at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School; Embet Belete (b.1968), art instructor at the Greek Community School; Fanaye Tesfate (b.1968); Kelemua Hailu (b.1969); Ketsela Mengistu (b.1969); Mahelet Abrham (b.1969); Mihret Dawit (b.1969); Mahlet Worku (b.1957); Naomi Tesfaye (b.1968); Selamawit Aboneh (b.1968); and Senafkish Zeleke (b.1967), all graduates of the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School, as well as Sofia Asefa (b.1954), who studied at the Surkov Academy in Moscow and is presently an instructor at the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School. The group had its first exhibition at the German Cultural Center in Addis Ababa in March of 1998.

//Forest, by: Emebet Aweke, oil on paper//

Embet Aweke, a mother and the most recognized artist of the group, and whose late father was also an artist, addressed the role of mother and artist (in a conversation with Assfaw Damte in 1997), saying that “each of the two roles is very difficult by itself. Obviously, playing both roles simultaneously and maintaining an appropriate balance between them is doubly difficult. In order to succeed, one needs patience and unwavering commitment. Otherwise, either one or the other will be sacrificed.” The president of the FOWA group, Embet Belete, who thinks that patrons of fine arts in Ethiopia are mostly foreigners, says that an appreciation of beauty and the visual arts among Ethiopians needs to be encouraged early in the schools. Embet, along with the rest of the group, hopes that the catalogue, “will inspire other women artists and women of all ages who are interested in the fine arts.” Women artists are in a much more precarious situation than their male counterparts; however, given the right situation, they can overcome their disadvantages to be on equal footing with male artists.

//Seated Figure, by: Muze Awel, wood//

The Point group was formed in the early ’90s by a group of artists in their 30s. These artists are all graduates of the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School except Ayele Assefa (b.1958), whose education was in the former Soviet Union. Point group started with nine artists but currently numbers seven members, including Addisu Worku (b.1964), art instructor at the Indian National School; Gebreleu G Mariam (b.1965), graphic artist in the ministry of Health; Luel Sahele Mariam (b.1966), art instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts school; Mesfin H Mariam (b.1966) artist s with Mega Art Production; Samuel Sharew (b.1966), the only artist in the group and probably in the country who earns a living as a painter, and Tesfaye (Tesfu) W Selassie (b.1966), art instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School. This group gained wide recognition with its first show at the Alliance Ethio- Française in 1992 as well as its successful show in 1994 at the National Museum. They seek to bring about a change in art activities and situations. As Tesfay W Selassie states, “The Point group’s motives are not to foster an elitist attitude, with the indifferent multitudes lost in oblivion, but rather to impress and influence it without any mystification whatsoever.” By so doing they hope to cultivate their audience and grow with them. Beyond their love of popular culture and their mingling with the contemporary life of the people, they show an abiding interest in both the historical and traditional iconography of Ethiopia and Africa. According to Ayele Assefa, the group doesn’t adhere to any specific artistic style or philosophy, nor does it discriminate against any artistic style. It is open- minded and is interested in discussion and analysis of any form of art, past or present.

The next group, called Dimension, features another nine artists, in their 30s and 40s. All but three received their art education in the former Soviet Union. This group includes: Geta Mekonnen (b.1965), a studio artist and commercial video producer, who studied in Great Britain; Muze Awal (b.1961) , instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School; Mulugeta Tafesse (b.1960), who studied in Bulgaria and is presently working for his Ph.D. in art history and aesthetics in Belgium and Spain; Mezgebu Tessema (b.1960), instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School; Behailu Bezabih (b.1960), Addis Ababa Fine Arts School graduate and presently art instructor at the Bethel Makane Yesus School, Addis Ababa; Taddesse Mesfin (b.1953), instructor at Addis Ababa Fine Arts School; Eshetu Tiruneh (b.1952), advisor, Ministry of Culture; and Kidane Belaye ( b.1950), instructor at the Fine Arts School.

//Scarecrow, by: Geta Mekonnen, oil on canvas//

According to its spokesperson Geta Mekonnen, the Dimension group was formed to overcome an artistic trend that has been going on in Ethiopia for quite some time: an artistic style which is largely interested in representing the traditional icon-like Christian Ethiopian figures. All members of the group believe that this kind of artistic fashion has too long dominated the market, with little or no regard for the standards of the art-loving public of Addis Ababa and the efforts of contemporary Ethiopian artists. According to Mezgebu Tessema, the group was also formed to help “serious” artists participate in group shows regardless of the number of works they are able to produce. He believes that, given the situation in the country, this type of occasional group show may be the only way for the public to see any of their works. Bekele Mekonnen believes that because of their successes in organizing these types of shows, their works have been better exposed to the public with greater attention and awareness. The Dimension group, formed after the earlier groups got more recognition, after it organized an exhibition of works of the late artist/poet Gebre Kirstos Desta in 1996 at the Alliance Ethio-Française.

Outside of these groups, there are numerous artists, veterans and novices, who are experimenting and pursuing alone the most challenging part of creation: giving a special and diverse flavor to contemporary Ethiopian art. The concept of their art reflecting their Ethiopian identity so important to the early painters and critics is not much of a concern to the new generation of Ethiopian artists. Unlike their predecessors, they don’t seem to be worried about projecting their identity in their art. Leuel, who never worried whether his paintings reflected his Ethiopian identity states: “My concern is how to achieve what I wanted to do and whether I succeeded or not …If my work in the end looks European, American or Arabian, so be it. I never questioned myself if I am an Ethiopian or an African.” Taddesse Mesfin said, “I will be glad if it is recognized as Ethiopian, but if there is anything Ethiopian in my work, it is a natural outcome. I never intend on making my works Ethiopian.” Mezgebu states, “Whatever technique or style we employ and follow in our art, there is something in all of us that is Ethiopian that can be deciphered in our work–it is up to the critic or the historian to search for that particular characteristic.” Bekele Mekonnen said that “any work of art done by an Ethiopian is by definition Ethiopian; consequently, in the broadest definition, anything done on Ethiopian soil that remains in Ethiopia for a considerable period of time must be considered Ethiopian.” Geta Mekonnen addresses this age-old artistic question by noting, ” We are only artists doing art works: painting, sculpture, video art, etc. These problematic notions of identity are as ridiculous as affirming that an Ethiopian can only do art works like the Christian Ethiopian type of painting and that Africans can only do masques and figurines. We all hope that our works are true representations of ourselves and not caricatures of Ethiopian or African culture.” Nevertheless, the relation between Christian Ethiopian painting, African traditional art and contemporary Ethiopian art, a subject dear to Ethiopian artists of the late ’sixties, particularly to the home- grown “Native Modernist” Zerihun Yetmgeta, remains a topic of much discussion among the young generation of Ethiopian artists.

//My Same, by: Mulugeta Tafesse, acrylic on canvas//

In late ’60’s and early ’70’s, most works by graduates of the Addis Ababa Fine Arts School reflected the social conditions of the country. Whatever its style and technique, it was an art of social commentary and social solution. At present, with social conditions worsening, this kind of theme is back again. The trauma, the crisis, the spiritual illness and the painful reality of the country’s past and present are subjects of interest to many artists. Bekele Mekonnen creates amazing assemblage sculptures using non-traditional materials, to depict pathetic and down-to-earth street personages. So does Getachew Yossef with his series “Under the Sun,” as well as Tesfay W. Selassie and Behailu Bezabih. While a significant number of artists, including Geta Mekonnen and Addisu Worku are involved with satirical comments on contemporary myth and evils; renowned artists like Taddesse Messfin and Eshetu Tiruneh have given up their favorite theme of the downtrodden masses and the huddled, ordinary people in favor of experimenting with styles similar to the American abstract and abstract expressionist painters of the ’30’s and ’40’s.

Members of these groups, as well as those more established individual artists, are more regularly exhibiting their works, recreating the rigorous artistic activities of Addis Ababa of the 1960s and 1970s. Even more so, the scene has been gaining an international flavor with an exhibition of expatriate artists and Ethiopian artists living abroad. A number of new galleries devoted to contemporary art, coupled with enthusiastic new collectors, are heralding Addis as an important art center once again. As far as the impact and validity of the contemporary paintings and sculptures on the society are concerned, it is hard to imagine any sort of immediate change. Posterity will likely consider it a significant cultural achievement of the age and will marvel at the artists’ audacity and commitment.

Given the fact that a strong cultural infrastructure found in most developed countries is totally lacking in Ethiopia, and is not likely to exist any time in the future, bringing about a new tradition that is more a result of local processes must be expected of our artists. History has put on their shoulders the burden and excitement of being their own dealer, curator, historian and critic. Among their many concerns, they need to consider reaching a wider audience. Rather than the traditional fashion of opening exhibitions at the customary places in a conventional way, they need to think of alternative ways of displaying their works. They have to look for more effective ways of popularizing and disseminating their works and try to move away from traditional patronage, including the government. Their achievements as artists become more meaningful only when their works reach a wider audience rather than a handful of the usual patrons. One way of doing this is to create a community-based art project that benefits that community.

by: Esseye Medihin

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

post Ale Felege Selam

January 19th, 2008

Filed under: Art — Lissan Magazine @ 02:08

The Modernization of Ethiopian Art

“Since the artists in our country are once again rightfully following contemporary trends of creating and refining, we have great hope for the future.” Ale Felege Selam, 1968


On the threshold of a new century — a new millennium — talking and writing about 20th century Ethiopian art by nature includes talking and writing about art education in Ethiopia, as well as the path to modernization. There is no better way to accomplish these tasks than by focusing on one significant individual, Ale Felege Selam Hiruy. In 1959, Ale Felege Selam played a decisive role in the foundation of a modern art school: the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts. He would become its director. This accomplishment was in stark contrast to the 1940s wherein the first group of Western-educated artists — Abebe Wolde Giorgis, Agegnehu Engeda and Zerihun Dominique — failed, one after another, to do similar.

Before continuing with Ale’s history, let us first take a look at historical context. Sele, which means “art,” has a long history in the country. Thus anybody wanting to do Sele required an art education of some kind. The concept of “art education” was distinctly different from “craft training” and was considered a product of the learned. An art education had existed in the nation for several centuries; the church school system prepared scholars, known as Arat-Ayna (Four-Eyed Ones) who were also artists. They were sought after as scholars and as masters of the arts of traditional instruction and scholarship. However, as the 19th century progressed, ancient teaching methods gradually waned and faded away — including art education.

The concept of modernizing Ethiopian art education was born as part of the overall modernizing of Ethiopia, which began during the second part of the 19th century. This was a period that saw the beginnings of unification, military reform, the birth of fairly well developed literary Amharic, and the establishment of schools. As the foundations of modern educational institutions moved, in less than a century, from Gafat, Maqdela, and Tamben to Entotto – where it finally flourished in Addis Ababa — so did its artistic foundations.

As a matter of practicality, we set the clock of the modernization of art education in 1887. This was when the church trained artists; self-taught artists from all around the nation were lured to Entoto. Atse Menelik decided to send Afewerk Gebre Yesus to study art in Europe. In less than a quarter of a century, the art modernization movement shifted from its center in Entoto, where it all began, to Addis Ababa in part and to its primary center in Arat Kilo. In the 1940s, the modern art movement began to bloom — first with figures like Abebe Wolde Giorgis, Agegnehu Engeda and Zerihun Dominique, and moving on to the parliament studio, the Kine Tibebe School and the Prince Shale Selassie School. It finally reached its peak in 1959 at the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts. There, Ale Felege stayed on as the director until he was forced to resign in 1974.

Ale Felege was born in Selale, Fitch in 1924 and moved to Addis Ababa at an early age. After graduating from Technical School in Addis Ababa, he worked in a garage until the emperor granted him a scholarship to go abroad and study engineering. But engineering aside, Ale received his B.A. in Fine Arts from the Institute of Art, Chicago — reputedly the most influential art college in the United States — in 1954. Shortly thereafter, he traveled to Europe; after returning home, he joined the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts.

Ale organized the first show for himself and his students in his own studio in 1955. During the couple of years he worked with the Minister of Education and Point Four, he painted, organized, and participated in shows and work as jury member. He served as a committee member at the 1958 first annual Ethiopian Students’ Arts and Crafts Exhibition. He also participated in several group shows and helped organize the 1967 Montreal show, representing Ethiopia.

His paintings exhibited in public places include those at the Trinity Cathedral St. Mary in Addis Ababa, and at Kulubi Gabriel Church in Harerge. He also designed postage stamps, illustrated books and designed several portraits and flyers. Apart from his commissioned works, Ale is interested in landscape and portrait painting. His paintings, we know, depict pensive individuals against flat dark backgrounds that are all the more powerful for their simplicity, psychological statements and articulations in rigorous, formal terms. It seems evident that he influenced some of his first students in this regard. Many of the early 1960s-era art school students displayed a similar vitality and the influence of Ale in their somber landscape and genre paintings. Ale respected the themes that traditional art had come to represent. If it appears to some observers that he turned his back on tradition, they should keep in mind that such a rejection was only on the surface. His theory about art was similar to those of many of his contemporaries and did not seem to have any set of aesthetic preconceptions. Many things remain to be said about his artworks; however, the research has not yet begun.

Ale had naturally seen many Western modernist art while he was studying in Chicago. But his interest in mainstream art was puzzling and complicated. Nobody, for example, indicated why Ale, who studied in America in the 1950s, failed to follow the art movement of the time. At this point in time, until all historical materials are compiled, the matter of how best to characterize Ale’s artistic achievements is very complex.

Why did he, on the other hand, dedicate himself to encouraging and helping Ethiopian artists who favored the international mainstream art movement? Ale was able to anticipate and distinguish between short-term benefits and long-term benefits. He was quite aware of the changes that transformed the art world at the beginning of this century, and knew that Ethiopian painting lagged behind the times by several hundred years. Thus he made sure that the school didn’t embrace any one particular artistic style or theory nor abandon the art of the century. Despite the fact that his style of art identifies with the official style of art — as evidenced by the fact that he decorated churches and government buildings and painted portraits in a more conventional style — he did not show any determination to make the school reflect his kind of art. It seems that Ale had clear ideas about the function and role of the art school. He was not totally convinced that students should be trained as illustrators like those of Kine Tibebe School.

In the modernist building of the school, that maintains a certain likable architecture, even by today’s standards — there does not exist much signifying the ancient or the near past that would have burdened and overwhelmed its students. Neither the parliament studio artists works, nor the Kine Tibebe School artists’ works — not even the works of the first Western-educated artists —were considered important or good enough to be displayed in the new school’s gallery. It is no surprise that consequently; the students highly favored Western modernist art.

In fact, Kine Tibebe School was closed because it was considered conservative and out of touch with the modern art world. Once the School of Fine Arts was up and running, the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts gave Kine Tibebe School artists monthly stipends and studios behind the new building to continue their painting. As many of these artists were founding members of the first Ethiopian Artists Club, founded just before the school was opened, students were encouraged to visit them in their studios.

In the 1970s, there were still over 300 paintings by these artists in the store at the School of Fine Arts. Following the trend in painting portraits of women, started by Agenhu and later adopted by Afewerk and Ale himself, many of these artists played a critical role in depicting urban and rural Ethiopian women in their daily activities. Middle-class yearnings, morality, reformism, patriotism and activism are fundamental factors in the work of these artists. They would depict Ethiopians’ way of life and paint historical scenes even before such subjects had gained popularity via the occasional photography exhibit. They are all-Ethiopian to their bones and reflected the emerging middle-class; they are not in any way “traditionalists” or “traditional” artists. They are among the pioneers who modernized 20th century Ethiopian art. However, due to the backgrounds and education of the artists, their works are technically less convincing and less influential, and they remain obscure or unknown.

Ale had to exclude all these generation artists when establishing the school. As was the case at the time with higher-learning schools, Ale had to recruit instructors from the foreign community residing in Addis Ababa. Of these generation artists, only one, Yigezu Bisrat, succeeded in becoming a staff member of the school. (Yigezu would prove to be an innovator and pioneer of Ethiopian calligraphy).

However, though he had made a clean sweep of nationally trained artists from the school and hired foreign instructors, he knew he could not change the direction of art in the country alone. He solicited the aid of influential officials, including Kebed Mikael, in order to realize his vision. Many enlightened individuals got involved in helping Ale in his efforts. In addition, since Ale boasted more connections to members of the royal family and several high officials than any of his contemporary peers, his way of handling the school was favored and praised by the authorities. The Emperor, his most important patron, frequently visited the school, even more than any famous poets, authors or other cultural figures. Since political propaganda, commissioned artworks and royal portraits were done either by foreign artists, former parliament studio artists, Kine Tibebe school artists, Afewerk or by Ale himself, he did not expect or even want see the school as promoting his doctrines. The Emperor’s visits were to display encouragement and support and he was pleased with what he witnessed. It was only during the Ethiopian revolution that instructors, as well as students of the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts, were expected to be part of the propaganda machine for the government.

Ale’s objective and the official’s interest was to prepare independent professional working artists who could express their artistic personas with free will in a modern setting and environment. It is also important to consider the artistic interests of Ale in relation to the kind of art that was taught and practiced at the Kine Tibebe School. As a founder and the school director, Ale wanted to have it both ways — teaching the elementary and conventional aspects of drawings and paintings while keeping the school in touch with the currents of the art world. Despite his broad-minded goals, Ale nevertheless had preferences for certain kinds of subject matter, chiefly those expressing important national values. But overall, he encouraged a broader range of national themes. For example, there was no indication that he tried to make the school reflect Ethiopian identity. Nor is there any evidence that he persuaded students to create any kind of modern icons reflecting Ethiopia’s faiths or cultures. Rather, he believed in a healthy future for Ethiopian art education and encouraged students regarding their performances. Most artists, graduates of the School of Fine Arts, present instructors at the school and important artists elsewhere say that Ale allowed for any kind of artistic approach and tendency in the school. From every angle, it seems that he left a level field for a pluralistic art scene to flourish in the School.

Ale’s all-inclusive intention became even clearer a couple years after the school’s founding. In accord with the Ministry of Education and Fine Arts, he worked hard to prepare students to be art teachers. He hired as staff members Zemenay, Ethiopian modernist artists educated abroad. Gebre Kristos Desta, Skunder Boghossian, Tadesse Gizaw, Bisrat Bekele, Abdel- Rahman M Sherif, Worku Goshu, Tadesse Belyneh and Tadesse Mamecha joined the school as instructors between 1962 to 1972. The grammar of art — perspective, anatomy and academic drawing in general, narrative representation that evolved at the parliament studio, the Kine Tibebe school and during the first year of Ale’s school — were slowly beginning to look rather irrelevant. The dimensions of this trend projected not only upon an artistic freedom but also included a celebration of eclecticism wherein several contemporary international styles can quickly be identified: realism, impressionism, critical realism, surrealism, abstract, abstract expressionism, symbolism and expressionism. All were introduced to the school by these instructors.

The school’s most notable modernist achievements clearly represented pan-Ethiopian will, character, feel and spirit. This new esthetic expression become apparent at the landmark annual exhibitions of the school, held between 1963 and 1973. While the desperate concern Ethiopia’s people regarding the state of the nation continues, the Ethiopian art world provides a glimpse of hope and a common ground through its genuine expression of national spirit. If pluralism is the style of 20th century Ethiopian art, then the credit, or the blame, goes to Ale and the way he ran the only art school in the nation. Whatever definition and standard was given for 20th century Ethiopian art, its modernization phase has been attained and may be completed by the school. If, half a century after its establishment, the school did not achieve an academic or higher institution status, it is due to administrative and cultural complexity.

A decade after Ale first led the school, during the early 1970s and especially after the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, it was widely predicted that his glory days were over. He would be the subject of more iconoclastic scrutiny. Such scrutiny included unsubstantiated rumors that he was involved more with his farm and hunting affairs than with the day-to-day activities of the school. Ale only contributed to his sinking reputation when he interfered regarding the works of graduating students’ subject matters during the time of the mayhem. Ale was unhappy to see contemporary and radical subject matter displayed on students’ diploma works. Staff members were unhappy with his involvement. Although there have been no seriously researched accounts on these matters yet, the caricatures students drew depicting Ale sleeping on the roof of the school would provide the final blow. After 15 years as founder and director, Ale was intimidated by radical students, and the new government was forced to compel him to resign from his position.

Described by many as a fine individual with a charismatic character, Ale did not attract public attention. And despite the fact that art exhibitions have become a regular activity since the school’s opening —including its own annual exhibition—Ale never had his one-man show after 1955. He is the most reclusive and reserved of all artists. To the young students he was as remote, and as irrelevant, a personality as he would later appear to the young military juntas. There was something private and withdrawn, almost unapproachable, about him. He fits what the renowned artist Mezgebu Tessema said in general about Ethiopia artists: ‘introverted’. Students and staff members alike do not talk about him, especially in public. For the older generation of artists, for whom the school is most associated with Ale, any impolite action toward him appears incomprehensible and ungrateful.

Since his resignation, many things have changed. Presently, the school is affiliated with Addis Ababa University under its new name, Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts and Design. At last count it had six directors: Abdul Rahman Mouhamed Sherif, Tadesse Belaynh, Getachew Yosef, Bekele Mekonnen, Melaku Ayle, and Muze Awel. All are school alumnae.

In becoming part of Addis Ababa University, the school risks losing its semi-autonomous tradition. It is very unlikely that the kind of spirit that fermented for several years at the school will ever be resuscitated, even with the same kind of structure. But as it is, affiliating the school to the University may well dismantle what little there is left of its 50-year-old modern art tradition. If Ale had been consulted on this matter, he would not have approved it. One may also ask that, if up until now the University had never affiliated specialized schools, such as the Teacher Training Institute, Commercial school or Technical school, then why would it want to affiliate the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts now? Since it is believed that the school had contributed a lot and attained its goals; it should have been helped to become a charter school and left alone to follow its own course. If, at this point in the national modern education, an art department or art school is crucial — which it is — then the University would have been much better off opening its own School of Art and Design, or a department that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in a wide range of arts disciplines.

Ale ultimately wanted to be remembered as a painter. In 2006, at the age of 82, he traveled from Ethiopia to Maryland in the United States to decorate Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However, Ale is still associated with and admired more for his role as the school’s founder, director and educator rather than as a painter himself. Even in his heydays, he never garnered as many honors as, say, Gebre Kristos or Skunder for his art. The Haile Selassie I prize for Fine Arts was awarded to these two artists in 1965 and 1967 respectively. In 1972, the fourth award for Fine Arts went to the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts, rather than to Ale.

The true spirit and legacy of Ale lies in the history of the school and within the field of art education. Nobody before him and to this day accomplished so much in promoting Ethiopian art and Ethiopian artists. No one has come close to approaching his level of contribution in popularizing and teaching art. Many successful and not-so successful artists are, in some way, his pupils. Clearly, Ale is among those who can be called pioneers of art education in Ethiopia, and he remains among the most renowned group. Considering the national and international achievements of the school’s alumnae, and the growing public interest in art during the past fifty years, it is not an overstatement to dub Ale Felege Selam Ethiopia’s Artist-Educator of the Century.

By: Esseye G Medhin, May 29, 2007

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

post Ethio Jazz

January 17th, 2008

Filed under: Music Corner — Waltenegus @ 10:24

“Ethiopian music through the Language of Jazz!”

Music for the Soul!

It was by sheer coincidence that I met Mr. Jorga, the Saxophonist, a decent and polite person, at a friend’s place in Atlanta, Georgia on a farewell barbeque party. It was mid -summer and we were all sitting outside chatting, drinking cold beer and eating Ethio-barbeque, “Zelzel Tibs be Awazé”. In the middle of this get together, somebody came up with the Wudasse CD and asked me to lend my ears. Man, was I glad I did that! What a groovy experience! It was full of beautiful melodies and incredible musicianship. If you like the soundtrack form Jim Jarmusch’s film “broken flowers”, you will love Wudasse!

///Wudasse album “Selam”///

This is an album which is made with a combination of harmonic knowledge and technical facilities. When Mr Jorga hits the sax, you can feel his personal approach to improvisation. And that is what JAZZ is all about! Filtering the melody, rhythm and song to this magnificent expression like on Ete-Mete!
Wudasse is telling us stories with their Ethio-Jazz sound. It is a phenomenal masterpiece of improvisation and am sure it sets a precedent for all the Ethio-Jazz that will hopefully follow.

Here is the story, so dig in:
Wudasse was born out of the desire of three Ethiopian musicians to express the beauty and grace of Ethiopian music through the language of Jazz. This first offering is unique in several ways. For one, the all the songs on the album were recorded in front of a live audience, which is a rarity in Ethiopian music circles. And then there is the make up of the band, three Ethiopians and two American musicians, brought together by circumstance and their love of music, doing their best to create music they love even under the roughest of circumstances.
So how did it all begin? Well, four years ago Teferi (drums) visits Jorga (saxophone) in Atlanta to attend Fasil’s (bass) wedding. While staying at Jorga’s house, the two rent a drum set and start experimenting and jamming on Ethiopian rhythms and scales. In fact, it turned out that both Jorga and Teferi had similar ideas on how to respectfully adapt Ethiopian scales and rhythms to fit into a Jazz context. Teferi goes back to California, and Fasil and Jorga start performing together in local clubs. Two years later, Teferi joins them in Atlanta and Wudasse was born. Much can also be said about the music creation process. Each band member was equally responsible for the final sound and feel of each song. In fact, most of the songs were arranged with minimal conversation and direction, and all the songs evolved while being repeatedly performed around several Atlanta jazz clubs.

The other songs are as equally fascinating. “Ete Mete” represents the children song which naturally modulates rhythmically from 6/8 to 7/4. “Megemeria”(The Beginning) starts with a slow groove that builds to represent the best of Ethiopian jazz-rock-fusion. “Delega” is an experiment in approaching the 6/8 Chikchika rhythm in 7/4 time. But this might not mean much to all the non-musician music lovers who wouldn’t care less is the song was in 6/2 or 7/8 as long as it grooves hard the touches the soul.

///Ahsa Ahla, Dale Sanders, Fasil Wuhib, Teferi Assefaand , Jorga Mesfin///

Courtesy to Wudasse

Links where you can listen in to Wudasse performance:
myspace link
youtube link
youtube link
youtube link

post Belattengeta Heruy W. Sellase

January 10th, 2008

Filed under: Academic Cooperations — Admassu @ 23:03

Likewise closely associated with Eugen Mittwoch was Belattengeta Heruy Walda Sellase, one of the most distinguished Ethiopians of his day and one of the founders of modern Amharic literature; he died in exile 1938 in England. Few men have exercised such an important influence over their people through their scholastic, moral and poetic writings. He is included here because his lengthy stay in Germany in 1923 led to a very fruitful collaboration with Eugen Mittwoch.

Belattengeta Heruy Walda Sellase (1878 - 1939)

Eugen Mittwoch: “With Belatta Heruy I was able to work together for a few hours a day over a period of several weeks… He readily complied with my studies, for which he showed a lively interests”. In the course of this work they discussed the important question of the pronunciation of Ge’ez in present-day Ethiopia - a question which, in Europe, had until then remained fully unanswered; later a scholarly analysis was published.

Booklet: “Three Hundred Years of Ethiopian-German Academic Collaboration.”
Author: Eike Haberland (1924 - 1992)
1986. 39 pages, EUR 5,—. ISBN 3-515-04766-2
Frobenius Institute
Johann Wolfgang Goethe University
Frankfurt, Germany

post Ye’Zare Hasabe

December 21st, 2007

Filed under: Literature Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 14:25

Article from Zethiopia Newspaper

Ye’Zare Hasabe
by Abeba

Haddis Alemayehu Tewlid

Years ago, I remember trying to break into a local festival that took place in an open area park. My sister and I walked away from the entrance and tried to get in from a walkway that was opposite from the main entrance and not in sight from the uniformed people who were collecting the entrance fees. W h a t we didn’t know at the time was that the area was well policed by nech-lebashoch (security) all around. Before we crossed to the main stage where Salif Keita was playing, there was a guy behind us saying “Excuse me”, “Excuse me”.

I was going to write about concerts and other works of artists that we don’t like paying for when another “Yezare Hasab” took over. I am cramming for a book club meeting that I have tonight and I am taken by this book. It is called ”Kinfam Hilmoch” - beTam (very) interesting short stories book. Initially, I was going to have my uncle read it and tell me the story so I can discuss it at the meeting since it has been a while since I picked up an Amharic book. In the end though with a friend’s encouragement, I decided to pick up the book and read it. To my surprise the book was very engaging and seemed like it was written for my current level and probably also for most of us out there who rarely read Amharic fiction.

Here is one of the stories I read in the book. I am no ‘book-reviewer’ so bear with me, I will just summarize what it was about.

The story starts with a letter from Habtamu who lives in Mankusa (countryside in Gojam) to his brother LeAndamlak who lives in Markos (city in Gojam). It is followed by other letters that form a chain. LeAndamlak then writes to his sister Senait who lives in Addis Abeba. Senait writes a letter to her fiancé Teklemikael who lives in Mississippi. Teklemikael writes a letter to his friend Tamene who lives in California. The story reflects human nature and mirrors our life as immigrants.It relates to us all who come from various background and who aspire to change our lives.

I don’t know much about BeEwketu Siyoum, the author, except what I read at the back of the book, the author was born in Mankusa and kind of lived in his story’s cities moving to Markos and Addis. I was surprised by entries in the letters and the name of the city Mankusa where Habtamu lives and the name of one of the characters. Mankusa is a village where some of the characters in ‘FeQir Eske MeQaber’ Haddis Alemayehu’s masterpiece live. The author also mentions other literary works and the Bible in the letters. The first letter (Habtamu’s) is long and the subsequent letters get shorter and shorter as we are moving farther away from the village life. ‘Habtamu’ (the rich) lives in poverty or thinks he needs to change his life. His counterpart in Mississippi envies Habtamu’s life. I was astounded by the book because it bit my expectations a hundred times over.

I joined this book club to make a very passionate hardworking friend happy. This friend spends most of her time trying to change the lives of Ethiopians here in the community and also back in Ethiopia although she has a demanding full-time job. She told me about the authors back home who struggle to get published and who are very talented and that she and a bunch of other people imported books from Ethiopia with a lot of hassle and expense to help out the authors and were signing people up to join this book club called “YeEthiopian Metsaheft Kebeb” (Ethiopian Book Club). Reluctantly, I ended up paying the membership fee complaining that it was too expensive and joined the club. I still have problem paying for artists’ hard work I guess.

If you are picking this newspaper, you may be like me who surf Ethio-websites from time to time and read what is written about Ethiopia with some reservation. You may not be like my passionate friend, but if you are somewhat interested ‘join the club’ as they say.

Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated to the organizers although I would have been lucky to and this is not a marketing article. This is purely my Yezare Hasab (today’s thought).

Volume3| Issue 35 Zethiopia |

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

« Previous PageNext Page »
© 2012 Lissan Magazine , Powered by WordPress
Initiated & sponsered by Admassu Mamo Kombolcha, Frankfurt, Germany