Jazz from the Horn of Africa: 'Ethiopiques' The exotic strains of Ethiopian jazz are not widely heard by American ears. But the work of many talented artists can be enjoyed in an ambitious multi-volume CD series called Ethiopiques.
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Jazz from the Horn of Africa: 'Ethiopiques'

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Jazz from the Horn of Africa: 'Ethiopiques'


Jazz from the Horn of Africa: 'Ethiopiques'

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In the recent Jim Jarmusch film, Broken Flowers, Don Johnston, played by Bill Murray, embarks on an epic road trip calling on old girlfriends, searching for the mother of a son he's never known. He's egged on by his neighbor, Winston, played by Jeffrey Wright, who offers him some music for the journey.

(Soundbite of movie Broken Flowers)

Mr. JEFFREY WRIGHT (Actor): (As Winston) I burned you a new CD. As traveling music.

Mr. BILL MURRAY (Actor): (As Don Johnston) That I'll take.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: It's a quirky soundtrack for a trek across suburban America. And for moviegoers on these shores, it may be the first time many have heard the exotic sounds of Ethiopian jazz; specifically, the music of Mulatu Astatke.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: Astatke's music can be found on Volume 4 of an ambitious CD series on the Buda Musique label called Ethiopiques. There are now 21 CDs in the Ethiopiques series.

The series curator is Francis Falceto, and he joins us from the studios of Radio France in Paris.

Hello, Mr. Falceto.

Mr. FRANCIS FALCETO (Curator of the Ethiopiques CD Series): Hello. Good morning.

KAST: Tell us about your introduction to modern music from Ethiopia.

Mr. FALCETO: Well, I used to work in the music business as a music advisor, an artistic consultant. And one evening we were at a party at a friend's place, back to '84, 1984. And some of us brought an LP, he himself had bought, by chance, in Ethiopia a couple of years before. And this LP was Bèlaya Bèlaya(ph), by Mahmoud Ahmed, and all of us in the party were so amazed. None of us had heard such music.

And so that was the starting point.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FALCETO: Basically, the music I present in Ethiopiques, in the series, which was mostly recorded in the '60s and early '70s, in the time of the Ethiopian Empire, in the time of Emperor Haile Selassie. It was a kind of, you know, there are swinging London in these times. But there are exactly also a swinging Addis.

It was fun. It was a period of fun and incredible night life.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: Now, in the '60s there were plenty of young American Peace Corps workers in Ethiopia.

Mr. FALCETO: Yes, this was very important too.

KAST: Did they influence music-making?

Mr. FALCETO: Definitely they did. About 4,000 Peace Corps came to Ethiopia in the '60s. They were teaching English, teaching agriculture, every kind of thing. But also there are the, how do you say, bottom bell trousers?

KAST: Bell bottom.

Mr. FALCETO: Bell bottom trousers, mini skirts for the girls. Afro, long hair, they had guitars. They were singing folk songs, rock songs, rhythm and blues songs. They had, they brought some vinyls of all kinds of music from rock and roll to rhythm and blues, from soul to jazz. This was part of influence which they had adopted and adapted immediately.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: But the good times in swinging Addis were short lived. Haile Selassie was deposed by Stalinists in 1974, and a long, dark revolutionary period followed, enforced by a military junta until 1992.

Mr. FALCETO: So during those 18 years, for instance, the night life was completely dead. There was simply a curfew from early '74 up to May '91; actually '92. Imagine, you're in 18 years there is nobody in the street from 10:00 p.m. up to 6:00-7:00 in the morning. No night life at all, when everybody knows that it's in the night life, in the night club, that the musical creativity develops, usually everywhere.

So during this revolutionary period, the golden age of the Ethiopian music was simply killed and frozen.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: Many of the recordings from Ethiopia's golden age were recorded by Ama Escheti(ph), for his Ama(ph) Records label. Escheti fled the country during the revolutionary period.

Fast forward to 1987. Francis Falceto met with Escheti in Washington, D.C., where he was living in exile.

Mr. FALCETO: I went to meet him in D.C., to tell him, look, you have released gorgeous masterpieces. I would love to present this music to the Western market on CD. And basically he was okay. But he had to leave Ethiopia in very difficult conditions, and he had not with him most of his notes, papers, address books, things like that. So he knew that his masters were in Athens. Most of his vinyls were manufactured and pressed in Athens.

So he came back to Ethiopia in, after the fall of the dictator, in the early '90s, and we met again in '92, '93. After a few months he came to me and said, Francis, we have located the masters. Please go and pick them up and start up the job.

This was one of my most beautiful days in my life. The day I could pick and bring back to Europe the masters of Ama Records.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: Now, Mahmoud Ahmed is probably the best-known of Ethiopian artists that, as you say, it was his music that first inspired you. What is it about his music that's made him so popular?

Mr. FALCETO: It is true, he is a big star in Ethiopia. His own life is quite amazing. He started as a young shoeshine boy in the streets, from a poor family. On top of that, he has an incredible voice, such a soulful voice, and he was quite quickly recruited by the best bands. Actually, he was in the (unintelligible) band. And when you had such a voice, and such a band backing you, its amazing just listening to the great old songs of Mahmoud Ahmed and so easy to understand.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: Mulatu Astatke studied at what became the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the early '60s. He wanted to develop a unique brand of Ethiopian jazz. And how did he try to do that?

Mr. FALCETO: He was the really first Ethiopian musician to have been trained abroad. He came back to Ethiopia with a kind of crown of learned musician, you know? Which was the case of none of the other, no other Ethiopian musician.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FALCETO: It was very impressive for the other musicians when he came back. For the authorities also, for Haile Selassie himself. I mean, Haile Selassie used to send a lot of students abroad, and was very proud of them when they came back. So Mulatu had a big importance in this sense.

On another hand, he wanted to bring more jazz into the Ethiopian groove. More Latin influences. It's the thing of Mulatu Astatke.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: You've made more than 30 trips to Ethiopia. But some people have been critical of the fact that a French producer is in charge of this project.

Mr. FALCETO: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Of course. Yeah, but this is normal. I mean, my answer is, I would love, I would have loved that somebody else would have done this, you see? I would be so pleased to buy these CDs. But as I was crazy about it, I wanted this music to be known. And I didn't see anybody, and still, after more than 20 years, I don't see anybody intending to do what I'm doing, Ethiopian or not.

And its funny because, maybe, you know, I have published in Ethiopia a book by the title of Abbis[ph] Swing...

KAST: Um-hmm.

Mr. FALCETO: ...and, for the launch party, I mean, everybody was there. I mean, Mahmoud Ahmed (unintelligible) the great singers, and it was great the way (unintelligible) comment the book. He said it's pitiful that it's a foreigner who has done this. Thanks, Francis, for having - doing it. But why don't the authorities of our country, the Minister of Culture, for instance, somebody else, didn't do it? I would reply the same.

If somebody do it, Ethiopian preferably, I'm fine with it. But when nobody takes care of it, I said, I have to do it. So I did it.

KAST: Francis Falceto is a record producer and curator of the Ethiopiques CD series on the Buda Musique label. He joined us from the studios of Radio France, in Paris.

Thanks very much.

Mr. FALCETO: I thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: You can sample more Ethiopian music on our Web site, npr.org.

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