Éthiopiques and the Golden Age of Ethiopian Music

         Ethiopia has a complex and unique musical history. In the 1950s-60s, during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian contemporary music grew to incredible heights. This time, referred to as the “golden age” of Ethiopian music, created music that was lost during the communist rule that began in the 70s. Yet, this music of the past has regained popularity both in Ethiopia and around the world, with the help of Francis Falceto, curator and producer of Ethiopian music, through his Éthiopiques series under the French Buda Musique label. Many credit Falceto with the popularization and dispersal of golden age Ethiopian music, but this has some problematic repercussions. Falceto is a white man from France, financially benefitting from Ethiopian music that was already recorded by Ethiopians and is only compiled by Falceto. This begs the questions: is it inappropriate and invasive for a French man to produce Ethiopian music even if the music itself is a valuable cultural asset?

            In the late 50s- 60s, during the final years of Haile Selassie I’s rule, Ethiopian contemporary music began to bloom. In 1948, an edict declared that music could only be recorded by a government agency, headed by Hagere Fiker Maheber. (Tarte) This took the freedom of music production out of the hands of the people and caused outrage. Any Ethiopians who tried to record their own music would be exiled. (Briggs 43) Yet this time period was also one of the first of a global musical exchange. Musicians in Ethiopia were able to listen to records from other countries, like the United States. They were listening to jazz, blues, and funk among other genres. Additionally, Haile Salassie I was considered to be the messiah to Rastafarianism, so reggae music was also prevalent in Ethiopia during this time period. (Henze) In the late 60s, musician Amha Eshete was fed up with the governmental control of the recording industry. He founded Amha Records, an independent music label that in only 6 years released 103 singles. Although Maheber was at first frustrated, Amha Records’ overwhelming popularity actually led to the removal of the edict. (Tarte) Amha Records’ success inspired the creation of two other highly influential Ethiopian record labels: Philips Ethiopia Records and Kaifa Records. (Briggs 43) The musical revolution was centered around the cosmopolitan center of Addis Ababa. The rise of the recording industry properly complemented the huge musical growth that was occurring in the nightlife of Addis Ababa and in the creation of “ethio-jazz” clubs. (Tarte) In 1975, the imperial era ended in bloody combat, the communist Derg took over, Amha Records closed, and a late night curfew was enforced, killing Addis’ nightclub culture. (Briggs 44) Yet, Kaifa Records was still able to secretly produce some records and the scene did not die out completely.

            Although some of this highly influential and historically significant music was recorded through these labels, much of it disappeared over time. Many Ethiopians of the current day complain of the use of synthesizers in contemporary Ethiopian music and display disappointment about its trajectory. Francis Falceto, curator and producer of Buda Musique’s Éthiopiques series agrees with this sentiment. In his mind, the current musical movements in Ethiopia are coming from the “lost generation.” Falceto listened to this Ethiopian music of the late 70s after a lot of its production had ceased. He quickly became deeply invested in the music and its culture and wanted to find a way to share it with the world. Through Buda Musique, he created the Éthiopiques series in the 1990s, re-releasing albums produced by Amha Records and Kaifa Records, among others. Amha Eshete had been exiled by Derg and couldn’t be found, and Ali Tango, founder of Kaifa Records chose to work with Falceto. Currently, Falceto has released 28 volumes of Éthiopiques and has received fame in niche communities of Ethiopians and Ethiopian-music lovers. This series, being one of the largest and most publicized collections of Ethiopian music ever produced is now very much associated around the world with Ethiopian identity and culture.

            Falceto explains that most of the responses he receives are positive. In an interview with Tadias, a New York area magazine for Ethiopian Americans, Falceto explains, “The feedback from Ethiopia and Ethiopians is mostly warm and supportive.” He states that his audience is comprised of both the nostalgic adults who were teens in the 50s and 60s and their children who are now impressed by their parents’ music and by the history of their country. (Tadias) Éthiopiques’ success has led to EthioSonic, a series of contemporary Ethiopian music produced by Falceto. Music from the Éthiopiques series also appeals to non-Ethiopian listeners. For example, Éthiopiques volume 4, a compilation of two rare albums by the famous Ethiopian funk artist Mulatu Astatke, was used in Broken Flowers, a Jim Jarmusch film. (Buda Musique) This series is a valuable asset to the preservation of Ethiopian musical history for multiple generations of Ethiopians.

         Although it is clearly of musical value, Éthiopiques must also be viewed through the lens of cultural invasion and financial capital. Falceto is a white, French man who is producing the music of a culture that is not his own. He is then being commended for spreading this music to the world both by foreigners and Ethiopians. It is difficult to be involved with another culture’s art without somehow altering this. Falceto is not a fan of the modern musical movement of Ethiopia and has republished the music from the golden age with the goal of revitalizing the movement. In an interview with Addis Rumble, a news source from Addis Ababa, he asks, “Where are the Amha Eshetes, Kassahoun Eshetes, and Ali Tangos of today? Hope seems now in the hands and minds of a younger generation, hungry and concerned enough for a real change…” (Addis Rumble) These statements beg the question; who is Falceto to decide how the musical culture should be altered? This question must again be asked when viewing his new EthioSonic label in which he gathers musicians together to create new music reminiscent of the golden age. In the role of contemporary music producer, he now has the power to shape what is recorded, edited, and published. Falceto’s musical aspirations are not purposefully insidious, but they end up being culturally invasive and highly problematic.

         One must view Falceto’s motives also through a financial lens. Although it is obvious that he is producing this music out of deep love, he is also gaining financial capital. Buda Musique is a small record label with only a portion of its profits coming from Falceto’s series. In his interview with Tadias, he asserts “Curating [the] Éthiopiques series requires a lot of perseverance and endurance, and some masochism, probably. And the fact that Ethiopian CDs are available in Western music shops doesn’t mean they sell like hot cakes.” (Tadias) He is attempting to say that producing Éthiopiques is a labor of love with very little financial reward. Yet, there is still capital gained. Falceto is re-releasing music already released by Ethiopian labels and making money. The two Astatke albums compiled into Éthiopiques volume 4 and used in Broken Flowers were originally released by Amha Records. (Egon) Now, Buda Musique is reaping those profits. Some affiliated Ethiopian parties are making money, but not a significant amount. Additionally, there was a recent controversy in which Buda Musique retained the copyrights of some artists whose music was used on volumes of Éthiopiques and did not pay them fairly. In response, Falceto only tried to displace the blame elsewhere within the larger organization.

         There is no denying the serious faults of both Falceto’s approach and from reaping benefits from someone else’s culture, in general. These issues should not take away from Éthiopiques’ cultural value in that it fosters Ethiopian identity and informs the world on the incredible and unique music that was made in Ethiopia during the 50s and 60s. Instead, the importance of this music must be viewed in conjunction with the problematic elements of Falceto’s mission.

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