June 15, 2016
The death of the great Ethiopian box (acoustic) guitarist/singer Mesfin Abebe spurred me to revive this blog. A couple of years ago I had developed a project to interview and record Mesfin (and other box guitarists) that never saw the light due to personal and professional reasons. Now it will unfortunately never see the light, so instead here are a few video clips of the great musician.
I believe Mesfin was an Amhara christian who spent a lot of time in the predominantly muslim city of Harar and originally learned the oud before picking up the guitar. His idiosyncratic guitar style featured tricky attacks of single-note pentatonic lines that sound very much like an oud player playing guitar. A bass player mimicking the guitar an octave lower frequently accompanied him in tasteful synchronicity. Mesfin’s high pitched voice provided a beautiful lilting counterpoint to the driving music.
I’m kicking myself for not having made time to interview Mesfin before he passed. I guess I can still try and meet with Abitew Kebede, the Oromo singer/guitarist turned evangelical preacher in Silver Spring, Maryland, if he is willing to talk about the old days (not a guarantee!).
One of my favorites, which I have tried to learn (not easy considering my dismal Amharic):
Mesfin incorporated elements of the blues in to his music. Check out this minor pentatonic instrumental jam:
And these killer, driving, desert blues-like tunes:
If any of you out there want more, I can send you mp3s of his great music, and if you speak Amharic, here’s a special report on his life:
January 20, 2015
May 20, 2014
Unbeknownst to me, this was to be my final full day on the recording trip. I hadn’t yet booked my return ticket as I needed to get to an Ethiopian Airlines ticket office. I would end up doing this the next day, purchasing the last available ticket on the night flight back to Addis.
We woke up in our pension in Abi Abdi, packed up and aimed our sights on Mekele, the biggest city in Tigray, but not before stopping for a drink at a little park containing a beautiful enclosed garden full of lush, dense vegetation, a little pond and a waterfall. Little did we know that this would be the serene moment necessary to prepare us for what was to come.
We had barely started climbing up the main road to Mekele before it became quickly apparent that we would be in for a wait. Three giant tow trucks were attempting to extract a Chinese dump truck that had fallen into the ravine. Since this was the only direct road to Mekele, we decided to wait it out and watch it all unfurl. Due to a lethal combination of bad machinery, a bit of incompetence here and there, and generally difficult conditions, this whole procedure lasted about an hour and a half. Nuhamin and I had time to go for a hike up the mountain to get a good glimpse of both the attempted clean-up and the stunning views of the Tigray countryside.
The workers were finally able to get the truck stabilized on the side of the road, allowing us to get a move on. As we got within about an hour of Mekele, we arrived in an unassuming town called Hagere Selam where a quick roadside inquiry led to some rapid-fire negotiation and a recording at the bahal derash with 20-odd young energetic Tigrayans. As we set up in a round cement godjo it began to rain, creating a mucky but atmospheric vibe.
About an hour later, just as it was getting dark, the dancers and musicians showed up in full regalia and put on a vibrant performance. It truly was a fantastic way to conclude the musical portion of my trip.
After breakdown, we drove a slightly hair-raising 1.5 hrs through the mountains to Mekele and crashed at Dallas Hotel in the skeevy bus station district.
The next day consisted of me getting my plane ticket, going with the guys to the local university to see about recording musicians there, and then heading to the airport, tired but exhilarated from 10 days of madness. What a journey!
November 7, 2014
Exhausted from the previous day’s work, we lazily drank coffee and ate inqulal firfir before packing the vehicle and driving to Sekota to try and find Quino’s phone, which he had forgotten at the ful place. Perhaps due to the generally languid state of the group, the drive back was even more nerve-racking than the first leg. We clearly hadn’t tied things down as well as we should have, as my backup went flying at one point. Fortunately, it didn’t go over the cliff. We, however, had a very close call about an hour later as we climbed up the mountain to get back to Sekota. Mesmerized by a stunning view, Jonathan almost didn’t take the turn (one of the tires started to dip into the ravine). After we all screamed, he quickly steered away from the abyss back onto safe purchase. For the next hour or so we were all white-knuckled and on edge.
Nevertheless, we made it back to Sekota, had a ful, found Quino’s phone, and managed to cool our jets. We then continued up the road, aiming for Mekele, Tigray. The journey was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Staggeringly huge red cliffs, long plateaus and deep valleys that resemble the Arizona mesas gave way to massive expanses of crimson desert, with cactus, giant fig and baobab trees emblazoning the rugged landscape. At one point, a windstorm swept across the valley we were driving through, kicking up immense billows of red sand. In the background, dark, ominous storm clouds sent paroxysms of violent slanted rain in our direction. Yet as quickly as it came, it disappeared again.
Around early evening we landed in the newly developed town of Abi Abdi, where we decided to hole up in a little pension outside of town, have a meal nearby check out the local music scene (which turned out to be pretty much non-existent). A modern, predominantly muslim quarry town, it is clearly flourishing thanks to the construction boom in the country. We ended the night with a beer in some dimly lit bar with deafening ethiopop blasting out of gigantic speakers, and ambled back to the pension to hit the hay.
October 31, 2014
May 18, 2014
After a slower start than anticipated – our breakfast of special ful was being made entirely from scratch, and a town wedding was rippling down the street blocking traffic – we scrunched into the Land Rover with our “guide” Solomon and made for Zikwala, a village 2-3 hours to the west (not to be confused with the extinct volcano Mount Zikwala, near Debre Zeit). The gravelly road twisted up through the mountains, providing for mesmerizing scenery, hairpin turns, and stress-induced knots in my back.
Nevertheless, we made it to Zikwala, a clustered village of mud houses with metal roofs nestled into the ridge of a mountain at the southeastern edge of the Simiens, around noon where the government festival around a giant baobab tree was in full swing. It quickly became apparent that we faranjis were the unwitting stars of the show (foreigners rarely come through this town). I now know what it’s like to be a celebrity with throngs of adoring fans. In this case, the fans were Ethiopian children between 5 and 15 years of age. We parked the car, visited the huge hollow of the baobab, and met with some local officials and musicians who were there for the festival.
Kids, meanwhile, were everywhere. From afar I could see them climbing on our car, peering through the windows to scrutinize our piles of gear. Nearby hundreds of them surrounded us, all star-struck and electrified. They moved in waves, trying to get closer, but whenever they got too close, some “policeman” or even a brutish older teenager would make as if to whip them with a stick (at times succeeding) or chuck stones at them. Albeit shocking, it was clearly perceived and accepted as the only method of controlling these youngsters. Parents were nowhere to be found (they were likely working in the neighboring fields or elsewhere in town).
Though the festival was to continue all day around the tree, recording there was not a possibility for official and sound-related reasons. But we did make a deal with the musicians there, so we ended up roaming around this village festooned with children to look for a place to set up shop. After about 20 minutes we stumbled upon a godjo used for the storage of grains and other odds and ends in the back of a family’s house. Quino was keen to record here as it was one of the few places without a metal roof and therefore had good acoustics.
We made a deal with the owners and proceeded to load our equipment into this cramped hut. I must admit I was incredulous – setting up a makeshift generator-powered recording studio in the storage hut lodged in the middle of a bunch of mud-houses with scores of kids surrounding us did not a comfortable situation make.
That we pulled this off at all is a testament to the resolve of Quino and Jonathan, as we ended up waiting a very long time before hitting record. Although we took a couple of hours to set up and eat some shiro and tibs, we were ready by late afternoon. The musicians were nowhere to be found. It turned out they wouldn’t be ready until later that night.
As a result, Gonzalo and I went for a stroll and filmed some of the scenes for the music video of my song Beauty In The Dirt. Here’s the clip:
We got back to the godjo thinking we’d be recording soon. Instead we waited. Jonathan and Nuhamin had meanwhile gone to find Solomon (our guide who had completely disappeared) and try and pin down the musicians to come record. At this point in the godjo, a young, shady dude pressed me to buy one of his two sisters who couldn’t have been more than 11 and 14 years old. They were behind his back looking at me shaking their heads, silently imploring me not to buy them. At first I thought this was a joke, but it kept going for 10 minutes or so and became very disturbing. He made perverted hand gestures, saying the girls would be really good in a couple of years. He finally got the message that I wasn’t interested and moved on to Gonzalo.
At dusk, after about an hour of dawdling and as an excuse to get away from the sister-seller, I went as a follow up scout to try and find J&N. As I approached the town center, I could make out in the dusk-light that things were starting to teeter towards chaos. Packs of people were congregating in the streets. A fight had broken out some 100 meters ahead. People were calling out “faranji” to me in a sharper tone than before. As I approached the chaos, to my right I heard a whisper: “Cory, in here!”. In a little mud-house cum local bar were Jonathan and Nuhamin drinking beer on stools. They mentioned that things were getting out of hand due to the drunken festivities but that they found the musicians who told them they’d make it to the godjo in a couple of hours.
After a beer we felt our way back to the godjo in the dark and all of a sudden heard “Hello, my brother”. It was Solomon. Jonathan proceeded to get more and more enraged at Solomon’s relaxed attitude and told him to #$%@ off. Rather than help us, Solomon was obviously merely in it for the ride to Zikwala to chew chat with his friends and party at the local festival.
We arrived back at the godjo and waited probably another hour or so, sharing a meal with a donkey before the musicians finally showed up. We discovered that some if not all of the musicians were of the Agaw ethnic group. My friend Tewolde considers this clip to be more of a mix of Agaw with Tigrinya than straight up Agaw, both linguistically and musically:
After an energy-filled recording session, we stumbled down to the village looking for a place to stay. Totally exhausted, we ended up landing where we could. I ended up crashing on the floor of a little cement room in the back of a small bar with Jonathan on a broken bed beside me. Nuhamin had the room next to us, and Quino and Gonzalo slept outside on the ledge in front of the bar. Rock and roll.
October 20, 2014
May 17, 2014
After a breakfast of special ful and strong coffee on the terrace of a café outside the hotel in slightly seedy Weldiya, we sped up the road towards Alamata, one of the first towns in southern Tigray. On our way we stopped at a gas station to fill up and clean the leaky oil that was causing some smoke. Inside they served smoked cow’s milk in glass bottles, which was strangely refreshing, and we bought dabo kolo (dried bread snacks).
We arrived in Alamata around noon and inquired about music at the local hotel. A couple of guys showed up to talk about music over a spaghetti lunch out back under a giant fig tree. According to them, all the musicians were away on some cultural retreat but we could potentially organize a session on our way back to Addis (I don’t believe this ended up working out).
So with this strikeout we piled into the Land Rover and headed back into the Amhara region to Sekota, where we were to meet a certain Solomon, some sort of friend of a friend. The decision had been made to aim for Mekele instead of Afar, as Quino’s priority was to record as much Tigrinya music as possible.
The road to Sekota was stunningly beautiful, sinewy and somewhat harrowing, a foreshadowing of what was to come over the next couple of days. As we climbed higher and higher (Sekota sits up at 2,266m, whereas Alamata is at 1500m), we rose above the ubiquitous verdant crop terracing etched into the sides of the mountains until we came to the quintessential arid, sawtoothed landscapes of the north. About an hour or two before arriving in Sekota we drove through some bizarre weather, sun with showers and an abundance of epic cloud formations, giving rise to a giant, glorious rainbow.
We rolled into Sekota just around dusk, met up with Solomon, an oddly and somewhat aggravatingly terse dude, and landed at one of the hotels in town.
Starving, we asked Solomon to take us to the best tibs place in town (which, to be fair, had very limited options). He wound up taking us on a walk and merely showing us different places. At the first uninspiring place we arrived, we asked him if this was the best tibs place, to which he totally unconvincingly replied “yes, this is good”. This happened two more times before we realized he was just taking us wherever there was food. We chose a kitsch, Chinese restaurant style place on the other side of town that served shiro. Beforehand, we stopped for a beer in a place buzzing with life. As we sat down, we heard crowds of people next door emoting over some sporting event. It sounded like a football match so Jonathan and I went to check it out – turned out the FA Cup final was being shown on a giant screen in front of a jam packed audience. Arsenal won by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against Hull City.
After the beer and seeming non-discussion with Solomon, who appeared not to register anything we were telling him (and a perfect soundtrack of a weird 30 second constantly repeated loop of old music echoing from the bar), we went for our shiro and ambled back to the hotel to crash out. On the way back, Solomon mentioned that all the musicians were two plus hours down the road at some government festival and that if we wanted to go we could all head there the next day, first thing in the morning.
So we made the plan to leave at 8 am, and bade one another good night. I don’t think any of us could have predicted what was in store for us the next day…
October 16, 2014
It was hard to leave Lake Haik, but the road was calling us. After a quick stop in the town for engine oil (see post office pic), we got going. Once again, we weren’t headed very far – our destination was the general Weldiya area, where one of our sources mentioned there was a good music scene. We didn’t even make it that far. A pitstop in Mersa – 64 km from Lake Haik and 30 km south of Weldiya – led to a full day’s recording session.
At this point, we were just about halfway between Addis and Mekele, and I was getting somewhat nervous about how I was going to return to Addis. With friends from France coming into town and some possible gigs lined up, my idea was to be dropped off at an airport somewhere on the road around May 18th or so. For this to happen, we needed to get a move on! That said, I was fully aware that the serendipitous nature of the journey would likely force me to adjust my plans (it wouldn’t be an adventure otherwise!). The rest of the crew aside from Gonzalo were continuing for another 2 weeks.
Right next to the only hotel in town, a run down joint where we stopped for refreshments (I wouldn’t recommended using the fly infested hole-in-the-ground toilets there), was the local cultural center – a huge dimly lit space with blades of grass strewn across the floor (there must recently have been some local celebration of some kind). The musicians were on the stage practicing through a horrible sounding PA system. That we were not convinced this would be worthwhile is an understatement. Yet Jonathan had a feeling Mersa had potential.
Quino, meanwhile, was like me starting to get antsy about our lack of progress mileage-wise. They were still deciding whether to hang a right at Weldiya and go into the Afar region, or to continue straight towards Mekele. Both long hauls away and the clock ticking.
With the added lack of conviction regarding the caliber of the musicians, some deliberation and a bit of heated arguing ensued between Jonathan and Quino. Jonathan ended up convincing us to try and do a ‘quick’ session (I learned early on that it was near impossible to do anything ‘quick’ – setup and pack up, particularly with a large group of musicians, always took at least a few hours). Nevertheless, after some back and forth with the musicians and local officials, including a trip to the local “cultural office”, Jonathan and Nuhamin again organized a session for us. We were on a roll!
While they were off with the cultural officials, Quino, Gonzalo and I scoped out a place to record. We opted for a space outside with a rusted out shack as an aesthetically interesting backdrop.
In the end, Jonathan was right to follow his gut – what we had feared would be a lackluster experience ended up being a fantastic recording of a large, predominantly muslim group of musicians (an enclave in a primarily Christian region). Hordes of youngsters surrounded the recording area, stood on the surrounding walls, and climbed up on trees to watch us eagerly and dance to the music. At one point a cow and a few goats unwittingly passed through the area as they grazed (we shooed them away).
By the end of this rip-roaring session dusk was upon us, so we packed up as quickly as we could and hit the road to get to Weldiya before it was too late. We arrived in this somewhat seedy trucker town full of prostitutes to look for a hotel. A little street kid offered his help in finding one, and latched on to the side of the Land Rover before we could answer. He took us to one hotel that did not pass the buck so we opted for the local government-owned hotel. After a dinner of goat tibs and beer we crashed out in our sad, dilapidated rooms without running water (it came back the next day), content with our day’s work.
October 15, 2014
A bit sapped from the previous day’s session, we headed north from Dessie in search of a place that could offer us a combination of recording gold and a bit of R&R. The goal was to have a moment to dwell on whether we wanted to shoot straight up to Tigray or head over to the Afar region before looping back to Mekele, Tigray.
The guide book pointed us to a place only 30 odd kilometers up the road to a place called Lake Haik (haik in Amharic means “lake”, so “Lake Lake”). From the town of Haik we took a snarly dirt road down to the lake decorated with water fowl and cattle. We ended up having lunch and some words about the project with the folks running the nice little assa bet (fish restaurant+lodge) that gives on to the lake.
As we lunched on a tasty meal of raw fish and fish tibs with njera and cool draft beer, it was mentioned to us that an old masenqo player lived nearby and could be enticed to do a session. So, Jonathan and Nuhamin once again hopped in the Land Rover and headed with a local armed “authority” (a cop of sorts who was happy to get a little commission for finding the guy) to meet the gentleman. It turns out they were all on their way to some police ball, but were eager to get a little cut from the faranjis before attending the event.
They returned with the masenqo player, a nice old fellow who enjoyed many a pint of St. George. We plied everyone with chat, food, beer, and a little dosh for their efforts. Unbeknownst to us, we ended up setting up in one of the quaint little godjos that overlooked the lake, doing a late night recorded session, and crashing out side-by-side on mattresses laid out for us in an adjacent godjo.
The recording session was magical – Gonzalo set up nice lighting in the godjo, the masenqo player was in fine form (the only concern of ours was to hit record before he got too drunk!), and the cyan colored lake adorned with pelicans was beautiful. I ended up accompanying the masenqo with my banjo for a bit at the end of the session as I had done the day before in Dessie. I was quickly finding that at times it worked well (particularly when the musicians provided me with a theme to latch on to), and sometimes it was exceedingly effortful. Considering that parts change constantly and are delivered at a rapid-fire pace, accompaniment can be difficult!
After the session, we enjoyed more fish tibs and beer before hitting the hay. Another successful day.