Field Recording Trip in the Ethio-hinterlands: Day 1 of 10

September 3, 2014

IMG_2131In May of this year I received an unexpected phone call from my Spanish friend and sound man extraordinaire Quino Piñero. “Cory, you want to come on the trip with us? There’s a space for you if you want it.”
The space was in a rough-and-tumble crimson Land Rover driven by Englishman Jonathan Banes, Quino’s partner-in-crime. The trip in question was to assist in the fourth of five extensive, self-financed (partially via crowd-sourcing) trips deep into the Ethiopian heartland to record the local traditional music of as many distinct cultural groups as possible for a documentary film that Quino is making through his outfit, Sol y Sombra Recordings, and for audio releases on Jonathan’s new label, Sheba Sounds.
I questioned it for a day or two, but in my heart of hearts I knew I had to go. As might be expected, the closer you look at an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse place like Ethiopia, the more nuances and distinctions you will find. The struggle comes with striking that balance between capturing as much of these nuances as possible within a specific region, and hastily moving on to other regions knowing that time is limited and there is much to collect.
This tension was embodied in the personalities of Quino and Jonathan who were the yin to the other’s yang. Of course, this was the source of much deliberation if not outright disagreement and argument about how to proceed, but it was also what made the whole thing work.
May 11
We met up at Quino and fellow Breton, graphic designer Jonathan Le Pechon’s house in Aware, Addis. Joining us on the journey were Gonzalo Guajardo, an Addis-based Spanish filmmaker replacing the other Addis-based Spanish filmmaker with whom these guys work Israel Seoane; and last but not least the stalwart Nuhamin Daniel, Amharic-English interpreter. So the vehicle was full, and most of our stuff was piled atop the Land Rover and covered with a green tarp. The daily ritual of packing-unpacking-repacking-unpacking the mountain of stuff would bring me right back to touring, particularly to the farcically overloaded van of my world roots band Groanbox.
We hit the road in the early afternoon of a lazy May Sunday and headed for our first destination straight up the main central road in Ethiopia to the small village of Kemese where word was they had good music. The first realization I had was that we were not in a rush. This at once reassured me because I didn’t want to be racing around a country that has some of the highest number of traffic fatalities in the world, but also worried me because driving at night (which is inevitable if you haven’t been moving very quickly) increases your chances of an accident tenfold. Part of the adventure I suppose!
IMG_2126Upon the first rumbling growl of our stomachs we decided to stop in the next town, which ended up being Debre Birhan, where we had tibs on the “terrace” of the best (according to a couple locals we asked), albeit fly-ridden, tibs bet in town. A Peace Corps volunteer named Erica came and sat down with us, intrigued by the motley crew of faranjis who appeared in her local watering hole. She told us her job was to educate the local youth about sex and contraception (including how to put on a condom using a prop). I can’t imagine it being an easy task, but she seemed to enjoy the challenge. Meanwhile a cow came up to me and licked my elbow as I was leaning my arm over the balustrade, leaving a huge patina of slobber that I had to go soap off.
After the tibs and a twofold stop for bootleg and then legit gas, we shot up through beautiful mountains at sunset and began what became a harrowing slog through rain with a busted right headlight. As the rain pounded, Jonathan, expert driver that he is, avoided IMG_2127parades of camels, oncoming Isuzu and Sinotruks driven manically by chat-euphoric drivers, high-beams a-blasting, further blinding us to the unknowns up ahead.
As we arrived in the village some 10 miles south of our destination, we noticed that numerous horses had been ushered into the middle of the road, around which Jonathan had to dodge like in some perverse video game. At one point, a horse clopped away from us and then did an about-face and swung rapidly in our direction, causing us to clip it in the head. The poor beast collapsed upon impact. We stopped and looked back to see that it had quickly gotten up again. Meanwhile, a coterie of money-hungry men began surrounding us to “talk”. Jonathan went to pull over and then made the wise, spur of the moment decision to hit the gas and speed off. It says a lot about a place that people resort to putting horses out in the middle of the road with the perfidious hopes that some vehicle will kill them and money be wrangled out.
IMG_2128We arrived in Kemese with the rain still gushing (it wasn’t the kremt – rainy season – but apparently we were caught by the belg – mini-rainy season!), negotiated rooms in a flea-bag hotel with a nice garden, had a beer and ordered food off of an amusingly written menu (see photo), and hit the hay.
The day had to come to a close sans music but with many a memorable moment nonetheless.

Here’s the first of five videos Quino has made as teasers for his documentary:


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