Field Recording Trip in the Ethio-hinterlands: Day 2 of 10

September 5, 2014

IMG_2132Woke up in Kemese at the Abenther (Ebenezer) Hotel and had an imkullal firfir (scrambled eggs) and buna (coffee) in the garden, where I would remain for the better part of the morning and early afternoon strumming my guitar while Quino and Gonzalo talked camera gear, beside a sign that said “Happy Holyday”. The game plan turned out to be that Jonathan and Nuhamin would go scope out the local yebahel derash (cultural/traditional music center) and present the project to the people in charge. Quino and Jonathan had procured official government papers allowing them to engage in the project (without which we would have encountered an endless number of complications with local authorities looking for an easy buck or just to thump their chests). The problems would always end up being the same wherever we were: a) getting the musicians to show up – frequently they were performing elsewhere – and b) getting them to agree to the sum that J+Q had established as their maximum amount for each recording.
A revelation to me was that these cultural centers were ubiquitous. Most of the decent-sized towns we stopped in had one. It appears that these are government sponsored arts centers that offer modest financial support to the local musicians and dancers. I am unclear as to the exact manner in which they are funded but this sponsorship probably stems from the implementation in 1997 of Ethiopia’s Cultural Policy which legislated into being the recognition and even pride of older, regional cultural traditions, including the designation of endemic Ethiopian instruments (masenqo, krar, washint, kebro, etc).
The spaces themselves usually contain a fairly large theater, a sound system of highly variable quality, and the instruments the musicians use (which the centers own). I was impressed – Ethiopia might have its share of problems, but here was something interesting. Grassroots financial support for local traditional arts.
After a few hours of dawdling at the hotel, Jonathan and Nuhamin returned without having accomplished much. We were to return to the yebahel derash in an hour to meet a few musicians who were on their way back in to town. J+N had brought back with them a couple of guys purporting to be mechanics. They tried to fix the broken headlight but didn’t have the correct fuse. They wanted more money than had been agreed upon, and Nuhamin blew her own fuse due to the gall of these guys.
After the dust settled we headed to the yebahel derash where we had mediocre shiro and buna, and met with a gentleman who told us the musicians were not around and that we should try and catch them on our way back (classic miscommunication). So we hit the road and headed for Dessie where we would end up spending a couple of nights.
IMG_2161We arrived in Dessie just before sunset after a beautiful drive through green mountains. The town, Ethiopia’s seventh largest city, appears out of nowhere, nestled somewhat oddly in the mountains of the South Wollo region. After finding a cute little hotel where the food was good and the parasols were festooned with amusing condom ads, we headed to a cultural center tucked away at the edge of town. Our friend and famous Addis-based krar player (and member of my band, MistO-MistO), Mesele Asmamaw, is a pal of the guy who runs the place. We saw what ended up being a fairly run-of-the-mill traditional performance akin to what tourists would see if they visited one of Addis’ many cultural restaurants. Mesele’s friend didn’t seem to glom on to what we were doing either, so we politely said our farewells and IMG_2145left. On our way back to the hotel we stumbled into an azmari bet where we had a beer and listened to pounding drumming and the bee-humming drone of a masenqo for half an hour and then drifted out and to our hotel rooms, unsure about Dessie, with no recordings planned.

Here’s the second of five teasers Quino has made for his documentary:

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