Field Recording Trip in the Ethio-hinterlands: Day 8 of 10

October 31, 2014

IMG_2291May 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.
IMG_2344Nevertheless, 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 IMG_2301town). 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.
IMG_2345Kids, 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 IMG_2304was 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.
IMG_2346That 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:

IMG_2323We 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.
IMG_2327We 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.

Sol y Sombra Recordings
Sheba Sound

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One Response to “Field Recording Trip in the Ethio-hinterlands: Day 8 of 10”


  1. […] Inspiration In May 2014, I went on an epic field recording trip through the heartland of Ethiopia with a team of non-academics led by Quino Piñero and Jonathan Banes. The goal was to get 1) lots of footage for the beautiful film Roaring Abyss directed by Quino, and 2) high quality audio for a groovy compilation released by Jonathan called Out of Addis. Needless to say, many strange, beautiful and horrifying things happened on this trip, which you can read about in depth if you scroll down this blog a bit. There was one very specific moment in all this that triggered the beginning of my song “Sell You My Soul”: I was in a storage godjo (hut) setting up microphones and gear to prepare the terrain for a recording session in the remote northern mountains of the Wollo region when a a young dude began pressing 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 quite 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. You can read all about that exceedingly bizarre day here. […]


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