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

IMG_2271May 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 IMG_2275away 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.
IMG_2287Starving, 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.
IMG_2285After 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…

May 16, 2014

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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.
IMG_2239Right 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!
IMG_2267While 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.
IMG_2269In 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).
IMG_2270By 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.
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IMG_2202A 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.
IMG_2237The 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.
IMG_2229As 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.
IMG_2212The 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.
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Woke up, wolfed down our inkulal firfir, slurped our strong buna and hastily headed down to the giant auditorium of the Wollo Cultural Center in Dessie to set up our first recording session. Set-up time ended up varying according to the subjects we were recording. In this case, it took well over an hour. Setting up microphones, stands, hooking up cables, installing lights, having a quick think about decor, and deciding whom to record in what order on the fly can take a lot of time.
By the time we were ready, the musicians were in full regalia, men in black and gold capes, women in yellow dresses. After three days of misadventures and farcical comedies of errors, we were finally hitting the red button. Joy! Masenqos, krars, washints, kebros, and singers were all present for a full day replete with South Wollo grooves.
Here are some photos from the session and check out the little iphone video clip at the bottom of the page. The sound quality is not great – you’ll have to wait until Quino finishes his documentary and/or Jonathan releases the audio through his label, Sheba Sound. Apparently the female singer in the clip (who’s amazing voice is not well captured in my iphone vid) is famous for having appeared on Ethiopian Idol!
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I’m interrupting the field recording in Ethiopia entries to post a few videos of a Zanzabari acoustic trio I was able to record during my recent trip there.
Known as the Sun Sound Group, they play a mix of upbeat east African / Congolese rumba influenced music (no taarab here) on a beat up, deliciously out-of-tune, low strung guitar played by Joffrey, flute and percussion by Charles, and percussion/lead vocals by Nabahani, all singing together in Franco-esque three-part harmony.
After meeting them at the Pongwe Beach Hotel where we were staying and they were performing, we arranged to do the recording session first thing the next morning (they understandably look a little bleary-eyed in the first video, but they perked up in a big way by the end).
I was fortunate enough to join in with them for the last song they did, as did subsequently the ebullient head waiter of the hotel, whose vibrant guttural singing provided some nice grit and extra sparkle to the music (it all really starts cooking after about 3:30!).
Albeit brief, my encounter with the Sun Sound Group was a deeply heart-warming encounter that added meaning and resonance to my trip. I hope to meet up with these guys again at some point down the line.

You can reach these guys by email here.

IMG_2157May 13
Over yet another breakfast of inkulall firfir and buna, Nuhamin got wind of a cultural center right near where we were staying where dancers and musicians alike would regularly meet up to practice and perform. Once we situated it, by late morning we all eventually drifted down to the place.
Modest-looking from the outside with small wooden scaffolding at the entrance and a bit of a shambles in the “lobby”, the theater itself was remarkably large and in decent shape. There we met with the manager of the center and a small group of dancers, singers, and musicians, a portion of whom we would end up working with. Nuhamin explained the project to them and the manager proceeded to protractedly explain in Amharic and in English that while the money would by no means suffice – it was “like 10 cents, like 1 birr for him” – they would do the recording anyway. Nuhamin mentioned afterwards that he did this to show that he was not taking any money on the side.
The trouble of course was that we would have to wait until the next morning to record as it would be too time-consuming to locate all the musicians, set up, and record that day. So yet again, another day without so much as hitting the red button, but tempered by the fact that the next morning we would be working.
IMG_2162Quino, Gonzalo and I had a buna at the café in the lobby with one of our new friends, a young guy named Baye who looked like he copped his style from a 1960s Congolese rumba vinyl. He is definitely the coolest cat in Dessie! IMG_2193Here’s a picture of him taken the next day. He’s not a guitar player, nor was he even part of the recording, but he seems to be an active member of the cultural center.
So with time to kill, we ventured to a place adjoining the cultural center from the previous night where we had a lunch of beef tibs and tegabino shiro. Later on, Jonathan, Nuhamin and I ambled into the center of town (somewhat circuitously via the grounds of an old estate and modern day university). We were in search of a store called IMG_2190Tizita Grocery out of which a gentleman named Tsegaye used to sell cassettes. Our good friend and Ethiopian music specialist Kidus Berhanu recommended we seek out Tsegaye about the different music to be discovered in the region. We located the place – now a watering hole – and asked after Tsegaye. The barmaid told us he wasn’t around but would be back in an hour or and change, so we sat down and ordered a St. George beer on draft. Tsegaye eventually rolled in and we introduced ourselves and the project. As he was busy parlaying and schmoozing with the patrons of his bar, we ended up agreeing to meet up the next morning.
The Spanish contingent met up with us soon afterwards and we went to a place to have a fairly ordinary shiro for dinner nearby. J+N ended up heading back to the hotel, but Quino, Gonzalo and I hung out and drunk Ethiopian ouzo on the terrace of the restaurant we were in. By the end of the night we had revealed all and solved the worlds problems, stumbled out of the restaurant, and aimed for the hotel only to be steered by Quino into a dimly lit corner bar on some side street blasting chikchika (Ethiopop based on 6 over 4 rhythms). “One more drink,” he muttered..it wasn’t like we finally had work to do first thing in the morning…

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