This summer, my family and I traveled to Ethiopia. Our ostensible reason for being there was the adoption of our daughter, Molly Fanaye. But we were also there to learn about the country’s culture and to meet the beautiful and warm people who live there. I could go on and on about the wonderful experiences we had there, the fascinating and sometimes shocking things we saw, and our eagerness to go back someday. But this review is not the place for that.
I bring up this trip so that I can confirm how important Mahmoud Ahmed is in the world of Ethiopian music. In Addis Ababa, I talked to a number of people from many different walks of life who absolutely love this guy. He has been a huge star for many years there—this disc proves why.
The DVD consists of a film by Anaïs Prosaïc documenting the collaboration between Ahmed and the great American big band called the Either/Orchestra. This amazing ensemble is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has been around for 22 years. (Not to make this even more about me than it already is, but I was living in Cambridge when the Either/Orchestra played its first concert at the library!) Founder Russ Gershon has long been interested in Ethiopian music, especially the work of Mahmoud (first name only, as he is known in Addis) and the large-band soul-jazz pioneered by Mulatu Astatqe. Here, he and his group get to play with Mahmoud for the very first time. The results are pretty damned stunning.
The best part of the film is the half that focuses on a concert recorded last year in France at the Banlieues Bleues Festival. This part is not just the cleanest and most viscerally interesting, but it is also filmed so beautifully that it is hard to tear one’s attention away from it. Not only does Prosaïc’s camera capture the dynamism of Mahmoud’s charisma and his still-flawless voice, it also accurately shows the give and take of the Either/Orchestra’s 10 members. And when new singer Tsèdénia Gèbrè-Marqos steps to the microphone for her bluesy feature, she looks like a goddess calling out some kind of holy words.
Sadly, not all parts of the film measure up. It is, indeed, interesting to see the band rehearsing, especially when Mahmoud comes in and starts to interact with them. And all the interview segments are worthwhile in and of themselves. (Who would have thought that Mahmoud Ahmed still gets stage fright?) But there are too many times when cheesy-looking graphics float in from nowhere to unnecessarily illustrate words or concepts. And Prosaïc is a big fan of cutting into riveting concert performances with cut-in interviews with Gershon or Ahmed. The music speaks for itself and does not need to be gussied up, and the interviews and history segments can really stand on their own for anyone interested in the music. One gets the feeling that the director is terrified about losing us and our short attention spans—but this fear actually causes some mistakes from which the DVD never really bounces back.
Which is a shame, because the music featured here is absolutely unimpeachable. Mahmoud Ahmed, at 66-years-old, is the youngest-seeming man on stage—he trills, he shouts, he croons, he draws the audience in. But this is not to underestimate the contribution of the Either/Orchestra. This is one hell of a tight group, capable of virtually every style of music you can think of, and it is fun to hear them nailing the sound of classic Ethiopian pop and the way they combine it with more modern American sounds.
Is it perfect? No. Does the peripheral stuff add to the main part of the disc? No. Would I recommend this DVD to people who care about music and the way it is made? Yes, yes, a million times yes.