It must be a great thing to play the mèssengo
The breadth of Ethiopian music made available by the Éthiopiques is one of the series’ great strengths. In 23 albums we’ve crossed from the rustic songs of farmers strumming bluntly on handmade guitars to mid-century pop singers in sharp shirts. Armed with this set of discs we can jump from a thoughtful pianist nun to a set of 12 songs dedicated to a specific instrument, the square-angled, 10-stringed begena harp. Not many countries get such a sustained examination of their musical output unless they are able to fund it wholly themselves, and few of those examinations are as popular outside the source nation as the Éthiopiques have come to be.
Éthiopiques 23 is devoted to Orchestra Ethiopia. It arrives with a lengthy biographical piece from one of the Orchestra’s past leaders, an American Peace Corps volunteer named Charles Sutton who describes the development of the band. Sutton says that he became interested in the group’s brand of southern Ethiopian folk when he stumbled on a room of musicians performing down an Addis Ababa alleyway in 1966. “It must be a great thing to play the mèssengo,” he remembers himself thinking afterwards as he walked back to his hotel.
The mèssengo is a fiddle with a soundbox shaped like a diamond and he did indeed get to play it, as we find out on this album in “Shègitu”. He sings too. We can hear the crowd breaking into waves of applause every time this tall, thin foreigner with his curved flop of hair manages to get his lines out in their native language. His voice is less sure of itself than those of the Ethiopian singers who appear in the rest of the disc, but you can hear that he was up for the challenge, a determined man in spite of the critics who labelled him with the insulting word ferenj, meaning white outsider.
A number of these old tracks have a muffled sound, as if they were recorded in the open air and it drew away some of their precise edges. This muffledness affects some tracks more than others, and some instruments more than others. The beating of drums in “Tennesh Mèkèdda” sounds distant, but the noises of flutes and strange winding instruments on the same track are very clear. The result is like the sound effects from a short cartoon, full of knocks, squeaks, and whees, the noise of unsuspecting animated cats being blattered on the head.
Other songs are more obviously folk-based. “Goraw” is a reworking of the traditional shellèla boasts exchanged by competing warriors before a fight. The boasts here have a ring of formality that in a European would sound mediaeval: knights calling to their rivals. The singer is accompanied by a washent flute and a punctuating rumble of threatening strings from a krar harp. “A discussion of shellèla may be found in Éthiopiques 14,” the liner notes for “Goraw” tell us in case we want to follow our exposure to this war song by learning more. This series has grown so dense that the notes habitually refer backwards as if they were part of an extensive library, which in fact they are. “Other fine Tezetas, as well as a discussion of the genre, may be found on Éthiopiques 10,” they point out in the information for “Tezeta,” while the details for “Kèto Ayqèrem Motu” state that the technique of the harpist on the song “differs, both texturally and melodically, from that of begenist Alèmu Aga, presented in Éthiopiques 11.”
Even if you don’t own all of the albums they’re referring to, you should still come away from these asides with the impression that you’re walking into a musical world that can expand indefinitely, one CD opening out into another, a musician on one disc reminding you of something that happened ten discs before. The out of kilter combination of voice and begena in “Kèto Ayqèrem Motu” harks back to the strangely similar sound of Alèmayèhu Eshèté from the album before it, Éthiopiques 22. It’s as if Eshèté with his fashionable suit and dreamboat hair had pulled this older, slower sound out of a bog where it had been preserved in situ like Tollund Man and sexed it up for a nightclub audience. That wobble swells out and establishes itself as a presence.
Like Eshèté and every other musician in Ethiopia, the Orchestra suffered with the arrival of the dictatorial Derg junta in 1974. In ‘75 the group fell apart. The legacy it left behind, as presented by Buda, is an eerie-sounding one, sitting partway between the countryside folk music atmosphere of Éthiopiques 12 and the modern professionalism of an Eshèté, between trained singing and artless strum. A good, solid folk group—in other words, talented musicians who were willing to tweak the old sounds and not take themselves too seriously while they were doing it. In the photographs that come with the CD almost all of them are smiling.