The Cancer of Ethiopian Music: The Synthesizer

The synthesizer enabled untrained musicians, who were often untalented, to issue discs at one-tenth the price demanded previously.

At the Sheraton Hotel bookshop in Addis Ababa - an infuriatingly luxurious building, which indifferently overlooks an ocean of shanties and mud houses spread out at its feet - one's eye is caught by the book "Abyssinia Swing." The book, written by French music producer and scholar Francis Falceto, documents the development of Ethiopian music from the late 19th century, through the initiative of Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1920s to bring an orchestra of Armenian orphans from Jerusalem to Addis Ababa, and up to the golden age of the 1960s, which produced sophisticated and groovy music such as that of Mulatu Astatke, featured in Jim Jarmusch's film "Broken Flowers."

The books ends in the mid-seventies, and specifically declares its unwillingness to deal with present-day Ethiopian music. The reason for that is brought in one clear-cut sentence: "In the year 2000 nothing remains of the golden age of Ethiopian music, except for recordings and photos."

Who is to blame for the creative collapse of Ethiopian music? The Communist regime and the synthesizer. The Communist government, which carried out a military coup in the mid-seventies, marked American soul music, which more than anything else had fueled the musical blossoming in Addis Ababa, as the music of the enemy, persecuted the musicians who continued to remain loyal to it, and directed the entire preoccupation with music to military-patriotic channels. The synthesizer, which captured the market in the 1990s, turned the wind instruments, the source of the vitality of modern Ethiopian music, into superfluous objects, and enabled untrained musicians, who were often untalented as well, to issue discs at one-tenth the price demanded previously. Abate Barihon calls the synthesizer "the cancer of Ethiopian music," thus expressing the feelings of many. "At a certain point, a few years before I left Addis, the entire city suddenly became filled with the cancers," he says.

A visit to the nightclubs in Addis Ababa makes it clear that the synthesizer continues to rule unchallenged. It is placed in the center of every stage and fires its programmed synthetic drums into the air of the club. All the other instruments are optional: Who needs a bass or a saxophone or a guitar when the synthesizer can imitate their sound and avoid the need to pay another player?

A visit to the nightclubs therefore begins with reservations about the rule of the computerized keys, which flatten the music. But after a few minutes in the first club, Select Pub, something strange happens. Suddenly it turns out that a lot of interesting things are actually happening here. The most obvious is the insane turnover of singers on the improvised stage, which has nothing separating it from the small dance floor. Instead of the singer being the fixed item and the many instruments accompanying him supplying variety and interest, the synthesizer is the fixed item and the many singers who surround it provide the variety.

Two boys of about 18 are performing a song that sounds like reggae, but which is still clearly rooted in Ethiopian scales. When it is finished, they get off the stage, and immediately a man of about 40, plump and balding, enters from the door next to the bar, and sings in a style reminiscent of unctuous R & B songs. The plump man is then replaced by a flirty female singer in 15-cm heels, singing in a thin, screechy voice, reminiscent of the singers in Indian films and, finally, a singer in an elegant beige suit gets onstage. The moment he begins to sing, the gang at the back of the nightclub, who had looked totally bored, jumps to its feet and begins to dance enthusiastically.

"It's a Sudanese song, and this group comes from Sudan. That's why they're so excited," explains a 31-year-old real estate agent, who now lives in Washington and is visiting her parents in Addis. Why does she like the Select Pub? "Because when I come here, the last thing I want to do is to go to a nightclub where most of the people are Westerners, as happens in the Sheraton, for example." The singers, she says, are not professionals, but not total amateurs, either. Some of them make a living from singing in the club and hope to be discovered and to develop a successful career, and others have ordinary jobs and moonlight in the club. The songs they sing are "hits that every Ethiopian is familiar with. Songs of Mahmoud Ahmed, and other great singers."

When the plump, bald man returns to the stage, the young Sudanese return to nap in their armchairs, and when he leaves, the lighting gets stronger and two female dancers get onstage, dressed in gilt tank tops and short-shorts. It would be an understatement to describe their dance as very energetic pelvic movements. Afterwards the unending parade of male and female singers returns.

Two days later, at the Mandigo club, Yitzhak Yedid of the Ras Deshen ensemble is full of admiration at the level of the singers. "All of them, without exception, sing very precisely," he says. "But they are not only precise, they are also very creative, and each of them has his own style. I think that I have never seen so many outstanding singers in one room." (B.S.)