The only thing that can ruin good music is politics. In the late 1970s, Ethiopia had some of the world’s best music and the ugliest politics. For a while, it seemed like the music might be lost, but an intrepid record collector would wait out the Socialist Derg regime, in order to bring the country’s sounds to the wider world. The groove will not be denied in Maciej Bochniak’s Ethiopiques: Revolt of the Soul (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Margaret Mead Film Festival.
Frankly, Amha Ashete was already defying the old regime when he started producing sessions of Ethiopian music without official approval of the emperor. However, nobody responsible for enforcing the law hassled him. Technically, he even had to smuggle his own records into the country, but the customs inspectors looked the other way (in exchange for comp copies). However, everything changed following the civil war and the ascension of the Soviet backed Derg junta.
Amha happened to be abroad when they consolidated power, so he stayed in exile based on his family’s advice (those who remained did not fare so well). Eventually, Amha also had success in America as a restauranteur and night club owner, but he assumed his career in music was over. Then he met Francis Falceto, a French record collector, who developed an evangelistic interest in Ethiopian music. (It is hard to blame him, considering how infectious this blend of jazz, funk, and highlife-esque music sounds.) He was determined to reissue Ashete’s sessions on CD, but the expatriate producer insisted they had to wait for the fall of the Stalinist regime, so the artists would not be subject to state reprisals and could freely share in the proceeds.
Of course, it eventually happened (weren’t the late 1980s just the best time ever?). Falceto’s Ethiopiques series became a cult hit that grew into a crossover sensation. It was a rockier process for the musicians to restart their performance careers, but that too largely came to pass, albeit after a few false starts and short-term hiatuses. Yet, the shy but eminently respected Girma Beyene was left out of the revival. The third act of Bochniak’s stirring doc captures his overdue comeback.
You can never go wrong with a film that sounds as good as Ethiopiques. As an added bonus, Bochniak also makes it rather stylish visually as well, incorporating evocative photo-real-animated segments to recreate the milestones of Ashete’s career. He also captures some live performances that should definitely get everyone’s toes tapping.
It is fitting that the Ethiopian musicians who were oppressed under Communism are now documented by a Polish filmmaker and a largely Polish crew. While Bochniak was a young child under Communism, he presumably still has a sense of how things were from his family and colleagues, which would help him relate to his subjects. He also clearly trusts their music to hold viewers interest, which fans will appreciate. The result is a terrific music documentary that is probably doomed to be dubbed the Ethiopian Buena Vista Social Club, but deserves it own identity. Very highly recommended, Ethiopiques: Revolt of the Soul screens this Friday (10/19), as part of the Margaret Mead Film Festival, at the American Museum of Natural History.