Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Music in the Time of Terror: Ethio Stars and Tukul Band

A few nights ago I showcased the music of The Skatalites who started out playing in the hotels of Kingston in the early 1960s.  Their influence was profound and wide spread impacting musicians far beyond the shores of their native Jamaica, reaching even to the high plain of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Tonight’s post features the music of another large band that played the hotel circuit, the Ethio Stars.

Ethiopia in the late 1970s was not a happy place. A Communist led coup had toppled the world’s oldest monarchy and the much revered Emperor and Lion of Judah (according to his Jamaican Rastafarian followers), Haile Selassie.  By 1977 the military junta (Derg) was in the midst of an internal power struggle.  In a speech that year the nominal head of the Derg, Col. Haile Mariam Mengistu rattled his colleagues and rivals by producing three bottles filled with red liquid.  “Death to counter revolutionaries,” he cried and then threw down the bottles of blood to leave no one in doubt about what was to transpire.

Over the next 18 months political assassination and outright murder in the streets dominated the country. Cameras, typewriters and mimeograph machines were declared contraband. The Red Terror touched every neighbourhood and family sending shockwaves throughout the country.  Thousands were imprisoned as Mengistu strangled not only all opposition but any independent artistic expression.

The Derg regime fell in 1991. In 1992 I met and interviewed hundreds of refugees from Ethiopia who had lived through the Red Terror. The stories they told were horrific. The level and variety of deprivation and torture they had endured was hard to fathom. I had never encountered such a strong sense of violation and humiliation in a group before. As I listened to their stories late into the night I found it hard to follow the political narrative they shared. So many abbreviations for so many liberation fronts and so many factions in the Derg. I found it impossible to keep hold of the story’s string.

After a few days it dawned on me that the circuitous tales I was hearing were accurate reflections of the lives of the men and women who were telling them.  The average urban Ethiopian had had to develop a keen sense of telling which way the wind was blowing to survive. Loyalties had to switch off and on if one had aspirations to get a job or finish university.  And to prove loyalty or to secure the patronage betrayals had to be made. Personal ethics had to be put to one side.  I have felt a deep sadness for those men and women ever since for their having been sucked into a system that demanded they betray themselves and their friends and beliefs just to live.

Which makes the case of the Ethio Stars interesting. I in no way want to suggest that the members of the band (and others like it) were co-opted by the Derg.  They were undoubtedly musicians trying to keep their passion and vision alive, even in the darkest days. And they deserve the deepest respect for doing so. Yet to play in hotels in Addis, to have access to recording studios and musical instruments at a time when the everything was controlled by and in service to the State, must have required some painful cowtowing and uncomfortable compromising from the band. That they (may) have done so and yet produced such fine and genuine music is a tremendous tribute to them.

Ethiopian music has become a minor rage in the past several years and rightly so. It is well informed and sophisticated, drawing on deep indigenous cultural streams. The country has produced a large number of truly amazing highly accomplished jazz-oriented musicians.  The record, which actually features two bands, The Ethio Stars and The Tukul Band, is a strong example of such streams. The Ethio Stars play a more complex jazz and reggae (those clever Skatalites!) sound with lovely soloing on the trumpet and saxophone.  The Tukul Band’s sound is more rustic and seems to have stronger folk and traditional roots.  Altogether a nice window into music making in a time that was hell.

            Track Listing:
            Ethio Stars
            01 Tiz Balegn Gize
02 Eshet Eshet
03 Yetentu Tez Alew
04 Kermosew
05 Yekereme Fikir
06 Aderech Arada, Befikir - Menged Lay Woodike
Tukul Band
07 Bugalu
08 Akale Woube
09 Konso Music
10 Sound Of Washint & Masinko
11 Wallel Beli

Listen here.


Holly said...

Excellent,thoughtful post. Thank you.

Do you know when these songs were recorded, or at least a ball park figure?

ajnabi said...

Hi Holly, around 1981 I believe. Though the Red Terror 'officially' ended in 1978, Mengistu didn't loosen things even slightly till around '87.