The Éthiopiques (Ethiopian in French) collection of Ethopian popular music is certainly extensive; 28 volumes produced so far to my knowledge on France’s Buda Musique label, and probably more volumes have appeared since #28. The series was founded by an enterprising Frenchman named Francis Falceto, who went to Addis Abbaba in 1984 in search of Ethiopian popular music after hearing an Ethiopian LP by chance at a party. He has since introduced Europe and the west to their unique sounds through Éthiopiques. The series first featured popular artists such as Alemayehu Eshete, Mahmoud Ahmed, and Mulatu Astatke, then later branched out to include traditional krar (traditional lute) and more. We should all be grateful, for the music on Éthopiques is amazing in its variety, its groove, its Sun Ra “outsider jazz” sound, not to mention its powerful, urgent vocal stylings.
The story, however, is even more interesting — there is an Armenian connection. In 1924, the Prince (later Emperor) of Ethiopia, Ras Tafari (later known as Haile Selassie), was walking through the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem with his entourage, where he found a marching band of 40 Armenian children displaced by the 1918 Armenian genocide. The prince was very impressed by the music they played, and sought and was granted permission to take the group back to Addis. For his official coronation as Emperor in November, 1930, Haile Selassie commissioned the band, Arba Lijoch (Forty Children in Amharic), to perform the new national anthem of Ethiopia. The group was trained by music director Kevork Nalbandian, also an orphan of the holocaust. The anthem, called “Marsh Teferi” was performed during the ceremony, and Ras Tafari became Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia. The marching band, Arba Lijoch, was renamed the Royal Imperial Brass Band, and marching bands became much more popular and influenced the next generation of Ethiopian popular music by Astatke, Tilahun Gessesse, Ahmed, Aster Aweke, and others. What has come to be known as “Ethio-Jazz” was born as a sort of child of this original marching band. The modern Ethiopian “Ethio-Jazz” sound was now horn-driven, a departure from the older, traditional six-stringed krar music that preceded it.
My thanks to all-around music maven Robert Rogness of Wine Expo in Santa Monica and to his friend the brilliant Brazilian musician Ed Motta for bringing all this to my attention.
There is a film currently in production about the Armenian-Ethiopian connection. Here is the trailer that tells this fascinating story: