October 12th, 2007
Artist: Mahmoud Ahmed and Either/Orchestra, with Tsèdènia Gèbrè- Marqos
Director: Anaïs Prosaïc
Executive Producer: Stéphane Jourdain
Video Format: DVD, NTSC, multiple region codes
Label: Buda Musique
Catalog No.: 860154
Ethiogroove, a DVD released as an installment in Buda Musique’s new “éthioSonic” series, centers on the collaborative performance of veteran Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed with the U.S.-based Either/Orchestra jazz ensemble. This video release complements the Paris-based label’s extensive “éthiopiques” CD series, dedicated to disseminating recordings of Ethiopian and Eritrean musicians.
Two live performances in France from April of 2006 form the center of Prosaïc’s film, one recorded at the MC93 festival in Bobigny and the other at the Banlieuse Bleues Festival. This recording is not simply a visual experience of those performances, however; Prosaïc juxtaposes these live performances with rehearsals, snippets of Ethiopian political and musical history, and the reflections and commentary of both Ahmed (with subtitles) and Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon. The result is a genre of film that is more than a performance pic, but something less than a documentary.
At times, this works well, but not always. The cuts from documentary-style moving stills of album covers and historical narration to live performance to rehearsals is frequently jarring – no video fades or any sort of other transition (either in form or content) to set up the transition from one kind of segment to another. Once in awhile this is an interesting and effective approach, as when, toward the end of the film, there is an abrupt shift from the ensemble performing “Tzeda” live to rehearsing it, and it takes a moment for that change to sink in.
Furthermore, the thoughts and stories of Ahmed and Gershon are typically layered over solo segments of the live performances (and sometimes rehearsals), frequently using a split-screen technique so the viewer sees and hears both at the same time (with the music obviously lower in the mix). This, in particular, is a technique that is best used sparingly, because the result is that you miss important parts of the music while also being distracted from all of the interesting things that Ahmed and Gershon have to say. Unfortunately, it pervades the film. It would have been easy enough in the editing room to separate these features out a bit more, either in course of the film itself, or through special features sections on the disk. The option to view the film with/without the commentary is another standard approach to the problem of integrating a variety of useful information. Throwing it all into the mix makes the whole film a bit cacophonous, but perhaps that was Prosaïc’s intent. With regard to disk form, I must also add that it is disappointing not to be able to jump to specific chapters, or at least have a printed outline of what we are seeing and when. The only offering of this kind is printed list of seven tunes in the inside back cover of the DVD case.
Nevertheless, the music, when it is clearly audible, will surprise the newcomer as fresh and interesting, as are Ahmed’s and Gershon’s reflections about nature of their collaboration and the many historical/musical connections between the Africa, South America, and the United States. These connections are clearly audible in the tight grooves of the Either/Orchestra’s Latin rhythm section, which includes Leo Blanco (piano); Rick McLaughlin (electric bass); Pablo Bencid (drums); and Vicente Lebron (congas, various percussion). The modal Ethiopian melodies duck and turn around quick corners, executed by band’s horns, which frequently play in unison or ornament similar lines. In addition to Gershon (tenor and soprano sax), the horn section includes Kurtis Rivers (baritone sax and flute); Jeremy Udden (alto sax); Joel Yennior (trombone);Tom Halter (trumpet); and Colin Fisher (trumpet). The combination of a Latin jazz section and Ethiopian melodies on the horns forms a densely musically/culturally textured underpinning for Ahmed’s experienced voice. Not to be forgotten, however, is one of the highlights of the film – singer Tsèdènia Gèbrè-Marqos’ performance of the traditional “Bati.” Gèbrè-Marqos’ voice begins intensely, with a haunting solo vocal supported by minimal punctuations of drone from the bass. Gradually other instruments fade in and the performance bursts forth with energy.
Ethiogroove is worth purchasing despite some of the more confusing aspects of its presentation. The music is rich and beautiful. For scholars, there is an important attempt to contextualize the performances and rehearsals within Ethiopian political and social history, and yet not at the expense of the individual experiences of the chief protagonists in this collaborative tale: Ahmed and Gershon (though, in the interest of context, I must add that I find it strange there are only two shots of the audience on the entire disk). The newcomer will also find this contextualization helpful, however. It is also particularly useful that one can view the DVD in both French and English but not (disappointingly, but not unusually) in any of the indigenous languages of Ethiopia.
For further information:
Kebede, Ashenafi. 1979. “Musical Innovation and Acculturation in Ethiopian Culture.” African Urban Studies 6: 77-87.
___. 1995. Roots of Black Music: The Vocal, Instrumental, and Dance Heritage of Africa and Black America. Africa World Press.
(The above titles offer important perspectives of Ethiopian ethnomusicologist Ashenafi Kebede on some of the scholarly issues raised on this disk).
A video streaming site dedicated to a range of Ethiopia’s diverse music
Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott