Ethiopia Calling 2
In the ensuing days, I spoke to Adebe a couple of times on the phone, and he confirmed that his father was sending over a small package of vinyl. It got confusing. Twice he said he had something for me, and twice he cried off at the last minute. I wasn’t sure what this meant; possibly some complex face saving exercise. I felt disorientated, unsure what the signs were telling me.
On Thursday morning, I receive a text inviting me to lunch and to check out what he had. The Community Centre boasted the nicest looking Ethiopian restaurant in Sana’a. Others I’d checked were slightly hollow affairs, sometimes selling only one or two dishes. This felt more like going to someone’s home.
When I got there, he again apologised as, due to the Eid holiday, his father hadn’t been able to send anything, but it would arrive in the coming days. I felt a little disappointed, not to mention puzzled by this odd charade, but determined to try and abate any uneasiness, underlining that it really wasn’t a problem. That fact he was willing to help at all, was greatly appreciated. Food was ordered and we chatted some more.
His story was a little complicated and I wasn’t sure I totally followed it. The youth associations sounded like charities, but for one reason or another, they had become politicised, siding with the opposition party so that he had ended up on some sort of blacklist. He’d left and had never returned, despite his parents and siblings still residing in Addis Ababa. I had heard tales of the Ethiopian government’s draconian reaction to dissent, so on the surface at least this was a plausible scenario.
Regardless of the details, the upshot is a tale replicated the world over of separation due to the unpredictable ebb & flow of politics. His family would dearly love him back, but know that it still isn’t safe, so he stays in this strange limbo, belonging to a community of sorts, but rootless. Hopefully one day he can make it back home. He was trying to make a go of a shop on the 2nd floor, selling Ethiopian VCDs, and bootleg movies.
But as we were finishing our meal, something odd happens. A man walks in with a taped up parcel and hands it to Adebe. It was suddenly a bit like being in a bad play.
I look hopefully at the parcel, and Adebe confirms that this is the promised package. Why it had suddenly arrived at this precise juncture, I never found out. It was a curious concoction – Jim Reeves, Cliff Richard, War, Tlahoun Gessesse, and three singles by the ‘Ethiopian Elvis’ Alemayehu Eshete, including, much to my surprise one of my personal favourites, ‘Ney-Ney Woleba’, a raucous piece of Ethio-funk, switching between hyperactive rock ‘n’ roll and a groove in 6/8.
I visited Addis a few years ago on an assignment for Songlines magazine, and interviewed musicians Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke and Alemu Aga, the player of the ‘Harp of King David’, the begena. Even at that point vinyl artifacts from Ethiopia’s ‘Golden Age’, were not exactly easy to come by. Most of what I found came from personal collections of people I met.
Adebe apologised that there weren’t more, but this was all his father could turn up. I told him no apology was necessary, not least because of all the trouble he’d gone to in assisting me with my strange request. And what his father had found was not only excellent music, but the vinyl itself wasn’t in bad condition either. Once I get back to Bangkok, (which will give me access to a decent record player), I shall post some clips.
As I checked them on my turntable, Adebe said he’d never heard or seen vinyl, and was surprised to learn there was music on both sides. He had assumed they were like big CDs. I asked him what he thought of the music. He didn’t seem sure, opting to smile and say nothing instead.
Another mitigating factor in the scarcity of the records was the fact that, according to Adebe’s dad, the Ethiopian government was offering cash for people’s old music. Maybe it will form the basis of some sort of national archive, but who knows. We settled up and I packed away my things, as I briefly considered whether I was a preservationist or a profiteer. Whatever the reason, there would now be four less pieces for the government’s collection.