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Book Review

Francis Falceto
Abyssinie Swing: A Pictorial History of Modern Ethiopian Music
Shama Books, 2001, (

"Abyssinie Swing" is the most current publication of Francis Falceto, respected Ethiopian music expert, contributor to, amongst others, "The Rough Guide to World Music" and editor of Buda Musique's audio series, "Ethiopiques". It is exactly as the subtitle suggests- a historical view of Ethiopian music through the medium of photography, with the emphasis entirely on modern, as opposed to traditional, music. As the foreword tells us, Ethiopia has largely remained secluded from the rest of Africa (it was the only country to fend off potential colonisers) and has long been subjected to what Falceto terms as 'ethio-centrism.' As a result of this and of the type of media coverage the country has traditionally attracted, the reality of Ethiopia (and her music) has been kept a great secret. "Abyssinie Swing" attempts to enlighten the reader, to make the reader privy to what we have been missing, musically speaking, about this country.

In tracing modern Ethiopian music from its very humble beginnings, the reader learns that it was, in fact, the defeat of the Italians at Adwa by the troops of Emperor Menelik II in 1896 that triggered something of an influx of "Western" instruments, thus bringing about a watershed. Apparently Tsar Nicholas II was so in awe of the defeat that he promptly sent the necessary equipment for a full brass band. How ironic that the instruments of those the Ethiopians fought so fervently to deter would actually change the face of the country's music so radically. As Falceto writes, "it was this Western and typically colonial import that would lend African music, in all its diversity, its first modernist colors. Even Ethiopia, despite its resistance to all European expansionism, did not escape from this odd blessing." The next step is credited to Ras Tafari, Abyssinia's Prince Regent, who in 1924 travelled to Europe on the tail of Abyssinia's inclusion in the League of Nations (Abyssinia did not emerge as Ethiopia until 1941). On his travels in Jerusalem he encountered a particular brass band that created such an impression on him that he immediately hired the whole band of forty musicians and brought them to Abyssinia. This group, the Arba Lijotch, under the direction of Kevork Nalbandian, became, in effect, the first official band in the country.

The book continues to depict the historical development of the music in this vein, through the military band era and the golden age of sixties swing, including short pieces on individual stars and even a chapter on the music of Eritrea. While the above may insinuate that this book is full of facts and information, the details are very much a commentary on the photographs, and in truth, do not present a full account of musical or historical progress. Having said this, it is an informative and interesting read, and several of the photographs are truly captivating. The very first image is one of the earliest photographs of a musician taken in Ethiopia, dating from around 1868, and featuring an azmari playing the single-stringed messenqo. Another features a group of five musicians, all with heads bent to the right, playing the horns known as denqe or denkya, the longest of which reaches eight or ten feet above the head of the player. Such early photographs are in stark contrast to those from the 1960s, featuring slickly dressed and coiffured stars such as Alemayehu Eshete and Hayle Gebre-Egziabher. Readers will undoubtedly develop their own preferences in this regard.

"Abyssinie Swing" is a worthwhile addition to your world music library. The images are often enchanting, intermittently humorous, but undeniably intriguing. Despite the relative concision of text, it is a highly valuable introduction to Ethiopian music and some of its greater stars can be placed in context. Ideally text and imagery should be viewed conjointly, and analysis of both leaves one with an enhanced understanding and overview of the subject matter. A notable supplement for the study and discovery of Ethiopia, an area that is still largely uncharted territory. - Jennifer Byrne Available at Amazon

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