It all started 30 years ago. Francis Falceto discovered Ethiopian music when he heard a Mahmoud Ahmed song for the first time. From then on, he has not ceased digging through musical archives, searching through piles of records and stacks of tapes to reissue lost musical treasures from the east African empire. That search would eventually materialize into the Ethiopiques series which have become a worldwide landmark. For a long time, those were reserved to well-informed people but they have now reached a much larger audience. In 2009, he observed: “Long before Jarmush, people as famous and diverse as Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, John Zorn, the Kronos Quartet, Marc Ribot, Susheela Raman and a few more, had already given their appraisal with unlimited enthusiasm. This type of unlikely fan club is a positive reward for me.” Here are a few souvenirs and confidences from a digger of a different type.
When did you discover Ethiopian music?
It was in 1984 in Poitiers. We organized a party with friends from an association aiming at selling hard to sell music. One of those friends dropped the needle on a Mahmoud Ahmed LP : we were all blown away. We took a look at the sleeve and could not get anything : it was in amharic. But we knew it was genius. So I decided to make a few cassettes that I sent to friends in Paris. Then for a year I tried to obtain information about that recording with my main source being an ethiopian restaurant in Paris.
After that, I decided to fly to Addis Abeba to meet Mahmoud Ahmed and Mulatu Astatké. The latter took me around during a whole week in his pretty rundown car. He used to have connections in pretty much every ministry which helped in those times of military dictatorship.
I started buying as many tapes as I could though the music wasn’t exactly the same as on the Mahmoud Ahmed LP from 1974 : the country had just gone through some tremendous changes with the DERG with curfews, censorship, end of nightlife, no more vinyl and therefore surge of cassettes which were a lot more economic and democratic…
Vinyl would reach less people?
In Ethiopia I found invoices from LP sleeves printers. This allowed me to get a precise notion of the size of the releases : back then 45s were pressed to an average of 800 copies, a hit would reach 2000 …. The only record that rocketed to 5000 was ‘Tezeta’ by Getatchew Kassa, a slow side and a fast one. The Pop phenomena was limited to cities because you needed to have electricity to listen to vinyl whereas cassettes could be played with batteries.
‘Erè-Mèla-Mèla’ by Mahmoud Amhed
Was it easy to find records back then?
It was all covered by dust. Nobody was interested. On my first trip, I brought about 30. As a matter of fact, after many years, I estimated LP production to reach 500 at most, during a very short period, from the end of the 60s until 1977. There are 3 major labels : Amha Records with Amha Eshèté, Philips Ethiopia and Kaifa records with Ali Tango. The first, a pointer, was Amha Records. The boss decided to develop a label to get around an emperor law bill from 1948 that gave the monopoly of the importation and production of records to an official theater. At that time, Amha Eshèté, a young entrepreneur crazy about music was already importing James Brown etc… Young musicians were very much into english-speaking productions. This is how Alèmayèhu Eshèté accepted to record despite the risk of being jailed. They actually had to press their 45s in India, the biggest phonographic industry. When they received the records, people liner up in front of the store where Amha had put up speakers. It was the first time they heard ethiopian pop on record. The first release sold out in just a few days.
Wasn’t there any ethiopian LP before?
There were 78 rpm records until 1961! But it was mostly traditional music except for a couple of sides that came out on Columbia and were pop versions played by the Imperial Guard Orchestra. It was a total desert. But some recordings existed from as early as the early 1900s. I published a few on the Ethiopiques series, those were recordings made in Germany between 1908 and 1910. There were other recordings dating from the italian occupation in 1939, with Azmaris. They are exceptional records : 124 double sided 78rpms, many never commercially released that i was lucky enough to find. I sometimes see some of those going for triple figures on the net. I will put out a selection of the best tracks on a double CD in 2015.
‘Tchèrèqa’ by Menelik Wesnatchew
Was Ali Tango your first contact?
Yes I had noticed he was credited on the ‘Era Mela Mela’ LP. His names Ali Abdella Kaifa. When he saw me walk into his store, he wondered who I was. But he quickly invited me to his home and because of the curfew, we spent the whole night listening to his latest recordings brought back from London. He had just shifted to cassettes, 100,000 units productions!
LPs were over…
One day he took me to the Mercato, the capital’s main market. There, in a warehouse, I found 2 cubic meters full of vinyl. He told me : “Help yourself!” Two young kids – Alpha and Omega (for real!) – helped me sort out the records. I mostly regret not to have taken the tapes that were used to make bootleg cassettes. Some of those productions were pre-vinyl! I found some since and also a catalogue from Garbis Haygazian, an Armenian gentleman who had a deal with the Imperial Bodyguard Band sound engineer. I retrieved a catalogue with 212 tapes that were on record, 80 pages with all the details.
How did you manage to obtain the rights to use that music?
In 1986, I went to see Amha Eshèté in the US where he had been exiled for about 10 years. He had had to leave Ethiopia without any of his contacts or contracts so we had to wait until 1991 when he decided to go back so we could negotiate the rights to reissue his catalogue. I did the same with Ali Tango for Kaifa. Then you have to go see the artists most of zoom are registered.
What were their reactions?
They were delighted to suddenly be able to benefit from such an exposition. Tlahoun Gessesse came to see me directly to talk about reissuing his treasures. I was very happy. He started talks with Philips Ethiopia in order to be able to reissue his records. You need to realize that this singer is like the Ethiopian Oum Khalsoum : there were more than a million people at his funerals in 2009. Actually, I still have a bunch of 45s recorded in the late 60s, early 70s bu Tlahoun with the Imperial Bodyguard Band that I still want to put out.
Are you still looking for records?
There are two female singers 45s on Philips, arranged Mulatu, which are pure masterpieces. Unfortunately they passed away and I do not know who to deal with. There is also a recording by the Harar Police Orchestra that never came out on LP. It sounds like proto-punk! There is a sort of cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”! A totally crap sound but mind-blowing music. I had managed to find one of the singer Wegayehu Degnetu, who also was a guitarist and had organized a meeting but he passed away in the meantime!
‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Wègayèhu Dègnètu
How would you explain the success of the Ethiopiques ?
Before anything, it was good music and most of those documents are unique. It does not sound like anything else in Africa, be it Nigerian, Guinean, Senegalese, Zambian or even South African productions. Not even Kenya! As a matter of fact, the closest musical production might be found in Sudan or Somalia, even though it remains pretty remote. I remember that back then I had offered my old friend Joe Boyd (Hannibal Records) to put them out. He did not see yet the potential and I ended up working with Buda, where Gilles Fruchaux had immediately seen the potential of this unknown music from Africa. . He recognized since that he could well have been the biggest mistake of his career.
Why did you never choose to reissue on vinyl?
Well I am not a producer or label. When I started, CD ruled and vinyl was going to hell. Things have changed a lot. But from the very start I had DJs the world over asking me if I had some of the original vinyl. Eventually, it was David Jalloux who first contacted me to reissue some of the Buda catalogue on vinyl on his L’Arôme label. Today labels such as Heavenly Sweetness and Mississippi are still working on those vinyl re-releases.
You started with a double LP compilation of tracks issued for the first time on vinyl and an LP by Kassa Tessema. What other reissue plans do you have?
I am thinking the Ahma 5 LP series called “Ethiopian Hit-Parades”. They are a selection of 45s with the same cover every time but with different colors. They are extremely rare so I am pushing for them to be released.
‘Hodé Fèra’ by Alèmayèhu Eshèté
Today, cassettes are coming back strong…
I have hundreds of them. I bought pretty much every single cassette that came out. I stopped a few years ago : there was too much crap! But I can assure you there are some truly amazing cassettes especially those that came out in the 70s. There are four by Mahmoud Ahmed, all acoustic, one with guitar, one with mandolin and another one with a krar player. There is enough to produce a fantastic album! He owns the rights since he used to put that out on his own Mahmoud Ahmed Music Shop imprint, as per his shop’s name. Actually the very first time I met him was in that store, he was behind the counter with posters of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Vanessa Paradis behind him!
Awesome Tapes From Africa reissued of those cassettes, a 1985 recording by Hailu Mergia…
Yes, the founder of that label contacted initially but quickly moved to direct talks with Hailu for the reissue of that cassette. The master tapes for those records belong to Ali Tango though. I had told him Buda had the rights for those LPs and that I intended to issue those recordings with some previously unreleased tracks by another band from that time, the Ibex band. I met Hailu recently in the US and we agreed on each one of us putting those releases on our own. This new volume of the Ethiopiques will most likely include other tracks by the Walias Band as well as tracks by the Ibex band. It will be a tribute to Ethiopian instrumental music. I am delighted that Hailu Mergia is getting another chance to regain a cult artist status, no matter the promoters. After all, there are not that many people working on promoting Ethiopian music.
Did you manage to find the whole LP discography?
I think I am missing about 10%, but I cannot afford them anymore. The records I used to buy for just a few birrs (the local currency) back in the 80s are now sold for 200 or 300 birrs. Guys are using agents to find the records and it has become a business. I see some re-selling those for up to $2000, pieces they bought locally… It’s a different business, another morale. Sorry if I sound like an old fool, but if I bought them back then it was in order to be able to spread the music. I never re-sold any. I never had access to masters and sometimes those records are in such poor condition, even though they look clean, that you need several copies to do a mastering. I am more into saving the heritage, I don’t do business with vinyl. I am really pleading for all that Ethiopian Pop music to become national heritage.
What do you plan do do with your collection? Donate it? Sell it?
I would like it to go back to Ethiopia but in all honesty, they don’t take good care of it. An Ethiopian friend of mine, a journalist, donated her father’s 78rpm collection to the university of Addis Abeba. It was agreed that I have access to it, because I needed them for my projects. Every time I tried to check them, it was not possible : no key, no clerk … One day we went there together and we saw some of the records were broken. Once I saw in that same university about one cubic meter of records laying on the floor. And musicians almost did not keep anything at all. The most difficult are the sleeves, nobody took care of them and most are ruined. Some were even eaten by rats! Ever since 1974, records have not been of much interest for Ethiopians. Today, things have changed with the interest of crate diggers : some have established themselves in Addis Abeba for as long as 5 years and have sparked a parallel market for records. I cannot afford them anymore but gladly some people still give me some. I deserve it, right?