Dir: Quino Pinero
Forming a compendium of the diverse musical cultures and traditions of Ethiopia this beguiling and rhythmically edited music film wisely foregrounds the music and avoids the complexities of the country’s cultural mix. Director Pinẽro is a sound engineer and record label chief, who has been involved in the African music scene since the early 2000s. His label SolySombra Recordings has showcased many musicians from the continent. From 2012 onwards he has based himself in Ethiopia, rather than his native Spain, associating with legendary musicians such as Mulatu Astatke (who featured prominently on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers). Much like Junun (2015), the Indian-set music project featuring traditional musicians alongside Jonny Greenwood and the Israeli composer Shye Ben-Tzur, this is a film that frames indigenous musical traditions as powerfully rendered live encounters with skilled performers. What makes Pinẽro’s film more effective and satisfying is the fact that the work is not restricted by a sole location and succinctly captures fleeting aspects of the cultures and societies that inform the traditions filmed.
Early in the film an interviewee proclaims: “A song is not only for dancing, it reminds you of your dear ones, it brings back memories of far relatives, it reminds you of those who passed away, it reminds you of the love you experienced in your life”. This idea of music as embedded within a shared sense of culture and history plays into the idea that different notions of time are evoked in the performance. There is the instant, intoxicating moment of the performance, but that also evokes a sense of the past (both in terms of personal history and cultural heritage), whilst simultaneously connecting the performer with those that have performed before them, like the passing of a torch. When Pinẽro comes to the younger musicians that are learning music at the Tigray Art College it is revealing to note that their teacher bemoans the gradual adoption of modern European, or Western instrumentation, and the slow death of traditional Ethiopian instruments like the Masinko and the Krar. The former instrument is the pride and joy of one performer, who has tried to engage his young sons in following in their father’s footsteps, yet tellingly the kids don’t seem so interested. The film argues that skills required to construct these surprisingly intricate instruments are being lost by a generation of young Ethiopian musicians raised on bass guitars and synthesisers.
Traditional musical forms seem to be most prominently supported and fostered within agricultural communities. There is also a sense that poverty plays some part in preserving traditions. In one sequence involving a predominately brass band from Harar, the musicians have been unable to pass on their skills to a younger generation as there is no money to replace the instruments that were bought for the band some fifty years prior. The agricultural origins of much of the music is wonderfully suggested through briskly edited sequences in which the rhythms of labour are shown to be inextricably fused to the distinct sounds of a particular community’s songs. Despite the occasionally frustrating lack of titling within the film, so that some performances seem to blur into one another, Pinẽro, within the narrow focus that he has set himself, explores a vibrant musical heritage in all of its plangent polyphony.