How Ethiopian Music Went Global: Interview with Francis Falceto

"Ethiopiques" is a CD series featuring Ethiopian musicians. Many of the discs contain various singles and albums originally produced by Amha Records, Kaifa Records and Philips-Ethiopia. (Photo: Buda Musique)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: Friday, May 18, 2012

New York (TADIAS) – In November 1987, when Francis Falceto, an editor with the French label Buda Musique, traveled to Washington, D.C. to finalize a licensing deal with Ethiopian producer Amha Eshete, owner of Amha Records who held the rights to the treasure trove of Ethiopian music from the 1960′s and 1970′s – little did he know that it would take another decade for the contract to be completed. But the result has been an astonishing twenty-seven volumes of the éthiopiques CD series, which has propelled Ethiopian music on the world stage in the last ten years and introduced the sounds of Ethio-jazz to audiences and musicians far and wide.

“Unfortunately, Amha was then in exile, and had no documents with him to allow the retrieval of the discs that had been initially manufactured, and where the recordings masters were still kept,” Francis said in a recent interview with Tadias Magazine. “We had to wait for the fall of the Derg and the return of Amha to his motherland to start tracing consistently the ‘holy’ masters.” He added: “After several years of intense tracking down, we finally located most of Amha Records masters in Athens, Greece. The day of February 1997 when I could go to Athens and get back these pieces of Ethiopian heritage has been one of the happiest day in my life, truly. By October 1997, the first éthiopiques CD were released. I had in mind then to produce a dozen, no more. But very quickly, other Ethiopian producers and artists came to me asking ‘I’d like to be part of éthiopiques… Ali Tango of Kaifa Records, whom I had befriended since my first trip to Ethiopia, joined promptly, then Tilahun Gessesse himself – another happy day in my life – and other artists. That’s how I have released 27 volumes up to now, and intend to reach possibly 34 or 35, hopefully, to complete this task.”

Over the years Francis has established enduring friendships in Ethiopia. But he is also aware of rumors and complaints about his motives. “Bizu meqegna alegn”, he said, using the Amharic word for people who wish ill-will on others. “Naturally, the fact that a ferenj takes care of such a marathonian project dealing with Ethiopian music heritage has also generated some suspicions.” He added: “The simple truth is that I did it because I could not see anybody, Ethiopian or foreigner, intending to do so. I would really love to be just a purchaser of ready-made éthiopiques, re-released by anybody else, and in a nicer way if possible. I would avoid then many headaches and complications.”

Francis said his admiration for world music dates back more than thirty years and is not limited to only Ethiopia. “I am basically a music lover, having started by 1977 to work in the frame of a non-profit organization presenting all kinds of concerts, both modern and traditional, but mostly devoted to rare, non-commercial, experimental or innovative music,” he said. “Then I have been a curator, programing for venues and festivals before I became a full time searcher in Ethiopian music history, basically freelance but related to the French Centre of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.”

As to those who tease him about the name of his employer, Buda Musique, which sounds exactly like the local word for “evil eye,” Francis said: “Let me say that its name “Buda Musique” is just a coincidence and has no reference at all to the buda and zar thing in Ethiopia,” he joked. “The company name used to exist long before I collaborated with this record label.” He added: “Buda Musique is a private record company, a small label mostly devoted to world music. It is not my company, actually, I never had any company. I am just the editor of the éthiopiques and ethioSonic series.”

Francis admits that the success of éthiopiques has been largely limited to media hype and has not translated well for him commercially. “Behind all my research work, full of fun and beauty, there are also a lot of difficulties – like finding the proper lyricists and composers, crediting the real backup musicians, solving the copyright problems, tracing the entitled beneficiaries, etc,” he said. “Curating éthiopiques series requires a lot of perseverance and endurance, and some masochism, probably. And the fact that Ethiopian CDs are available in western music shops doesn’t mean they are hot cakes.”

Francis Falceto in Addis Ababa, 2010. (Photo credit: Maga Bo/flickr)

How about the talk that some artists not being paid royalties? “The most sad and embarrassing remains the maliciousness of a couple of unfair people who have been incredibly benefiting from éthiopiques, in terms of fame but also of royalties and concerts booking, but who give forth endlessly and sick accusations and ignominious lies – almost nothing, so to say, with regard to their dishonor,” he said. “All in all, I have not to complain that much. The work is here to stay, to the satisfaction of a large public, and beyond the inconvenience it provides.”

Francis said there is “a huge gap” between the media coverage of éthiopiques and their market, commercially speaking. “It is just a niche market – which may be hard to believe for Ethiopian nationalist pride,” he continued. “Not to mention the Ethiopian culture of piracy since the invention of the cassette, or the piracy on internet.”

He points out that not all responses from Ethiopians have been negative. “The feedback from Ethiopia and Ethiopians is mostly warm and supportive,” Francis said. “After all, éthiopiques CD series is not only spreading Ethiopian music worldwide, much beyond my own initial expectation, but also reviving a glorious and unforgettable past of Ethiopia and Ethiopians.” He added: “I am especially touched by Ethiopians who e-mail me their remembrance and describe their emotions. It is not only the ones who were teenagers in the Ethiopian ’50′s and ’60′s who write to me, because it was the soundtrack of their generation, it is also their children, often raised abroad, and many of them are amazed by the music of their parents’ generation. I had never anticipated that éthiopiques could also contribute to reset Ethiopian memories and be a kind of funky bridge between the generations.”

Is he working on any upcoming projects? “I am presently working on Ali Birra, Kassa Tessemma and Muluken Melesse for éthiopiques, as well as on Daniel Techane and Trio Kazenchis for ethioSonic,” he said.

The latter is an impressive collection of music from notable musicians including Getachew Mekurya & The Ex, Debo Band, Either/Orchestra, Jazzmaris, Abegaz & Jorg, and Kronos Quartet. “Another phenomenon that I had never anticipated at all is the development that Ethiopian music has met worldwide after éthiopiques,” Francis said.

He said he is not nostalgic of the Empire time, but he does feel concerned by the state of Ethiopian music today. “Seeing its bad present situation, I thought that I should find a way to support and promote the best exceptions, and ethioSonic series is the solution I found,” he said. “As I don’t want to spend another ten years to establish the series through individual CDs, I have decided to release this large collection of 28 bands from 10 countries in order to show massively the evidence of Ethiopian music influence worldwide. I do intend to focus in the future on individual talents based in Ethiopia and the Diaspora, because there is more than one Ethiopian artist of international standard.”

Amha Eshete & Contribution of Amha Records to Modern Ethiopian Music

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6 Responses to “How Ethiopian Music Went Global: Interview with Francis Falceto”

  1. 1 mule May 18th, 2012 at 5:49 am

    Fascinating read! Thank you!

  2. 2 moa May 18th, 2012 at 9:58 am

    thanks for this article. i use to wonder who is behind this project. i own most of his work and i enjoy them all. continue the good job Francis!

  3. 3 Bee May 18th, 2012 at 11:36 am

    I am not Ethiopian but I do have a personal and permanent connection to Ethiopia and Ethiopian culture through my adopted daughter. I love the Ethiopiques CDs, we have 18 of them. We play from the collection whenever we have guests around…it seems to create good mood, good karma! It’s a good idea whoever does it!

  4. 4 azzmari May 18th, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Woy ayseru, woy ayaseru, chigir eko new! Ayzo berta! Siraw tiru new!

  5. 5 Melat Bisrat May 18th, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    I like!!!!

  6. 6 Dukem May 18th, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Looking forward to the Ali Birra release! He is the best!

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