Music of Ethiopia and China

Robert Reigle

[February 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:3.]

ETHIOPIAN URBAN AND TRIBAL MUSIC, Volume 1: Mindanoo Mistiru. Various performers. Recorded by Ragnar Johnson and Ralph Harrisson. Rounder 5152. www.rounder.com. 1999. Total time 52:00. CD reissue of Lyrichord LLST-7243 (1972).

One can find hundreds of indigenous cassette and CD titles in Ethiopian neighborhoods of America’s largest cities. However, except for a handful of krar (lyre) recordings, the beautiful acoustic traditions of Ethiopia’s 70 language groups are as rare as hens’ teeth. This disc provides us the opportunity to hear something beautifully different. Recorded in July 1971, it contains music from at least eight different ethnic groups, and the only European instrument is an accordion (track 2). Johnson and Harrisson recorded a wide range of groups and musical styles in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Singer Deftene Belete Mengesh accompanies himself on a bagana or “Harp of David,” in a song “about the illusory nature of human knowledge of existence.” This large harp has a very rich and unusual buzzing sound, lower in pitch than the west African kora, for example, and the four-minute song is one of the highlights of this disc. Much Ethiopian music consists of florid melodies that performers enrich by doubling with another voice or instrument. For example, the accordion doubles the voice in “Beautiful World,” and a one-string fiddle doubles a flute in a Galla song.

The mixture of local religion with Islam can be heard in both the urban song sung in Amharic (one of the few languages that is written) and the rural Afar trance medium song. Both mention “the all embracing deity the Sky God, Zar or Wak.” The Amharic song is by poet Mary Armeede, who accompanies herself on the craar. She sings about unrequited love, saying that “Zar spirits and love will cause the most reserved person to go mad.”

Fans of Leni Reifenstal’s famous photographs of the Nuer will want to hear the short (1:41) excerpt of a young Nuer’s self-accompanied song about his romantic adventures. He plays the same pitches he sings, rather like B.B. King singing along with his guitar. A slightly longer Nuer song consists of male and female singers plus drums, but no information is provided.

Another group, the Konso, live in walled towns near the Kenyan border. The one-minute sample of their music sounds wild and wonderful, with ululating voices and cowbells, fading out on a one-pitch chant. The recordings sound good, and each track has been carefully selected for some special quality. The six rural pieces work together as a group, and now that the thirteen tracks are on a CD, it is a simple matter to program them in that order. Rounder has reissued six discs of Ragnar Johnson’s field recordings, once again making this beautiful music available. For more information about Johnson’s work, see his article “Machine Guns and Tumbling Coconuts” in Resonance 5(1):25-26, 1996.

ETHIOPIAN URBAN AND TRIBAL MUSIC, Volume 2: Gold from Wax. Various performers. Recorded by Ragnar Johnson and Ralph Harrisson. Rounder 5153. www.rounder.com. 1999. Total time 53:19. CD reissue of Lyrichord LLST-7244 (1972).

The producers of this disc repeat the organization of the first disc, basically plugging in different works by the same performers, and once again shifting between urban and rural musics. So why am I reviewing it separately? Two reasons. First, to call attention to the uniqueness of each song; for example, the Amharic poetry of Mary Armeede takes on a deeper meaning when heard as part of a broad-ranging repertoire covering different themes. Second, this volume contains a gorgeous recording of a flute ensemble from the Gidole people, who live near the Kenya border. Although it lasts only 3:09, “Fila” alone is worth the price of the whole disc. It sounds like individual players playing one or possibly two pitches, with the entire group combining to make a polyphonic music of overlapping melodies. The polyphony sounds a bit like some music found thousands of miles away in the Solomon Islands!

A different kind of flute sound is heard in track 15, where Bilaitu plays and sings simultaneously. Here it is easier to follow the hidden voice-melody than in the recording from Volume 1, where two players play together. On casual listening, this recording sounds like a lone, richly-timbred flute, but listening close-up reveals two melodies. The nearly whispered voice sings the melody, but with fewer embellishments than the elaborate flute part.

Another type of song found only in Volume 2 is a Christian praise song recorded in Addis Ababa. The notes include the complete text, but no information about the performers. Once again, the singer duplicates his melody on the masenkos one-string fiddle. The embellishments sound Arabic, probably reflecting the long influence of Arabic music in the city. Poet Mary Armeede mentions the mixture of religions in Ethiopia, in a twelve-minute song: “I have mixed the Muslim with the Christian. Let me be happy now. And later a priest will absolve me.” She accompanies herselfon the krar lyre. Amharic poetry has two layers of meaning, referred to as gold from wax. Ragnar Johnson writes: “They are like the wax filled mould and the gold ornament which is made from this mould when the molten gold is poured in and melts the wax to take form. The literal meaning of the words is the wax and the deep significance is the gold.”

Taken together, Volumes 1 and 2 start to form a sound-image of the many different kinds of musics in Ethiopia, before electricity radically changed the musical life of the empire.

CHINA. Music of the Qin.

Wu Wen’guang, qin. JVC 5213. 1996. Total time 49:10.

“Bo Ya was a great qin player; his friend, Zhong Ziqi, a great listener who could always understand Bo Ya’s playing. When Zhong died, Bo Ya broke his qin and never played again [from the liner notes].” The depth of emotion evoked through this instrument comes as no surprise given its rich history, subtle playing techniques, and use among poets, philosophers, and scholars. The qin (formerly spelled “ch’in,” and before that “chyn”) is a seven-string plucked zither dating back to the Zhou dynasty (1100-221 B.C.). The earliest piece on this CD is attributed to Bo Ya (772-481 B.C.). Since the first mention of musical notation is from the second century B.C., the composition must have been handed down orally if that attribution is correct. The earliest surviving Chinese musical manuscript dates from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.).

The remaining five works on the disc originated more “recently,” the newest from 1280 A.D. One must approach the qin with respect. It is made from fine wood; lacquer; silk strings, each made with a cosmologically related number of individual strands; and thirteen mother-of-pearl (formerly jade) studs. The top board arches, while the lower board is flat, symbolizing heaven embracing earth. The music was not intended for unrefined listeners. It could be played in solitude or with a very small audience. The techniques of touching the strings number some five dozen. The volume level is frequently piano, and made even more exquisite through varieties of harmonics, glissandi, and soft touches. But that’s not all; expressive effects evoking drunkenness, battle, assassination, thunderstorms, etc., require hitting the strings and using special techniques to imitate and evoke catastrophic events (hear track 3, in the Daqu or “grand piece” style).

These compositions facilitate contemplation, quiet, introspection, and stillness. They are not in a hurry, yet to play them requires calm speed–the performer must maintain profound serenity while executing highly precise movements at exactly the correct instant. Wu Wen’guang beautifully creates the poetry of these ancient compositions. For those who only know the louder forms of Chinese music, qin music may come as an ear-opener. Here we have a sound that epitomizes the great achievements of China, yet remains little known, perhaps because “Less than forty accomplished qin players remain in China today.” (Cheng Yu. “The Precarious State of the Qin in Contemporary China,” Chime 10/11:59, 1997.)

This disc is a welcome addition to the qin repertoire, supplementing the performances by Li Xiangting (Ocora 560-001) and Dai Xiaolian (Auvidis 6765). One of the great recordings, Ch’in Music of Ten Centuries by Liang Ming-Yueh (originally issued on LP) was on a label, Museum Collection Berlin, that has no American distributor. Meanwhile, the JVC recording is essential for those wishing to experience Chinese wisdom translated into refined sound.