Vincent Moon’s Portraits of Ethiopian Music

Post by Addis Rumble *

“Ethiopia is an island,” Vincent Moon explains. The French filmmaker has been on the road for four years now travelling and filming music and spiritual rituals across the globe and releasing them through his Petites Planètes label. 2012 saw him spending three months in Ethiopia exploring and recording Easter in Gonder and the sounds of Merkato among other things – either alone or with sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard (who we recently interviewed). We caught up with Vincent after he left Ethiopia and asked him to reflect on the struggles and rewards of filming in the country, his explorations of sacred music and trance in Ethiopia and how his nomadic life is transforming him into a chameleon.

You have been traveling around the world documenting musicians for a few years now. What made you come to Ethiopia?

It’s a decision I took one day after exchanging mails with Danish fellow artists Jacob Kirkegaard and Malene Nielsen, who already knew the country. They wanted to collaborate on a project made there, I jumped on the idea as I dreamed for a long time of Ethiopia, and I decided to go. When I take a decision I usually never come back on it, so it was stuck in my mind. In the end Malene didn’t come and we made a very different project with Jacob but life took us on this path.

How does your work typically take form when coming to a new country? Where do you start and do you have any common themes that you explore across the countries you are visiting?

Usually I travel with a few contacts in a country, some people who have been in touch with me maybe in the past years (showing my films, or just exchanging ideas about music and cinema) and with whom I kept in touch and proposed them to produce some local films in their own city, country. I never work with professionals and I am always more inclined towards people who have never done anything like this – same for sound recording actually, I tend to ask local people to record the sounds of a shooting and I explain them on the spot what to do with it. So to collaborate with Jacob was definitely a very different challenge.

But as for me coming to Ethiopia in the first place, this time I had almost no contacts at all in the country and I thought maybe a bit too optimistically that I would find them there. Well, things went a bit more complicated! I arrived in the country two months before Jacob and went to explore many parts, the north, the east, the south. And I ran into so many problems it was almost like a joke. I really had a terrible time for a while there, until things started to get more harmonized. I didn’t have many plans beforehand anyway in terms of recording, all I knew was that, as I was familiar obviously with the Ethiopiques releases made by Falceto, I wanted to avoid anything related to it and dig into the unknown for me. Apart from Alemu Aga with whom we made a very nice recording (and God how wonderful this man is, it was a light in my trip), all the other ‘music’ I recorded there, I had no idea they were existing just a few weeks ago. There was maybe a common theme, which is something I am researching in all my travels now – exploring the sacred music, and relationships of the people with any religious rituals.

What was your approach to filming in Ethiopia? How much of your work done in Ethiopia was planned beforehand, and how much of it was improvised?

As said before, I don’t like to plan much as I give myself a lot of time in the places I visit. In Ethiopia, I didn’t plan anything specific, and I found all my subjects there on the spot. This is apart from Alemu Aga maybe, whose record I loved so much and which sounded from another planet, so I contacted him as soon as I arrived and proposed him a film – I waited to the end of my trip and the coming of Jacob to make it sound fantastic:

The Gamo people from Addis I met early on and planned a recording later, again waiting for Jacob to arrive to make it better. While hanging out at the Taitu Hotel and talking with some funny explorers there (I love Taitu for the incredible characters you bump into), I met some people who told me about the Zar practices still happening in the north and about the exorcism rituals in Addis Ababa. It’s through Japanese ethnographer Itsushi Kawasse that I heard about the Lalibalocc tradition. I planned to visit Gondar during Easter and wanted to make a recording of the ceremony, which I did in this magnificent Debre Berhan Selassie church. I went to Harar with the intention of reaching the Zikris rituals and I met there with Amir Redwan who opened the doors of its ‘nabi gal’ for me. And it’s Jacob Kirkegaard who told me about the fabulous sounds we could record in Merkato. All in all, you could say it was often very much improvised on the spot, with some intense researches made the days before in the same area.

How is filming in Ethiopia different from of some of your other recent destinations?

To put it simply, so much more complicated! Ah, I laugh about it now but at the time, it was driving me crazy. Since then I have been traveling through Ukraine and the North Caucasus of Russia recording ancient music, and it’s been such a contrast, so easy on everything, that I looked back to those three months spent in Ethiopia with a very different feeling. In Ethiopia, people didn’t care at all about being recorded. Most of the musicians I ran into were so pretentious and asked for so much money to perform (I never paid any musicians before for the recordings, so the contrast was a bit tough) that I was feeling very awkward – I didn’t have any money to give them, being completely broke myself (bad idea, you can travel being broke in many places around the world, but not in Ethiopia), and the simple fact of paying someone to perform was something I avoided always to keep a ‘true’ relationship to the musicians. Was I wrong? Maybe. So I paid most of the people I filmed in Ethiopia. Did they play better because of the money? I don’t think so. Did it create a weird relationship on my side? Most of the time, but it’s my own fault. I remember this quote from Michel Leiris: “Africa does not need me.” Well, Ethiopia didn’t need me!

For outsiders coming to Ethiopia the first time, Ethiopia often seems like a unique, closed and secretive society with strong traditions difficult to understand and interpret. What was your experience like? Could you get access to the subjects, places, and ideas you wanted to work with?

Ethiopia is an island in my mind, that’s how I see the country – being so cut off from its neighbors because of its mountainous land, developing a unique culture in Africa and so on… We know the story now. It’s a fascinating place, incredibly beautiful and with such unique traditions, I was quite blown away. I didn’t find it hard to access at all, people being very open although complicated to deal with sometimes. As long as you keep in mind that spirituality here still has a strong meaning, you can navigate easily and spend a fabulous time immersed in the culture. As I said, my only difficulty in terms of shooting was that almost no musicians was interested in what I wanted to do. I completely understand it although I suffered a lot from it. But you know… the eternal faranji paradox.

Your films from Ethiopia are quite an eclectic mix – from the sounds of Merkato via the begegna of Alemu Aga to the polyphonic singing of the Gamo and Dorze tribes etc. Do you have any favorites among your films done in Ethiopia?

Maybe two favorites. The most beautiful experience shooting was the Fasika (Easter) night in Gonder. I was alone and wanted to access the church for the ritual, I tried to get some contacts in town the days before but all of them were so unreliable that I dropped them and just went by myself, late afternoon. I was there before anybody, and little by little the church started to get filled with priests and so on. All of them were surprised to see me and asked me what I was doing, I just said I was curious, that I was a catholic who wanted to switch to orthodoxy. Little by little over four hours I gained their confidence by looking and smiling at each of them and then at one moment of the night I took my camera out of my bag. Nobody then asked me what I was doing, if I was making a film or anything like that. They just took me with them until the end of the night. It was a very powerful experience, and a very beautiful film although anybody who knows about the church in Ethiopia will probably look at it without any interest:

The second favorite recording was with Tilahun, the Lalibela singer. I got his contact through Kawasse, I called him and he asked for so much money that we couldn’t find an agreement. Two days later he calls me back and says he is in Addis, ready to record. I ask him to share a coffee with me, and bargain with him, smashing the table, saying this will be one of the most important moment of our lives. He is a beautiful soul, very quiet and he gets my point even though I used the aggressive method. He leaves and I realize I even forgot to ask him to sing! I don’t know at all how good he is. Very early next morning we are with Jacob in the dark streets of Addis, following this tall shadow going from one house to another, wondering why the hell did we woke up so early. He starts finally to sing in front of a door, his voice reaches such heights that we all shake. Maybe the most beautiful voice I ever recorded.

Several of your films from Ethiopia focus on the mix of music, religion and rituals, e.g. the Orthodox Easter ceremony in Gonder, the sufism tradition in Harar and exorcism rituals at Entoto Maryam. Was this a specific objective from your side or the result of Ethiopia being a very religious society?

I enjoyed very much Ethiopia being a strong spiritual place, but my choice to make such recordings already started in my recent researches on religious rituals, on relationships between music, trance and so on. I already made some films on Zar ceremony in Cairo (although there it’s a quite different story), filmed various sufi rituals in Indonesia, recorded trance rituals amongst afro-brazilian religions, made many experiences with shamanism and so on in Colombia or the Philippines. It’s a personal spiritual quest which is maybe my main objective in life nowadays.

When the conversation turns to Ethiopia, most non-Ethiopians still think of famine and long-distance runners. What is the first thing that comes to your mind?

Nowadays when I think back I remember a country so unique in its culture that it has no equivalent in the world. And I really wish I can go back there soon, and explore more of the southern part of it, the richness of its animism and so on. Also comes back to mind this extreme tension between a culture so rich, a nature so beautiful, and an economy so poor that it really made you seriously question the way we want things to evolve in such a place.

What started your move from doing the Take Away Shows of indie musicians (and others) to recording traditional music across the globe through the Petites Planètes series?

Curiosity, to put it simply. I can’t stop moving and doing something else, it’s more a sickness than anything else. 4 years ago I was still in Paris, still recording indie music, and I ended up homeless by accident and started to travel, invited in various places around the world. At first I continued to record indie music, in Chile, in Argentina, but then little by little I was more and more drawn into traditional music, ancient singings, sacred music and so on. It’s a very natural move I think for someone who travels, you leave your culture little by little, not from one day to another, and start to adopt other cultures for a short period of time. You become a sort of chameleon, your personality changes everyday and life appears as a game, a new adventure all the time.

And what keeps you motivated now after years on the road – the need to document and archive musical heritage, eagerness to explore the world, restless?

A mix of all this, but especially the feeling of being younger and younger everyday living such a life. There is no tomorrow, just the excitement of being with people you didn’t know anything about 5 minutes before and having an intense experience.

* This is a slightly edited version of an interview originally published by Addis Rumble. We’ve been long-time followers and admirers of Vincent Moon’s work (and featured some of it here on the blog before, notably his collaboration with Femi Kuti, Brazilian artists and Egyptian muezzin Saeed Khaled) so we’re grateful Addis Rumble allowed us to cross-post it. More of Vincent Moon’s films from Ethiopia are available here, here or here.

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