This is appropriation that’s acceptable

The French Ethio-groove group Akalé Wubé has dissolved. For over a decade they have shown how cultural outsiders can considerately engage in music that is not theirs.

Image via Akalé Wubé Facebook profile.

After twelve years of covering, performing, and writing Ethiopian groove within the 1960s and 1970s vintage repertoire, Akalé Wubé recently dissolved. The group released four albums over the course of their career, the last one a celebrated collaboration with veteran Girma Beyene after his comeback.They were one of the most prominent foreign performers of the “Swinging Addis” groove, which, fifty years on, is a global language. I have seen Akalé Wubé records on display at the iconic Fendika in Addis Ababa and joined Ethiopians who danced in nostalgia during their performance with Girma in London. The tenure of the quintet—consisting of Etienne de la Sayette, Paul Bouclier, Loïc Réchard, Oliver Degabriele, and David Georgelet—shows that Westerners can meaningfully immerse themselves in and build on music as cultural outsiders and earn respect from the community they appropriate from.

Unlike today, cultural appropriation was seldom discussed ten to fifteen years ago, when Akalé Wubé and other foreign groups started performing Ethiopian music. The term was mostly limited to academia and did not carry as much stigma as it does today. Then, ethnomusicologists analyzed how non-Western music was recontextualized in the West. For example, Herbie Hancock was scrutinized for appropriating Hindewhu, a single-pitch flute tune from Ba-Benzélé Pygmies, with a beer bottle, and Madonna was reproached for sampling Hancock’s appropriation. Decades later, popular debates around cultural appropriation resurface frequently and intensely. Rawiya Kameir argues that, ironically, such discourses have appropriated cultural appropriation from its academic context. But regardless of how one thinks about the issue, it remains the lens through which artists like Akalé Wubé are often scrutinized.

Critiques of cultural appropriation are often voiced based on ethical or aesthetic concerns. Aesthetically, critics say, cultural outsiders can produce inauthentic art, since “the ability to use a style successfully is linked to participation in a culture.” Critics with ethical concerns look at cultural appropriation as theft, an instance of a powerful group capitalizing on the artistic expressions of a less powerful group. Or they see it as offensive, since artistic expressions by minorities enter the mainstream stripped of context in a manner considered unintentional or sacrilegious. As music critic Ralph Gleason has said, “whites diminish [blues] at best”—an aesthetic objection—“or steal it at worst”—an ethical objection.

Foreign bands that draw from Ethiopian jazz and groove fall broadly into two categories: fusionists and contextualists. The two categories make for different targets, with different ethical and aesthetic cultural appropriation concerns. Fusionists borrow Ethiopian music but provide little or no contextual reference. Examples here are Karl Hector & The Malcouns or Budos Band. In fact, the latter used the Ethiopian repertoire so noticeably in their second album that American-Ethiopian ethnomusicologist and musician Danny A. Mekonnen describes it as original Ethio-groove. But he also criticizes the group for only mentioning this influence in interviews and not in linear notes, where Budos’s music is marketed as the “quintessence of Staten Island Soul.” In subsequent Budos albums, the Ethiopian influence is less dominant. To fusionists, Ethiopian music is not an artistic parameter but one of many influences.

Contextualists, on the other hand, own their Ethiopian context and seldomly, only carefully, fuse it with different genres. Akalé Wubé falls into this category. Other contextualists are Tezeta Band, Anbessa Orchestra, Ethioda, Badume Band, and Imperial Tiger Orchestra. By producing Ethiopian groove under the banner of Ethiopian-inspired artwork, Amharic titles and album names, and context references in descriptions, they point listeners to the culture they appropriate music from. Contextualists cover Ethiopian compositions but also write original Ethio-groove. Degabriele from Akalé Wubé told me that the band had many debates on how to adopt the music while keeping the essential Ethiopian modes. Some of Akalé Wubé’s rearrangements draw from more modern funk influences and occasionally psychedelic rock.

Ethiopian musician Girum Mezmur told me that just like foreigners’ backgrounds influence their music, Ethiopians also make numerous adaptations. According to Mezmur, Ethiopians “do not perceive [Ethio-groove as] pure [when performed] in a certain way and [im]pure in another.” He thinks the musical quality of foreign Ethio-groove can vary. Akalé Wubé has “impressed” him, as they “are careful how they have reinterpreted Ethiopian pieces … with a [regard] for the original music.”

To Mezmur, foreign and Ethiopian influences each bring advantages and disadvantages to the music. Ethiopians know the context better, he says, and have grown up with the music, which provides them with cultural insight that can be helpful—but also limiting. He also does not express moral objections to bands like Akalé Wubé; instead, he considers it “a good thing” that Ethiopian music has been getting considerable attention abroad. If foreign bands take the genre seriously “and respect it,” he says, they deserve to perform.

As a respected musician of Addis Ababa’s 1960s and 1970s generation, Girma Beyene likely would not have recorded and performed with Akalé Wubé if their music did not meet his aesthetic requirements, or if he considered their music to be inauthentic. Mahmoud Ahmed, another veteran, and Melaku Belay, a renowned contemporary artist and promoter, have also performed with the band.

Ethio-groove contains musical components that can be traced back to religious and traditional Ethiopian contexts. This could, according to the relevant cultural appropriation objections, offend Ethiopians. However, here in Ethiopia, the initial sacred-to-popular transition was first done fifty years ago, by Ethiopian artists who fused Ethiopian Orthodox liturgical chants (and other elements) with funk and jazz. Mulatu Astatke is a devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christian who researched old church music and instruments, purposefully appropriating them for his fusion work. He created his fusion abroad, clearly stating that his music draws from various non-Ethiopian sources, and his first band members were Puerto Ricans.

Akalé Wubé’s discography stands on the shoulders of such Ethiopian musicians, who thoughtfully injected traditional and religious musical elements into a transnational popular genre. Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian fans of this type of pentatonic groove are grateful to Akalé Wubé for their appropriations. Going forward, the quintet may still occasionally back Girma Beyene, like coming August in Crozon, France, but will no longer arrange and record music and instead work on new projects.

Further Reading

Global Genre Accumulation

If there’s an underground dance scene or marginalized community nearby, Diplo or some DJ like him has or probably will “discover,” re-frame, and sell it to audiences in another part of the world.