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June 3, 2011 / Prof Cupcake.

Abyssinie Swing

Coming in at just 26 minutes, Abyssinie Swing (directed by Francis Falceto and Anais Prosaic) is more a teaser introduction into the rich musical history and styles of Ethiopian rather then a proper exploration. Comprised of publically available YouTube style clips, with garish inter-titles and absolutely no over arching voice-of-god narration, one is mostly thrown into the film with no context and no understanding of that they are seeing. Easily digestible and completely enjoyable I felt merrily carried along in this breezy seemingly substance-less film. There is some incredible dancing not to mention some outstanding lyrics, such as “I love you like I love my intestine.” Yet for the most part blink or pass out, and you’re not going to come back to having missed any of the non-existent plot.

So when the film takes a dramatic shift into showing haunting soviet inspired propaganda songs and dance routines it comes to any one not familiar with Ethiopia’s unique political history as some what of a surprise. Moments later we are some where unnamed tearing down a statue of Lenin and if you were at all like me you were bizarrely shocked.

This film does nothing to illuminate you either, ending as ‘dramatically’ as it began with a news reporter wishing you a happy holiday season. Yet besides for its lack of narrative voice or coherency the film is both enjoyable and worth seeing. The archaic nature of the video clips, coupled with the often scratchy sound and non western influenced musical style allows one to feel as if they are embarking on a personal exploration of a remote past. Coupled with its rough montage style one begins to feel a sense of Ethiopian music spreading out before them like some patchwork tapestry of tonal brilliance.

Context however, would have been appreciated, and luckily for me that came after the film in a brilliant Q and A. As I do think some context greatly improves a viewing of this film, and makes sense of the communist undertones here is a brief summation of that conversation.

Ethiopia has been a Christian nation since the 4th century AD, and do to its interesting geographical topography, (must of it is rather elevated) and forward thinking tribal governance it has only been colonized once and rather briefly by the Italians for 5 years in the 30’s. by remaining rather insular before, during and after this time as well, Ethiopian music has retained much of its original heart and developed into a style where content and heart often matter more then talent. Yet in the mid 70’s with the arrival of socialism Ethiopia under went 19 years of restricted political freedom’s including curfews and lack of cultural expression, forcing political dissidents into communicating in a language already rich with double entendres in a unique way. Now, with the arrival of the internet and more social freedom’s Ethiopian music is exploding both on the world stage, and at home, where musicians strive to combine musical genres and explore there past with their future. A rich musical culture had developed and I recommend any interested check out this film as well as the ETHIOPIQUES music series and the musical stylizing of DUB COLOSSUS who integrates Ethiopian and reggae beats into explorative songs.

With this in mind the film is much more radical then previously thought. The songs and heritage so richly expressed seem more like defiant acts against an oppressive regime. They showcase a remarkable resilience of a culture for so long robbed of the freedom of artistic expression. Their unique vocal tones, the entrancing dancing the community and comradery so easily expressed in group performances, makes me feel nostalgic for a world I’ve never even known. As Nick Of Dub Collossus pointed out there is something haunting in their music, infectious that brings one back to an understanding of home.

Just how this is accomplished I am not entirely sure, but I highly recommend watching this film.

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