Music curator and producer Francis Falceto is best known for having brought late-20th century Ethiopian music to a wider audience. He is the acclaimed producer of the 27-volume “Ethiopiques” CD series that began in 1997, and he is also the author of the 2001 book “Abyssinie Swing: A Pictorial History of Modern Ethiopian Music” and director of the 1996 documentary film “Abyssinie Swing.” Falceto has dedicated his life to sharing and preserving the legacy of Ethiopian music, and he shared his insight on the genre as the keynote speaker of the “Africa Remix: Producing and Presenting African Musics Abroad” conference at the Mahindra Humanities Center on Friday.
The Harvard Crimson: What drew you to Ethiopian music? And what about it led you to bring it to the world stage?Francis Falceto: I’m a music lover. The day I met this music just by chance was…amazing. I knew quite a lot about various music from Africa, but I had never heard that. And because my sickness is to share what I like, I decided to first go to Ethiopia and then invite [internationally recognized Ethiopian musician] Mahmoud Ahmed—it was then 1985—to perform. You enjoy your music, you understand it is not known—it has not reached our shores, to say—and because you are involved with some friends in promoting music, you decide to make it happen.
THC: How has the landscape of Ethiopian music changed during your time as a producer?FF: From the 20th century until now, the change in Ethiopian music [has been] tremendous. This builds the question: what is tradition? Something static? Is it something dynamic? Does it evolve slowly? Quickly? Through where and why? And how does it come? Now, it’s been about 30 years that I have been very close to Ethiopian music, and I can see on the traditional and modern aspect the evolution is very impressive. In Ethiopia, there are many, many different kinds of music related to different people from different backgrounds. One of the major musics [of Ethiopia] is the music of minstrels. It used to [be] people wandering over the country. After the revolution, they started to open their own cabarets, instead of passing by and getting money. They became settlers in the city. There was transformation in the music, the costumes, and the audience.The [original] big bands were disbanded when the revolution came in, and the electronic keyboard came in massively. Everybody thought the electronic keyboard could replace the band, for economical reasons. But artistically speaking, it has affected terribly the look and the shape of the music. On the other hand, cassette...is cheap and not very fragile and is very democratic in the sense that you don’t need appliances like a turntable or electricity, where you can only listen in the city; with cassettes, just with batteries, you can listen to music in the deep countryside.... Now [Ethiopian music] is trying to rebuild, to become as exciting as it was a half century ago.
THC: Did you expect the acclaim that “Ethiopiques” has received?FF: I had no idea the response would be so nice. For me it is a verification of the first time I listened, that this is great music. And it is one of the last musics of Africa to reach our shores, our ears, [and] our turntables. And I enjoy [seeing] it shared by people of every continent.
THC: Given some of the negative stereotypes that exist about the welfare of Africa, do you feel that your work has changed the perception of Ethiopia?FF: That is true that the image of Ethiopia is terrible from abroad. After 1984, everybody began looking at Ethiopia as a poor country with people lining up as refugees. But it is cliché. Probably on a very modest dimension, “Ethiopiques” may have been able to change this a bit. That is why I include pictures [in the volumes]…. When you see the big band of people in very elegant tuxedos…you have to forget about your clichés. I hope I have been able to help change the image, but I’m afraid there is still a lot to do.
—Staff writer Nzuekoh N. Nchinda can be reached at email@example.com.