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Ethiopia by Rachel Unthank - Part 1

Mike Harding | 13:50 UK time, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Rachel Unthank writes:

In February, two days after the Folk Awards, I was lucky enough to take part in the latest Africa Express trip to Ethiopia. Africa Express was started by Damon Albarn and Ian Birrell who along with a collective of like minded  people aim to promote African music. They organise trips to Africa to explore music and make contacts and collaborations with musicians across genres and generations, promoting positive views of Africa.
So I found myself on a plane with journalists, producers, record label owners, and an unlikely cast of musicians including Damon himself, and members of various bands from England, America and Europe.

ethiopia-600-rachel-after-w.jpgI don't really know how to begin to describe the trip. I have never even set foot in Africa before, and certainly the only images I've seen of Ethiopia are from the famine covered on the TV. The trip confounded any expectations I had of the country and was packed full of music, dancing, singing, wild hyenas, a 4am trip to church, riding through the mountains on the top of a bus, joining in late night jams with my clogs and the chance to meet some amazing individuals.

singers-400.jpgThere are 80 different languages and cultures in Ethiopia, so you can imagine the variety of traditions, music, dance and song that accompanies this diversity. One of the most striking things was that a lot of the traditional song seemed to be passed down through the women.

We a met an amazing 15 member female choir from the Gamo people, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city. They sang mind blowing polyphonic harmonies, some of them beating out rhythms on drums made from a part of their skirts rolled up, whilst they and male spear dancers took turns to dance.

They had us up to have a dance too. The Gamo people are from a tribe in the south and those who have moved to Addis have all settled in one area, continuing their tradition as weavers making beautiful cloth.

gamo-400.jpgWe took a plane trip to Harar, a 1000 year old city towards the eastern border of Ethiopia, known as the 4th holiest city in the world, and met some singers from the Quataan Qoat tribe. This is a tradition which goes back 800 years and only 20 women and 5-10 men are left who still sing this music. It was a massive privilege to hear the 3 ladies, Kimiya, Gimi and Teweduda, take it in turns to duet with each other. Their voices interweaved with each other, whilst intricate patterns were tapped out on a tambourine and the pulse was kept with 2 blocks of wood.

There was something so intensely beautiful about the simple, yet complex nature of their music and it seemed to have an emotional effect on the whole group. I really wished my sister Becky could have shared the experience, as there was something so powerful about hearing these women singing together.

They had been tipped off that I also sang traditional songs and I was asked to join the ladies and attempt to join in with their singing. I was extremely nervous (especially as by the time I was asked, half of our party were in tears, so moving and other-worldly was their singing), but it was such a privilege, and they were so welcoming. I was then asked to sing something that would best represent my own tradition - quite a daunting task - so I sang my favourite song, The Sandgate Dangling Song.

ethiopia-600-rachel2.jpgI don't think I've ever been so nervous, but I really appreciated the opportunity to return the gesture and share my culture with them. It was also interesting how the rest of our Western party reacted. They seemed moved at hearing a song from the English tradition within this faraway context and one of our party said that it had inspired him to learn more about his own tradition. That connection with people from another culture through the powerful medium of music and song was certainly a highlight for me, and is something I will never forget.

Rachel Unthank

To be continued.....



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