Ask most Westerners what they know about Ethiopia, and they may recall stories of starvation, perhaps the war with Eritrea. Unfortunately, it ends there. Rafał Kołacki addresses this knowledge gap with the wisely titled ‘Ā’zan. Hearing Ethiopia. Through his ears, we hear a culture rich in tradition, religion and music: happy people, singing birds, a sense that the worst has passed and that brighter days have already arrived.
One of the more outstanding features of capital Addis Abeba is the blend of local secular music and the songs of various faiths, mingling in the public square. While some may find the loudspeaker blasts annoying, they end up being no different than the Christmas hymns blaring in malls during the holiday season. When it comes to music, the country does have a few essential advantages. It’s one of the few places where Western music doesn’t reign, so an essential character continues to shine through street musicians and spontaneous clapping and singing. There is great joy in these streets, along with a good deal of pride. A second advantage ~ one from which other nations might learn ~ is the incredible tolerance shown to different faiths, who manage to coexist. Hearing Ethiopia may mean a muezzin’s call to prayer, but it may also mean a section of Christian liturgy.
Through it all, a bustle of activity connects the sonic dots. Conversation and cars, honks and hellos all have their place. Bicycle bells ring; babies babble; sellers hawk their wares. But everything returns to song. “Hagar” is especially appealing, filled with laughter, cheers and deep-throated cries. The call-and-response of “sem” underlines the closeness of a community that seems at peace with itself. Could this be how Ethiopia has survived crisis after crisis? If so, this hidden strength, seemingly invisible to outsiders, is what hearing Ethiopia is all about. The album title is the ge’ez word for ears. By finding the heart of an oft-misunderstood land, Kołacki has draped a garland around the nation and invited a new understanding. His closer listen is a perfect reflection of our site. (Richard Allen)