Iconoclastic Seattle music label Sublime Frequencies, with its avowed purpose of â€śacquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers,â€ť has outdone itself with this release by photojournalist Olivia Wyatt, which includes a DVD, CD, liner notes and handsomely packaged booklet of 136 color Polaroid snapshots. Wyattâ€™s initial intent was to film the 2009 version of an annual musical convergence in the Rift Valley of Southern Ethiopia, known as the Festival of a Thousand Stars. However, she arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopiaâ€™s capital, only to discover that the festival had been cancelled by the government for somewhat obscure reasons relating to the potential exploitation of the performers (exploitation by whom, is not made clear, although the contentious nature of contemporary Ethiopian politics and the apparent funding of the festival by one or more outside agencies will have to suffice as an explanation).
Wyatt was poised and ready at that point, with her funding from the record label (among other sources) in place, so she did what any enterprising documentary filmmaker, photographer and amateur musicologist would have done under similar circumstances â€“ she created her own on-location itinerary. Using information gathered from the cancelled festivalâ€™s artist list and from her own prior research into various Southern Ethiopian tribes, she went to the source â€“ or rather, sources — travelling to remote villages by camel, motorcycle, bus and lorry. She seems to have utilized one or more interpreters but often hitchhiked to her destinations and arrived without advance notice or a clear agenda. And unlike a more professional expedition of the sort typically organized by National Geographic, there was no â€śteam.â€™ Wyatt was the team. Some of the tribes visited are those who would undoubtedly have appeared at the cancelled festival, but other tribes and performances (such as a Zar spirit possession ceremony or Borana work song which accompanies a village water bucket brigade) are unique to the environment and circumstances. As such, the music, video and still photographs all provide much more intimate glimpses of tribal cultures than would have been evident during a staged festival.
Depending upon the source, Ethiopia is described as having up to 112 distinct â€śpeople groups.â€ť Wyatt herself references roughly 80 different ethnic groups, many of whom had appeared at the festival in previous years. In the time allowed, Wyatt managed to visit 13 specific tribes in different areas of Ethiopia, primarily in the southern area of the country. To the extent that most Westerners are familiar at all with Ethiopian music, their awareness is probably confined to the pop and jazz music played by the bar bands in the capital. This music is in itself quite stunning, especially in its rhythmic complexity, but the music presented on the CD and video is much more raw, more tribal and to my ears much more African (as opposed to Arabic) in style and influence. Chanting is pervasive, while instrumental accompaniment is spare and rudimentary by Western standards. Much more often than not, music and dance seem inextricably related. Musicians not only accompany dancers, but often dance when they are not singing.
Musical selections on the CD and DVD overlap substantially, but some of the music is confined to one disk or the other. The CD includes three tracks by the Habesha 2000 Band, which is acoustic but has a slightly more urban, trance-like sound of the sort that one might hear in an Addis Ababa club, especially in accompaniment of traditional dancers. (To my ears, this music sometimes sounds a great deal like the Gnawa music of Morocco.) The DVD includes a short segment filmed inside a â€śTraditional Night Club,â€ť but rather than featuring musicians, the visuals focus on a peculiar and striking form of dance featuring dramatic movement of the neck and shoulders. Musical and visual interludes throughout the DVD also offer short bits of local television programing which have a slicker, more pop-oriented focus. However, Wyatt doesnâ€™t appear to be making any political or cultural statements with these juxtapositions. They serve partly as a transition between the filming of various indigenous cultural events and they also illustrate the seemingly universal foundation of music and dance throughout all strata of Ethiopian society, urban and rural. Indeed, Ethiopians seem to be locked into some sort of permanent cosmic groove.
In keeping with the general practice of Sublime Frequencies productions, no narration intrudes to â€śexplainâ€ť what the video camera is recording. The DVD provides only captions which introduce each of its 18 segments, together with a few translations of short narratives within several sequences. Landscapes, dwellings and scenes from village life provide a larger context for specific music and dance performances. There is a heavy and fascinating focus throughout the DVD on dress and especially on adornment and hair styles. (Wyatt comments in her liner notes that a personâ€™s tribe can usually be determined by their hairstyle alone.) In her liner notes, Wyatt offers basic explanations of what she is filming, but certain ceremonies and practices remain alien and elusive, with no elaborate anthropological explanations offered which might make them more palatable or intelligible. Some viewers may be repelled by a Hamar wedding ceremony during which woman are whipped with long twigs until their backs bleed, or by the Mursi womenâ€™s custom of inserting large clay disks into their lower lip. Wyatt also mentions, in passing, that several of the tribes which she filmed still practice female circumcision.
It is a commonplace now in contemporary anthropology that there is no such thing as a â€śneutral eye.â€ť The recorder documents what he/she is drawn to and the viewer takes away what is of interest to him/her. Wyatt is obviously more of a pictorialist than a documentarian; she has an eye for beauty and for the most vibrant aspects of the cultures she represents. She is not necessarily trying to probe beneath the surface or reveal any hidden truths, nor does she go out of her way to shock the viewer with weirdness, barbarity or material poverty, all of which might have been easy enough to emphasize. The fact that she is a young, outgoing Caucasian female, exotic but not threatening, probably gave her a certain access and cachet that would not be available, for example, to a middle-aged male anthropologist or a team of filmmakers. Her time spent with the various tribes was quite limited, but from all appearances she respected their lives and traditions to the extent that they were able to â€śbe themselvesâ€ť in her presence. Some events were undoubtedly staged; it is obvious that ceremonial costumes in some of the filmed events would not have been worn as part of everyday life. (Itâ€™s likely that some of the more formal presentations by certain tribes may have been previously rehearsed for the cancelled festival â€“ and it wouldnâ€™t surprise or dismay me if she had actually requested a performance or two.) And rather than attempting to conceal her camera, Wyatt often took the opposite tack and confronted subjects with the reality of the lens, sometimes lingering on a particular subject â€“ with the subjectâ€™s full awareness â€“ for up to fifteen or twenty seconds. This type of portraiture could easily be regarded as intimidating and intrusive, but an argument can also be made that it ultimately confers dignity upon the subject by giving him/her an opportunity to get past the initial fear or novelty of being filmed.
Ultimately, motives are an unprofitable guessing game, but letâ€™s just suppose that Wyattâ€™s intent in this project was to provide a respectful but dynamic visual and aural document of an extremely rich cultural mosaic. And if thatâ€™s the case, I would have to say that she succeeded admirably.