In March of 1987, one of the greatest exhibitions of Ethiopian music to ever take place kicked off to go on a whirlwind tour of 60 cities around the world in 118 days. It was to be a tour de force of great impact. But there was more to its story than just the art.
It is a curious fact indeed that quite possibly one of the greatest exhibitions of Ethiopian music came about during a period in which the repressive arm of the Derg was very much in force on music and the arts in general. Hizb le Hizb (People to People) – a 54 person strong ensemble of standout Ethiopian musicians and performers – kicked off in March of 1987 on a whirlwind tour of 60 cities around the world in 118 days. But there was much more to the phenomenon of this spectacle than what one could simply see on the stage.
Perestroika or Propoganda?
The purpose behind the creation of a troupe to basically give a tour de force of Ethiopian music and culture throughout the world, was to thank nations for the assistance they had provided to Ethiopia during the ‘Great’ Famine only a couple of years earlier. In many ways, this by itself was an extraordinary event coming as it did from behind what was then perceived to be Ethiopia’s own version of the Iron Curtain – one that made the regime reluctant to even send soccer players abroad for competitive matches for fear they would not return but instead cause it embarrassment by seeking political asylum. Coming as this event did in the early stages of the Soviet Union’s own experimentation with reform programs of glasnost and perestroika, there must have been widespread speculation that perhaps the Derg itself was embarking on a similar path.
Well that was not really the case. Still stung by the embarrassing famine from a few years ago, the Derg had actually wanted to present a fresh face of Ethiopia on the international stage; one that was far removed from the tragic images that had been commonplace on television screens everywhere. Mearegu Bezabeh, a PR specialist who travelled along with the performers recalls, “But most of all, we want to thank the international community for the support they gave at the time of famine. The world was so helpful. And in order to do that we had to speak in their language or in a language the international community can understand. And second we want to show the other side of the story.” In the end, this amazing tour seems to have been neither perestroika nor even primarily propaganda but the visible edifice of a grateful nation that also needed to turn its back on the horrors of the famine by reminding itself of the cultural and historical riches it embodied.
A Cast for the Ages
Tilahun Gessese. Mahamoud Ahmoud. Bizunesh Bekele. Neway Debebe. Tsehaye. Mulatu Astatkie. Iniye. Asnaketch Worku. Maritu Legesse, Shambel. And on and on. The list of top flight entertainers that the show laid claim to was the very eminence of star power on the Ethiopian music scene at the time. Never before or since has such a collection of talent been melded together to deliver what would be historical performances under the guide of Mulatu Astatke’s composition, under the guide of Mulatu Astatkie’s composition and Tadese Worku’s choreography. The ensemble itself was referred to as the Adey Abeba Traditional Music Group. And the best known artists from everywhere were called up to fill its ranks. From Kibur Zebegna to Police and any orchestra that could claim the best talent in the country. The vocal delivery of the songs by this extraordinary group of musicians was simply part of the story. The standout dance and theatrical performances that accompanied them were a similarly impressive feat for the breadth and depth of cultural spread they provided.
Who could forget the baby faced Iniye Takele who would – it seemed like – pretty much begin talking to herself when she really went into an iskista groove and Kuribachew Woldemariam whose transcendent beauty seemed only to shine brighter at the height of her performances.
For all the artistic talent on display for all the world to watch, there was yet more to the story of Hizb le Hizb than even this. For Diaspora communities that had fled the repressive Derg, this show was their first significant glimpse of Ethiopian culture and tradition beyond what could rudimentarily be maintained at home in unfamiliar lands. The reaction of many of them in the audience was gripping to behold. So much raw emotion as tears flowed freely and hands were raised high in a gesture at once exuberant and yet achingly poignant in its reminder of an exiled community that longed for its homeland. Back in Ethiopia, viewers watched astonished as a government that remained adamantly in denial that there even existed significant numbers of Ethiopian refugees abroad (or labeled them traitors that hated their country) allowed video of these shows, complete with auditoriums full of ecstatic Ethiopians cheering on the performers, to be transmitted on ETV time and time again. ::