Girma Beyene Steals the Show

For reasons that the director of Ethiopique: Revolt of the Soul, Maciek Bochniak, could not comprehend, there has never been a film made about musicians that are nostalgically remembered by the public and are imitated by contemporary musicians. Christian Tesfaye found the documentary enlightening but also felt that Girma Beyene’s part should have received more prominence within the film. He awards 7 out of 10 stars.

Today’s youth has repeatedly been credited with robbing the nation of its culture and tradition by preferring to watch Hollywood movies and listening to hip-hop. But Western culture infiltrated Ethiopian urbanites a long time ago, beginning in the late 1960s.

Those were the times when famous musicians, from Alemayehu Eshete to Girma Beyene, were grooving to music that was primarily inspired by American jazz and rock and roll. It was not today’s youth that first became fascinated by Western pop-culture and chucked out traditional musical instruments such as the kirar or begena; it was the likes of Mohammed Ahmed, progenitors of an era that we today celebrate as the golden age of Ethiopian music.

I like today’s music, and its hip-hop inflexion, even if it is the vocals that are the focus of most songs while instruments remain in the background. But I have found that a year or two down the line, most of the contemporary Ethiopian music that is released gets stale. The songs’ appeal is fleeting, making them forgettable.

It was a different time back then, which is the focus of Ethiopiques – Revolt of the Soul. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that musicians then were listening to better music. To this end, the film begins with an introduction of Amha Eshete, who describes himself as the first person to open a music shop in Ethiopia.

His story with the Ethiopique legend begins as a sort of hustler in the late 1960s when he became successful selling imported vinyl records of mainly American music. Although he gets wealthy, he is discontented in that there is no Ethiopian music being made, which leads him to become a music producer.

Amha gets together with the likes of Mohammed, Alemayehu and Girma to record what became sensational in the then Ethiopia. The success though is short lived when the Dergue regime comes to power and everything Western-related is frowned upon.

Unfortunately, there was no turning to the East for inspiration. If there is anything inarguable, it is that the Soviets and all their satellite states and supporters produced horrendous movies and music.

decade after the fall of Emperor Haileselassie, a French music lover called Francis Falceto comes to Ethiopia. He finds what he believes is a treasure and takes it upon himself to introduce Ethiopian music to the world. He does not succeed though. Initially, he is unable to get the authorities permission to allow the musicians to perform music outside of the country. And then he fails to get the approval of Amha to re-release the songs.

He gives up until years pass by, the Dergue is removed and Ethiopia becomes westward looking once again. The old gang and Falceto enjoy success, once with the release of the first Ethiopiques album in 1998 to critical acclaim, and then with the comeback of Girma only two years ago.

During the screening of the film at Vamdas Theatre, on the opening night of the 12th edition of the Addis International Film Festival, the film’s director, Maciek Bochniak, explained that the film took five years to complete. The reason for this was that the documentary was already in its third year of shooting when Girma decided to make a comeback, a turn of events they could not leave out, and thus had to prolong the shooting.

This was a great decision but one undertaken haphazardly. It is in Girma that the film finds its most poignant moments, and is most interesting. He had stopped performing in 1984 when his girlfriend died and has not become much successful in other business ventures.

There is a swagger to how he talks, sounding live African-Americans in the Harlem area of New York City, but also making points that are profoundly touching and philosophical. The documentary would have been great had it been solely about Girma, instead of Ethiopia’s golden music years as a whole.

Bochniak uses interesting visuals to tell the story. Together with some of the era’s greatest outputs as background music, he employs animation and stock footage that succeed in drawing nostalgia from even people who were never around in those years. Documentary filmmaking is a misunderstood art form in Ethiopia, even more so than feature films, and Revolt of the Soul should serve as a great lesson on how to interest audiences with stories they would otherwise not be interested in.

By Christian Tesfaye
Exclusive to Fortune

Published on May 05,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 940]



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