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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 40 - February 2004   
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Title  The sounds of Ethiopia

Ethnomusicology could be described as the archaeology or etymology of sound. Intrigued by the music of other cultures, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was already wondering in the 18th century whether 'European' musical notation was of universal application. Later, jazz and its African roots would open the door to 'world music'. We tune into a Franco-Ethiopian research project with international resonance.

A young Ethiopian Christian student studying liturgical song – Addis Ababa, 2002© Olivier Tourny
A young Ethiopian Christian student studying liturgical song – Addis Ababa, 2002© © Olivier Tourny
'Ethnomusicology is a rapidly developing subject. This is not surprising when you consider the interest young people show in music, travel, humanitarianism, humanism, and contact with others,' explains Olivier Tourny(1). A researcher at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Tourny is scientific director of the Franco-Ethiopian programme “Ethiopian Traditional Music, Dances and Instruments”. More than 20 students and researchers are currently working on the project, most of whom are French and Ethiopian, but also including Italians, Belgians, Germans, Americans and Japanese. 'There is strength in numbers. Everybody is working in a different field, making recordings and carrying out investigations. In this way you can soon collect valuable information on the musical heritage of an entire country. We can now compare and corroborate our findings. If I had been working alone – as is traditionally the case in anthropology – moving from one ethnic group to the next, it would have taken me a lifetime to get such results. By which time, a lot of music would have disappeared.'

The aim is to document, collect, preserve, study and disseminate the traditional music, dances and instruments of one of the richest and most complex African countries in this field. Ethiopia has an exceptional musical heritage, marrying ancient Jewish, Christian and Muslim influences. Strange as it may seem, until this programme was launched in 2000, there had been no systematic research into Ethiopian music.

The “q'essoc” heritage
The story of Tourny's research begins in Israel. Back in 1986, the ethnomusicologist Simha Arom – who was working at the time at France’s Laboratoire de Langues et Civilisation à Tradition Orale (Lacito), met religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community (known as q'essocc) , in Jerusalem. They were keeping alive some very ancient liturgical traditions – traditions threatened by contemporary Jewish practices. Fascinated by this unique heritage and determined that it should be preserved, Arom studied and collected the songs and accounts still circulating among members of this emigrant community.

When working on his thesis, some 10 years ago, Tourny immersed himself in this rare ethnomusicological heritage as he penetrated the secrets of some 80 Judeo-Ethiopian liturgical songs. His initial ambition was to transcribe them rather than simply record them, ensuring that this heritage was not only conserved but also better understood.

'In this work, the transcriber really is faced with the proverbial anguish of staring at an empty page, not prompted, in this case, by the need to invent and create, but to reproduce with your hand and pencil what you hear with your ears and brain.' As in the case of a translation, is the transcription true to the original? That is the test. 'One day I showed my transcriptions to a friend, who started to sing them. What he produced was not anything like a Judeo-Ethiopian liturgical song. But it marked the beginning of my work, and the art of transcription is something that must be learned.

A multidisciplinary pool
This meticulous musical study also opened up a passionate area of research in the Ethiopian field and progressively aroused interest in a multidisciplinary approach. History, sociology, linguistics and anthropology all have a bearing on ethnomusicology. 'Many musical practices remain little known, even in the country itself. Many of them are also threatened by the spread of hybrid cultures, what are known in our jargon as ethno-urban cultures.'

The project team have already worked on Ethiopian lyres, Ari and Male polyphonies from the south of the country, liturgical dances of the Christian Orthodox Church, Harari wedding songs, Gurague dances, and various religious traditions. The project is now set to lead to the founding of the Ethiopian National Sound Library which will house the recordings (audio and video) made by the researchers, the archives of historical sound recordings, and local documents. The next step looks set to be a new sound anthology of Ethiopian music.

(1) All quotations by Olivier Tourny.


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