Of Symbols & Idiots 38 Comments

fasil gondar

The word ‘ethnomusicology‘ carries with it certain connotations that may make one squirm: tokenizing, misappropriated cultural anthropology, exoticism, etc. However, after watching Itsushi Kawase’s three short documentaries on how music is interwoven into the fabric of those who live outside the fringes of conventional comfort, I am left refreshed that maybe, just maybe, there is still hope out there for genuine and unpretentious story-telling. And for that accomplishment, Kawase gets my standing ovation.

Set in Gondar, Kawase’s films document his interactions with industrious street children, Lalibeloch, and Enzatawoch (azmariwoch). Given the tight-rope walk between cultural immersion and objective observation, Kawase tells the poignant stories that manage to amuse and tug at the heart at the same time, brimming with unbridled optimism despite being set around the lives of the poor.

After the screening, which lasted about 90 minutes, Kawase was open to questions from the racially and ethnically mixed crowd.

Then the idiocracy began.

Moron #1, an abesha radio personality, raises his hand and inquires why Kawase did not include footage of the Fasiledes castles. Naturally, the response was: that was not the subject. The subjects were the individual’s personal stories and lives.

Beqa. It should have ended there.

Or so you’d think.

Moron #1 is nowhere near finished. He insists that the forts and castles are essential in setting the scene of Gondar … that the film focuses too much on the poverty and hardships without balancing it off with some glamour shots of stone walls.

Dingay-rass!

Are we really that much entrenched in the past? In monuments and structures? In symbols? Are we so goddamn insecure and proud that we need to balm our misery with a hazy memory of past fables of glory?

Then Moron #2 chimes in. More of the same rhetoric.

It’s official: most of us are so jaded (maybe even schizo) that we fail to acknowledge personal stories. Personal stories that exude so much beauty and hope even when entrenched in what most may consider miserable lifestyles. Instead we go off on a mental and egotistical masturbation session about our Fasiledeses and Axums and Lalibelas, casually elbowing individuals’ personal stories and lives further away into the fringes. Maybe that helps some people sleep better at night. I think it’s simply nightmarish. Me, personally, I’d rather leave symbols to the symbol-minded.

Here’s a little bit on the films that were shown:

Room 11, Ethiopia Hotel

23min/ 2006
This film aims to capture a sense of the life of children living on the street in Gondar by witnessing the interaction between two children and the film-maker. Although it is about the children’s life on the streets, the entire film was shot in the film-maker’s room in the Ethiopia Hotel. This limited space allows the film to focus on communication between subjects and film-maker and to reveal some of the ideas that enable them to endure and survive on the streets. This film is more a sensitive testimony than a scientific documentary. Through its hybrid approach, the film-maker aims to explore new trends in visual anthropology touching upon intimacy and subjectivity.

Lalibalocc – Living in the Endless Blessing

25min/ 2005
Lalibalocc are the group of wandering singers in Ethiopia who are believed to share the oral tradition, which condemns them and their descendants to leprosy unless they sing, beg and bless for alms in the morning. The film focuses on the singers’ creativity, by specifically centering on the use of rhetorical expressions in interactions with the audience. The film presents the daily activities of an elder Lalibalocc couple who come annually to Gondar, the ancient capital of Ethiopia.

fasil gondarBefore Lalibalocc start singing, they ask neighbors the name, religion and occupation of the owner of the house. Thus, the song lyrics are contrived in a flexible way to uplift the feeling of the listeners according to the personal information they obtain from this sort of “research”. Once Lalibalocc receive alms in the form of money, clothes and food, they sing particular forms of blessing verse-wishing prosperity to the listener before moving to the next residence.

People in Gondar have variable reaction to Lalibalocc: some welcome them sincerely while others refuse them with deep-seated antipathy. Thus, the interaction between audience and Lalibalocc mirrors the mixed emotions of people towards them.

Kids Got a Song to Sing

37min/ 2005
Azmari is a group of hereditary musical performers in Ethiopia who play one stringed fiddle in the various rituals and entertainment occasions for the people in northern highland. The film recounts the story of two Azmari kids who are in the territorial dispute with adult musicians. The film is a part of the project of recording the life-courses of Azmari particularly focusing on a couple of children based on the constant filming year by year since 2001.

38 Responses to “Of Symbols & Idiots”


  1. 1 masinkomelody

    TP, what a delight it must have been to view these documentaries. ‘Lalibalocc’ must have been a special treat and invite into the world of the Lalibeloch i so admire. My fondest memories of Addis was waking up to their sporadic melodies in the early hours of the morning. “Cake setwachew,” i used to yell to the maids from my bedroom window. (jokes about the cake)

    From the sounds of it, Kawase has just granted us the gift of memory as traditions like this if not already on the verge of extinction, will be so in the near future. There’s so many experiences we take for granted and fail to investigate in our own back yard…i’m glad someone is doing it for us.

    Tell us a bit more about the sense you got out of the documentary in terms of the continuity of the practice; what conclusion does the creator arrive at?

  2. 2 debteraw

    Are we really that much entrenched in the past? In monuments and structures? In symbols? Are we so goddamn insecure and proud that we need to balm our misery with a hazy memory of past fables of glory?

    It is my question too.

  3. 3 Nolawi

    I bought the DVD this weekend, i feel it might be a good one… there is a lot of buzz around town regarding this… documentary..

    TP i wish you could have mentioned what it is called where people could find it.. minamin…

    otherwise i am impress by the quality of the review…

  4. 4 Chala

    Thanks for sharing, please provide title, where is can be purchased and so on, much appreciated. Funny but I too am so tired or hearing about Fasileddes in Gonder, St.George in Lablibela, and the oblesk in Axum, whenever there is any kind of discussion about Ethiopia…. can we move on?

  5. 5 Alpha

    [quote comment="80259"] There’s so many experiences we take for granted and fail to investigate in our own back yard…i’m glad someone is doing it for us.[/quote]

    I agree M’Lady

    TP….thanks for review…makes me want to go out and get the DVD…esti we’ll see

  6. 6 ethiopioneer

    When I read this article, i had to refer the dictionary a number of times. I am also amazed by your professional critic and writing.Anyway, here are some points I want to say

    Even though the subject is not about Fasile Des, just showing the glimpse of those castles for the sake of the location wouldn’t really hurt. I don’t know how “Moron #1” wanted to see those artifacts.

    One thing I’d agree with you is the way most people try to fantasize about our past stories. I went to Bahir dar for work and I remember how people were over-reacting when they see 100 or 200 years old churches on Tana Lake as if now one has built such kind of stuffs in human history.

  7. 7 toothpick

    Nolawi,
    I didn’t manage to buy a copy of the DVD, so I honestly have no idea where folks could get it from. You, on the other hand, just got a copy, so why don’t you share where you picked one up? :)

  8. 8 Nolawi

    I picked it up from a guy in a baseball hat and a book bag. He said hey do you want to buy this DVD and it said lalibel on it. I asked for a discount and he didn’t give me one.. but he offered to buy me a cafe latte… we were at dama coffee shop…

    that is all the info I can give out at this time..

    daym gullitoch

  9. 9 Dinich

    TP,

    This took me back to my childhood and the Lalibalocc. I remember how they used to come during the day to inquire about the names etc…of the families in the neighborhood. They used to ask us, the kids, whose house is that? and we used to give them our names, of course with a heavy title, something like Dr. Dinich. and then we would wake up early in the morning to hear the Lalibalocc sing praises to our names. I think yenesu gif new kagere yasweTagn meselegn…

    Anyways, no need to say this is beautifully written. I really think you should be the official movie review man for bernos…

    Cheers,

  10. 10 Selam2

    Are we really that much entrenched in the past? In monuments and structures? In symbols? Are we so goddamn insecure and proud that we need to balm our misery with a hazy memory of past fables of glory?

    Sad but true, this fact seem to shadow most of us even the so called “educated” members of the Diaspora community. History has its place, but we also need to give chance for personal stories that are inspiring just as much.

  11. 11 really

    Nice post. Just came from visiting those “monuments and structures” in Bahir Dar, Gondar, Lalibela and Axum. Man, I was so proud of being born in a country that is so rich in history. Made me fall in love with the wisdom of the people in those centuries. They need as much exposure as they could get for tourism sake. They are still excavating in Axum. The “tibeb” of the people who put such technique of construction at that time is unfathomable. Made me wonder over and over again, “what have we done since then?” It is like time has stood still in Lalibela. The houses or rather huts the present day farmers live in is below the standard of King Lalibela times. It is like creativity died with the King or its people. More people need to see those treasures though. Be in awe, be inspired and be proud.

  12. 12 Bed_ford

    [quote comment="80496"]I picked it up from a guy in a baseball hat and a book bag. He said hey do you want to buy this DVD and it said lalibel on it. I asked for a discount and he didn’t give me one.. but he offered to buy me a cafe latte… we were at dama coffee shop…

    that is all the info I can give out at this time..
    [/quote]

    TP can you give us the title of the documentary? Have you watched the DVD Nolawi; probability not yet; I think what you picked up is the documentary about who and how the church Lalibela is built; it is on sale in most stores and I have seen it; it has nothing to do with Lalibalocc the morning singers;

    Dinich: lol;

  13. 13 toothpick

    TP can you give us the title of the documentary?

    I just did. The three titles, duration, and synopses are right there in the article, homie!

    Have you watched the DVD Nolawi; probability not yet; I think what you picked up is the documentary about who and how the church Lalibela is built; it is on sale in most stores and I have seen it; it has nothing to do with Lalibalocc the morning singers;

    I think that’s what nolawi has, too.

  14. 14 celebratelife

    Very interesting TP and really nice review I want to buy a copy of the dvd as well. Please let us know as soon as you get the info for purchase.

    Dinich wasn’t your nick “Dingay Rass” in your past life :P lol I bet you’re happy you changed it huh? :)

  15. 15 Nolawi

    mine is a documentry.. what th ehell is tp talking about!?

  16. 16 Dinich

    Yes, yes, Celeb, that was my name when I first came to bernos. Nol kind of forced me to change it. I was named Dinich by I believe Mitmita…..But I miss Dingaay Ras….that is more exciting than….Dinich…

    [quote comment="80615"] Dinich wasn’t your nick “Dingay Rass” in your past life :P lol I bet you’re happy you changed it huh? :) [/quote]

  17. 17 celebratelife

    I was named Dinich by I believe Mitmita…..But I miss Dingaay Ras….that is more exciting than….Dinich…

    I mentioned it because TP mentioned it in the article and it brought back memories of you.

  18. 18 wudnesh

    TPye, arif biyehAlew! luv the way u critique the film…would’ve even voted for you to be ‘movie review man for Bernos’ (uhu uhu)as Dinich suggested if you could go easy on mesAdebing….but knowing you, this will call for even more sidib… :P
    One thing though, I thought M’lady was joking when she mentioned Lalibeloch in Addis…but then Dinich repeated it. So, there were Lalibeloch in Addis? hmm. The first I heard of them was in a song by Gossaye (if not mistaken about the singer). Prior to that, I just thought lalibela just meant leflafi.
    In Addis, did they do it as a form of begging? ….and, are there still lalibelcoh in Addis?

  19. 19 S

    [quote comment="80576"]The houses or rather huts the present day farmers live in is below the standard of King Lalibela times. It is like creativity died with the King or its people. More people need to see those treasures though. Be in awe, be inspired and be proud.[/quote]hmmm.. if I may digress a bit, what makes you think huts are not creative?

  20. 20 Dinich

    Yes, Wud, they used to do the begging in addis. They would come real early, like around 6:00 and that is the only time of the day they do it. If you are not an early bird, you would never catch them.

    If you are not an early person, no problem. I know how to mimic them….give me your credit card number, I can sing your praises Lalibela style and podcast.

  21. 21 really

    S, huts are best inventions except there were two story huts built during the King Lalibela times along side the rock-hewn churches.

  22. 22 toothpick

    Dinich & Wude,

    Ironically, the lalibelas have opted to doing their rounds way after sunrise these days, since a lot of people and federal police wrongfully accuse & stereotype them as criminals/burglars/etc., which was one of the points raised at the screening. Initially they usually sang very early in the morning, right before and during dawn, but a lot of people got in trouble, i guess, so now some have decided to do their rounds during day time … so if anybody goes back home these days, especially in the country, you might catch them during your daily shenanigans.

  23. 23 Nolawi

    “Lalibela Wonders & Mystery” will open on Saturday September 29, 2007
    at Howard University Medical Auditorium Located on the intersection of
    5th & W St. NW. DC. behind Howard University Hospital.

    Show Times 1:30 (Amharic)
    3:30 (English)
    5:30 (Amharic)

    Discounted rate for Children under 12 and Students
    Discount for a group of 10

    Duration 80 minutes, Color
    Language English and Amharic
    Highly educational documentary Film
    Producer Kiflu Tadesse

    The DVD will be available on line Sunday September 30, 2007

    I am very glad to watch the Documentary film. It provided me with the
    necessary evidence and material to speak of my culture and history
    with confidence.

    Abebe Belew
    Addis Dimts Radio Washington Dc

    I had the utmost pleasure of watching a great documentary this past
    Wednesday about the wonderful history of one of the world’s holiest
    places of the world–Lalibela. Kudos to Addis Art and Culture for
    having accomplished such a fantastic documentary that is indicative of
    a well researched and beautifully documented piece told from an
    Ethiopian perspective.

    I have learned a great deal from this film and highly recommend it to
    those who haven’t had the opportunity to watch it yet.

    Nikodimos Fikru
    Film Maker, Mogzitwa (The Nanny)

  24. 24 celebratelife

    Thank you Nolawi for the info. Can’t wait to buy the DVD.

  25. 25 tersit

    I thought Nolawi’s article was about “lalibeloch” by Itsushi Kawase’s. Is this the same documenary? Or are we now talking about a different think?

  26. 26 toothpick

    this one’s a totally different documentary, tersit.

  27. 27 Sky

    Good job TP!!

  28. 28 Ethio Jazz

    TP thanks for the post. I can’t wait to get it once it comes out on DVD. Like Dinich, I remember the Lalibelaoch coming to the house when I was just a child but then they dissappeared completely. I haven’t seen them since I was eight, and thats a long time ago ;)

  29. 29 Ted

    FYI…

    Message from Itsushi Kawase:

    Hello, everyone

    Thanks for your attention to my films.

    I am not selling my films now but I will think about the DVD distribution in the future. I will start my website to introduce my works soon, though.

    If you are interested in documentary films on Ethiopia, I will send the flyer of the film session I did in the conference of Ethiopian studies in Norway this year just for the reference. I have selected and showed quite a few well-made documentary/historical films on Ethiopia there. I could also send you my filmography, too.

    I hope to see you soon in USA with some new films.

    yours

    Itsushi Kawase

  30. 30 masinkomelody

    Found the link to Lalibaloch – Living in the Endless Blessing…you can watch here:

    http://areainfo.asafas.kyoto-u.ac.jp/english/media/kawase_lalibaloch/lalibaloch_e.html

    The background comments are funny…ufoyy

  31. 31 ELIZA

    Como siempre adelante de todos. excelente blog mi hermano.colchones de viscolastica

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