“Live and Become” – (Ethiopians Jews)

In 1985 the  Mossad, Israeli secret services, with considerable assistance from the United States, ran the clandestine Operation Moses to airlift thousands of famished and ill-treated Ethiopian Jews to Israel from refugee camps across the border in Sudan. These ‘indelible immigrants’, to use a term coined by historian Daniel Boorstin, also  known as the Falasha, are still not fully assimilated into Israeli society. And more than 30 years after the first Ethiopian Jews fulfilled their dream of coming to Jerusalem, their children and grandchildren found themselves protesting in Tel Aviv, at one of the most violent demonstrations the city has ever seen. Anger and frustration that has built up over decades exploded in a way few expected.   , in response to the brutal and unprovoked police beating of an Ethiopian Jewish soldier.

This movie begins, with a mother bidding farewell  to her terrified son,  with the words that gives the film its title: ‘Go. Live. Become.’ ‘Go’ is the urgent instruction to find security in Israel. ‘Live’ is her counsel to seize a sudden chance to survive and prosper. ‘Become’ is more problematic, and the movie is constantly alert to what it means in a world of emigration and immigration, asylum seeking and economic migration, where identities are assumed, imposed, blurred and recreated.

The opening section is full of suspense and danger. Can Schlomo convince the Israeli authorities that he’s a Jew? After his interrogation on Israeli soil, a boy a few years older has his cover blown and is roughly escorted from the reception hall, shoved into a car and driven away to be repatriated. Schlomo gets by, but his ailing surrogate mother dies.live_and_become3

Burdened by guilt and loneliness, he fails to adapt to life in various orphanages. Finally, he’s adopted by a kindly Sephardic Franco-Israeli couple, extremely well played by French actor Roschdy Zem and celebrated Israeli actress Yael Abecassis.

These foster-parents, left-wing, semi-secular Jews who initially think the newcomer has been raised in the orthodox faith, draw the boy out and encourage their son and daughter to make him welcome. They represent much of what is best in the state of Israel and protect him from the prejudice, some of it truly ferocious, to which the Falasha are exposed. These sequences are subtly handled, with moral force and without sentimentality.

The years pass, Schlomo takes on a new identity, has a Romeo and Juliet-style love affair with a Jewish girl, works on a Kibbutz, experiences the tensions engendered by the Gulf War and the Intifadas and, as part of his journey of discovery, attempts to contact his mother. At times, melodrama looms and the film becomes schematic. The years Schlomo spends studying medicine in Paris, when he becomes aware of how he might transcend his problems and give practical assistance to his native Ethiopia, are condensed into a couple of minutes with voice-over dialogue.

live_and_become 2Live and Become is a powerful and engaging film. Director Radu Mihaileanu ambitiously tackles themes of identity and love as reflected in the racial, social, political, and religious problems of immigration and assimilation. In his struggle to survive in Israel, Schlomo  finds many allies beyond his parents. His grandfather (Rami Danon) provides moral support and visits him at a Kibbutz that he helped found. Schlomo comes to rely upon the wisdom of an Ethiopian rabbi, Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar), who meets with him regularly and counsels him when he enters a debate and comes up with a spiritual interpretation of the skin-color of Adam. At a turning point in his life, Schlomo encounters a tolerant and positive-minded policeman who admonishes him to rebuff those who would deny his dignity and human rights.

 

The filmmaker does a masterful job conveying the guilt this Christian Ethiopian bears for living a lie. But he is carried by the nurturing love of four women: his birth mother, his surrogate mother, his foster mother, and Sarah (Roni Hadar), a feisty young woman who pursues him for ten years before they marry. The closing scenes in Live and Become are poignant because they deal with Schlomo’s final coming to terms with his past and his own special gifts to the world.

 

“Swinging Addis”- The Birth of Ethiopian Jazz

The story begins in 1896, following Ethiopia’s victory against the invading Italians at the Battle of Adwa. Russian tsar Nicolas II sent Emperor Menelik 40 brass instruments. It became the imperial music – and planted a seed. Then, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1924, the prince who would become Emperor Haile Selassie met a marching band of young Armenians orphaned in the recent Ottoman massacres. He shipped the “Arba Lijoch” (“Forty Kids”) back to Addis Ababa and installed them as the imperial band. The emperor’s new big band ensembles proved to be incubators for the stars of a new sound craved by a young generation demanding musical – as well as social and political – change.

The father of Ethio-Jazz is Mulatu Astatke. Born in 1943 in Jimma, a city in the Western part of Ethiopia, Astatke unexpectedly chose to study aeronautic engineering in North Wales in the late 1950s. Formally introduced to music and the arts during his studies, he eventually discovered his natural talent and passion for music. Inspired by other African students in Trinity College in London who were presenting their music and culture to European audiences, he started to want to compose and promote Ethiopian music. After much thought and improvisation, Astatke finally managed to combine the unusual pentatonic scale-based melodies of traditional Ethiopian music with the 12-note harmonies and instrumentation of Western music, giving birth to ‘Ethio-Jazz’. The bigger jazz scene in New York compelled Astatke to move once again, and it was during the 1960s that Ethio-Jazz fully came to life. Greatly inspired by the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

In Addis Ababa, Emperor Selassie had made a number of liberal changes following the social turmoil of 1960, and Addis was in full swing. The period up until the mid-1970s was described as the country’s golden age of music and creativity. Although this new music style was first met with distrust of those who feared a cultural colonization, Ethio-Jazz eventually picked up momentum with a fast-growing appreciation during the last days of Selassie’s reign.

Gétatchew Mèkurya

Apart from Astatke, there are others musicians who greatly contributed to transform the country’s musical landscape in the 1960s. Saxophonist Gétatchew Mèkurya, who started his career at the Addis Ababa city band and went on to play alongside many of Ethiopia’s biggest orchestras, later releasing his acclaimed album Negus of Ethiopian Sax. Another unforgettable Ethio-Jazz veteran is Mahmoud Ahmed, who is often mentioned together with Astatke, whenever Ethio-Jazz comes to mind. Ahmed became similarly famous for combining Ethiopian music with western jazz and rock, and released the album Ere Mela Mela in 1975. Famous Ethio-Jazz singers include Alemayehu Eshete who, together with Girma Bèyène, founded the Alem-Girma Band and composed about 30 singles before the arrival of the Communist regime.

The Derg, the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam in 1974 squashed Ethiopia’s budding musical scene and liberal social life. Considered a Western import, much of Ethiopia’s popular music was censored, and musical creation and practice were largely limited to patriotic songs. As a result, many musicians fled the country or kept a low profile, and a generation grew up with hardly any memory of Ethio-Jazz. In spite of this, Astatke opted to remain in the country. As a board member of the International Jazz Federation, this afforded him a certain amount of freedom as well as a chance to travel.

The revival of Ethiopian music as a world export started in 1997 with Francis Falceto, a French music producer, fascinated with “World Music” by compiling a 23-volume series called Ethiopiques on the French label Buda Musique. Through this extensive series, Ethio-Jazz finally hit the international scenes on the eve of the new millennium as various actors in the world music arena become acquainted with and captivated by Astatke’s work. Ethio-Jazz reached an even wider audience when Jim Jarmusch, completely taken in by Astatke’s work, used a number of Astatke’s songs in the soundtrack of his film Broken Flowers in 2005.

Just over 70 years old, Mulatu Astatke is as active as ever. Completely absorbed by music, Astatke continues to innovate, modernising traditional instruments, taking up new opportunities for musical cross fertilisation and tirelessly working on establishing a profound imprint of Ethio-Jazz on the history of world music. On top of participating actively in a number of festivals and speaking at international events, Astatke has also established the African Jazz Village, a music school and jazz club dedicated to promoting Ethio-Jazz in Addis. Working closely with young bands and his students, Astatke is paving the way for the next wave of Ethio-Jazz musicians. Far from being a passing music phase of the moment, Ethio-Jazz has continued to thrive in the modern day Ethiopia and beyond, against all odds, constantly evolving but staying true to its strong Ethiopian roots.