Francis Falceto:
A Stranger in a Welcoming Land

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music

New Plymouth’s wonderful WOMAD is always a highlight of the musical year. Cretan/Irish muso Ross Daly is directing WOMAD 2010’s climactic All Star Gala. “Many fusions can become confusions and I am determined that this will not be the case,” Daly told The Lumière Reader between savvily researching and practising with various key musicians. “I will also have done the Gala at WOMADelaide on the weekend before and will have had time with a large number of the international artists coming to New Zealand.” The New Plymouth Gala will be different. “Crete and New Zealand have close ties due to World War II and for many years we had regular visitors from New Zealand, and many of them were Maori… I’m extremely interested in Maori music traditions.” Early picks for the March 2010 world music festival include Calexico, East Coast kapa haka Te Whanui a Apanui, and Ethiopiques, whose drawcard Francis Falceto JAMES ROBINSON spoke to.—Alexander Bisley 

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With the now twenty-three strong Ethiopiques series, Francis Falceto has taken Ethiopian music out from the underground and put it in front of thousands of people right around the world. Ethiopiques is a “brand” in Falceto’s words, used to re-master and re-release forgotten Ethiopian gems. Originally, Falceto had the rights to release twelve. But as the series has gained popularity he is now gearing up to release numbers twenty-four and twenty-five. Falceto says he has ideas for another dozen “if the recorded music industry survives.”

It is an especially odd job for someone when you take in to consideration that Falceto doesn’t play an instrument, and is French.

Falceto discovered Ethiopian music by chance in the mid-80s, when a friend played him an LP by local star Mahmoud Ahmed. It was a revelation that was akin to a “shot of thunder” for him. At that point, Falceto was involved in the music industry in France in an administerial and curatorial capacity. “The first time I had the chance to listen to Ethiopian music I sent a cassette to all my friends who were music journalists. All of them loved it. I thought that even if I knew a lot, I don’t know everything. But they loved it. So I decided to dig it.”

He has a point. Ethiopian music seems fantastic, and a truly rare treat. It comes on with a James Brown swagger, mixed in with traditional African influences and an infectious energy.

Falceto was smitten with the music. And started making repeated trips to Ethiopia. He now estimates he has made forty-three trips to the country in twenty-five years, becoming an expert in the language and the music, with over 1000 local studio and concert recordings in his collection. Falceto curates a music festival in Addis Ababa, alongside his role as the curator of the now immensely popular Ethiopiques series. He says that this expertise has meant that it is hard for someone to question his expertise as an outsider to Ethiopia and a non-musician.

Falceto sees the curator role as extremely important. “Anyone can write about Mozart, or Elvis. Everyone knows about it, as it is available. How can you write about something if its not available? It is the shortest way to have it understood. It is very easy to listen to Ethiopian music. I’m just trying to let people know that.”

Falceto says that the uniqueness of the Ethiopian people has avoided any cultural tensions as a white-man profiting off African music. He points to the lack of any outside colonization in the past three thousand years in Ethiopia as a reason behind this. “As a nation they are proud to have you there, and are honoured that you are taking an interest in the country rather than being protective of what you may take.”

Falceto recalls: “In 2004, I invited foreign orchestras to come and play local music at the festival I curate. It was the first time we had bought foreign musicians into the festival. After twenty-seconds people were crying, standing up, and shouting—they were so proud that foreigners were playing there. They understood that through exposure to foreign music that they had finally crossed over. It is difficult to imagine for them that foreign audiences would enjoy their music.”

The Ethiopiques show fits in as a travelling promotional tool for the series. In its various guises, the show has seen a revolving line-up of names under the looser brand of the series. Coming downunder to WOMAD 2010, the show is a Mahmoud Ahmed solo show. Ahmed has electrified shows all around the world with his new found popularity from the Ethiopiques series. He recently played to thirty thousand people at Glastonbury. Which is amazing when you consider the humble backgrounds of the performers.

The size of the crowds is a good indicator of the success that the Ethiopiques has met worldwide. “It is overwhelming for them to see the big crowds. Glastonbury was strange. Now, Mahmoud is very familiar in playing in front of twenty-thirty thousand people,” Falceto says.

Falceto himself won’t be travelling to New Zealand, but usually travels with the show as a confidante to Ahmed—acting as a go-between, and helping with set lists. Falceto says the two have a close friendship from twenty years collaborating. Falceto also claims to have “elephant ears”, despite his proclaimed lack of technical nous.

Falceto boasts, “Mahmoud is an incredible entertainer. I have never seen a bad concert from Mahmoud Ahmed. I’m not a music person. But it is a matter of fact. I’m very critical. I’m not overselling it. I’ve rarely seen an artist give that much on stage.”

Which bodes well for a stomping-good time come March for those making the trek to WOMAD in New Plymouth.

And on a more somber note, Falceto adds that such rollicking musical performances are important for the greater Ethiopian image. “It is a great opportunity for people to see great Ethiopian music, to take people’s minds off famine, poverty and desert when they think of Ethiopia.”

Take a wander over to YouTube, search for Mahmoud Ahmed, and you’ll see that he is completely right.

WOMAD 2010 runs from March 12-14 at New Plymouth’s Bowl of Brooklands.