Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes (though small children may tire)
2015, 87 min., Color
Music documentary
Not rated: Would be G
IndiePix Films
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Roaring Abyss is an unfortunate title, and the cover art just as unfortunate. Both give a false impression of turbulence, pain, struggle, or a profound feeling of being trapped. That couldn’t be more misleading. Roaring Abyss is a feel-good film, a start-to-finish musical journey across Ethiopia, where, we’re told, “Ninety million people in the second most populated African country” are “singing in eighty different languages on both sides of the Rift Valley.”

This 2015 documentary from Quino Piñero could very well do for traditional music from Ethiopia what Buena Vista Social Club did for Cuban music and musicians. The musicians celebrate their lives through music, and Piñero celebrates that too, along with celebrating their talent, passion, and dedication to preserving traditional music.

You don’t have to be a music lover to enjoy this film, but it certainly helps, since music is a constant. From the terrific opening song you know what sort of journey awaits. A pattern unfolds: you see film of everyday life in a section of Ethiopia while you hear music, then a cut to the musicians so you can see the source of the sound and watch the rest of the performance—and in a sense, every one of these songs, no matter where it was recorded, is a performance because they have been recorded in front of microphones for posterity. After the performance we get more of the same, with that pattern occasionally interrupted by interviews with some of the performers.

“A song is not only for dancing,” one of them remarks. “It reminds you of your dear ones, it brings back memories of far relatives, it reminds you of those who passed away, it reminds you of the love you experienced in your life. Indeed, songs are rarely made for dancing only.”

“Like the Frenchman Louis Braille, who carved out letters for his son to read,” another begins, “my father carved out my washent for me to play and it became the school I never got to attend. That is how I began to play. I was playing with and learning from other farmers the songs our fathers used to play when they tended to the cattle. That is how I spent my time before I came to town. I did not play to entertain people, but for myself, to keep my thoughts busy. That’s how it started. The washent is an ancient instrument used in traditional music. Left behind today. During King David’s reign, in the Old Testament times, washent was seen as one of the great instruments of that time. Masinko [a horsehair stringed instrument played with a bow], washent [looks like a lyre], krar and begena are all traditional instruments,” and music and those instruments are important enough to Ethiopian culture that they were celebrated on the country’s postage stamps.

Piñero used four camera operators, three sound recorders, and five translators to capture traditional music before it begins to disappear, but in doing so he not only gives us a look at music in Ethiopia—he captures everyday life in Ethiopia’s streets, markets, farms, forests, and isolated villages. A loom is shown in operation. A baker is shown making and frying dough. A butcher is shown at work, and a seamstress. With every performance we see shots of people watching the recording session, some of whom cannot help but dance in the distance.

There is no intrusive voiceover to spoil the experience, no musicologists or anthropologists to contextualize what we’re seeing. To Piñero’s credit he trusts the people and the music and viewers’ own eyes and ears. Apart from the musician interviews, which are presented with subtitles in English, he doesn’t muddy the frames with translations. We see indigenous tribes living as they live, talking in one of those 80 languages, and no context seems necessary. Piñero creates a visceral experience that makes you feel as if you’ve just experienced the film, rather than just watching it.

Will it work for family viewing?

Though the repetition of the style of music might eventually get old for some young people, there’s a nice balance of music and images of Ethiopia. Roaring Abyss loosely fits the mold of the old television travelogue shows, where the purpose was to expose peripatetic audiences to distant lands and different cultures—all designed to broaden their knowledge of the world and cultivate an appreciation for how diverse our world is, and how our own culture compares.

“In terms of work, we stay strong, we raise our children in a very considerate manner,” one musician says. “We pass on our old traditions in a proper way to the new generations. In music we show them how it must be done and pass on the knowledge. This is our culture and we are proud of it.”

Piñero combines unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall documentary-style filming with art-house shots of the landscape and life as it’s lived in Ethiopia, and that too is a decision that enhances the film. But we don’t just get a feel for the importance of music to everyday life. We learn about the music itself.

“There are many different bird species in our area,” one musician remarks, “and it is from these birds that the tuning of the voices is taken from. Everyone, including children, adults and teenagers, plays the Dorze traditional music. However, it is difficult to get the right tuning and right pitch at a young age, so sometimes they sing along without getting it completely right. It takes a lot of time to get the pitch and tuning right and people are not able to sing and dance all the time as most of the day is spent working. Every once in a while they get the chance to practice, at the times of sowing and harvesting the fields. At the moment, those tuning the melody are gathered in the center, then they are divided into two other groups, one in the front and one in the back, working as the call and response. After the singers in the center start the tuning, the front group will start calling and the ones in the back will respond.”

Near the end of the film we see younger musicians incorporating Western instruments into their songs—guitars, saxophones, keyboards, a standard drum set, and a synthesizer—and an earlier line from one of the older musicians really resonates: “No one knows how to make the old drums anymore.” He worries that the Masinko will disappear within a few years, making this film even more culturally significant than it at first seems. It’s like going to a living museum. Today’s schools commonly feature drum circles, and I could see families watching this together and getting involved, dancing or trying to capture the beat.

The sound and picture quality are terrific, and the whole experience of Roaring Abyss leaves you feeling as if your world just got larger—and maybe older, and wiser—thanks to the musicians who were captured on camera:

  • Hagerignya Band
  • Awassa Sidamo Ibahal Aderash Band
  • Mezjeng Tribe
  • Weldie Almaw
  • Dorze Music Group
  • Yem Tribe
  • Tigray Police March Band
  • Harar Policemarch Band
  • Kaffa Band
  • Maekel Bahil Tigray
  • Yohannis Tadesse
  • Awrus Traditional Band
  • Mebtu Adugna
  • Azmari Bet Band
  • Hidase Habru Traditional Band
  • Damot Azmaribet Band
  • Wello Bahil Amba Band
  • Gashe Chane
  • Gashe Assefa
  • Yayneabeba Nigus
  • Hadiya Bahil Band
  • Hammer tribe band
  • Hadiya tribe band
  • Wetayita tribe band
  • Basketo tribe band
  • Bena tribe band
  • Marako tribe band
  • Gurage band
  • Mursi tribe band
  • Surma tribe band
  • Konso band
  • Sambe Gore Band
  • Ato Mengesha Abera
  • The Three Azmari Kids
  • Harar Adagar Band
  • Anyuak tribe/Nuer tribe
  • Shenen Gibe Band
  • Selam Band
  • Tigray Arts College Band
  • Jazzmaris