The Eirpop Project

Ethiopian-Italian Relationships in Popular Music from Fascist Years to Contemporary Migration

Popular music has defined itself according to national scenes since its very beginning. While labelling and charting artists, bands, and their musical products, the field of production of popular music has always been organized at national levels. The advent of transnational scenes (often confined in the label “world music”) as well as recent efforts from popular music scholars who deal with – among other things – postcolonial theories, challenged such classification. The project “Ethiopian-Italian Relationships in Popular Music” aims at taking such challenge a step further while focusing on a case study that will display the relevant role of transcultural and transnational connections in popular music. Its aim is at displaying how such connections have simultaneously supported and contested the formation of national identities.

The case study of the relationships between Italy and Ethiopia seems particularly appropriate. On the one hand, both the Countries possess a distinct popular music scene related to national identity. The Italian style and approach has been deemed as recognizable since the advent of popular music, one example being the song “O Sole mio” (1898); Ethiopian scales and melodies became one of the first example of popular music from Africa reaching international fame, thanks to musicians and singers such as Mulatu Astatke and Mahmoud Ahmed. On the other hand, the relationships between Ethiopia and Italy have the potential to emphasize how a colonial past – however incomplete the Italian invasion was – still influence perspectives, representations and images that are sources of cultural production.

In order to cover the century-long span, the project will be divided in four parts that correspond to four different musical genres as well as four different historical periods.

The four parts are: Serenata a Selassiè, which will focus on the representation of Ethiopian cultures and people in Italian popular music before and during the invasion of Ethiopia (1935-1941); Wax and Gold will look at the first three decades after World War II, paying particular attention towards the emergence of the two jazz scenes (the Italian and the Ethiopian) and their intersections; Back to Zion will concentrate on the representations of Ethiopia within reggae music in Italy, with a particular focus on the symbolical and literary heritage of the Ethiopian culture in reggae musical productions; Afro-hiphop-politanism is the final part, that will deal with the modern scenario, one in which questions of blackness, migration and the cultural expression defined as hip hop come together in the artistic practices of musicians with migratory backgrounds, second generations or diasporic individuals.

The project asserts that the two scenes did not grow up separately. In fact Italian and Ethiopian popular music were influencing each other in several ways, that the project will highlight while analyzing pieces of popular music (music sheets, discs, audiovisual material, etc.) and information regarding musicians and composers, as well as of journalists and producers (letters, interviews, metadata regarding their activities, etc.).
The main objective of the project is the creation of an archival collection of these musical-cultural-transnational relationships, that will represent a unique kind of sound and sound-related collection, and will also be available for future research.

Moreover, the research and the collection will lead to a final exhibition and a website that will focus on the ways in which popular music participated, and at the same time criticized, the formation of national identities.

The research project is based at the Archive für Textmusikforschung – University of Innsbruck.

Download the program of the Conference: Entangled Histories and Voices – Popular Music and Postcolonial Approaches
Innsbruck, April 28th-30th 2021

The proceedings of the conference were published as a special issues of the scholarly journal ATeM: