Let's get real. The more foreign visitors a tribal community has, the more likely it is to change, and that is the last thing on earth Olivia Wyatt wants to happen.
Olivia Wyatt went all the way from NYC to Ethiopia to attend the Festival of a Thousand Stars, an annual event featuring music from almost all of the country’s 80 ethnic groups. When she got there, she discovered it was canceled. She decided go ahead anyway with her mission to document tribal music and music-related rituals, and off she went alone into the bush to take care of business.
We’re seeing now with Somalia what happens when people in drought-harshed parts of the world who really depend on certain sources of water don’t get it. It’s a no-brainer: They brutally starve, contract otherwise controllable diseases, and die, while everyone discusses the politics of why it’s occurring. Not sure what makes African governments think it’ll be any different once Ethiopia’s Gide III hydroelectric dam project is completed, stanching the Omo River overflow--floods around which the inhabitants of the Lower Omo Valley have based their entire agricultural system. Yet it’s happening, and Olivia Wyatt was there to document how some people of this region connect to the land through sound.
Her documentation’s out as Staring into the Sun, a small book of gorgeous actual Polaroid photography (no damn cell phone app faking borders and fingerprints and dirt) with a DVD of her footage, backed by field recordings she made of tribal song. (The film screens in Chicago on Saturday.) She rode illegal buses and took illegal roads to track down a zar possession ceremony, feed wild hyenas, attend a wedding where women are traditionally whipped, swim inside a singing well, and go to jail. Worthy of conversation, no?
VICE: What made you want to go to the Festival of a Thousand Stars in the first place?
Olivia Wyatt: I was applying for a Fulbright, which I did not get, to work on a project with the Dassanech tribe. While I was applying, or maybe even before I applied, my boyfriend at the time sent me a link to the Festival of a Thousand Stars. I said if I get the grant we gotta go to the festival together. So I didn't get it, and it was approaching the time of the festival, and I still wanted to go. I started writing to companies and magazines to see if anyone was interested in some photos or footage. Sublime Frequencies got back to me and said it was up their alley and they would be interested in distributing, but of course they would need to see what I brought back. So I raised money on Kickstarter and off I went by myself to Ethiopia.
Let’s get real for a sec. Surely you’re aware there’s a long and rich history of white people heading out into indigenous cultures for field research, and how a lot of it’s been appropriated into “civilization” as a sign of discriminating taste. You even mention how “the tribal men of Ethiopia inspired several hair movements in the United States.” I wonder where this curiosity comes from, and if you had to do any reconciliation with your first-world relative “privilege”?
Ever since I can remember I have been reading anthropological books, watching anthropological films, been interested in religion, and always loved to travel by myself to places that many people don't choose to travel to. I believe and have found that within tribal communities there is extensive knowledge of and a symbiotic relationship between the people and their surroundings. Whether it be with plants, animals, or the sea, there’s knowledge so vast and so rich, yet something that I personally am so disconnected from. Most people I know (including myself) would have to go to school for years--maybe even a lifetime--to learn the information [indigenous peoples] know almost innately.
With my work I am aiming to preserve these unique cultures in some way, and honestly it is mostly out of the fear that their way of existing will one day become obsolete due to modern forces beyond their control. Then all of that knowledge, all of their uniqueness, will die along with them. But in the same breath, I know that by documenting cultures like this inspires some spectators to want to go there and see it for themselves. And the more foreign visitors a tribal community has, the more it is likely to change, and that is the last thing on earth I want to happen.
It’s that ol’ physics law about how the act of observing something changes it. It’s really difficult to be delicate about these kinds of things.
I remember reading a book on Maria Sabina, a psychedelic mushroom shaman from southern Mexico. R. Gordon Wasson befriended Maria and spent a lengthy amount of time documenting her poetry, life, and songs. His work was published, and people began to travel in droves to Maria’s little town seeking the magic mushrooms, but not for religious/shamanistic purposes as she used them. The town was never the same again, and she was almost ashamed of how the mushrooms were being used. After reading about the effect of Wasson's work, I was disgusted. All the time I question what I am doing and the impact it might have, and I try to approach my documentary work with this in mind.
From your writings and the film it seems you were invited into these cultures pretty seamlessly. How did this happen?
No matter where you go, people are people, regardless of language, color, clothing, or country. I just communicate on whatever basic level I can, just like I would with anyone else here in New York or wherever. I am open to letting the women dress me how they would and do my hair like theirs, and I am not afraid to try and dance like they do.
Yeah, I love that you got a million hairdos along the way!
The tribal hairdos are amazing! Often when I visited a tribe there would be multiple women braiding and twisting my hair into the same fashion as theirs.
Did you have to deal with any feelings of “outsiderness”?
Honestly, I really don't know why people are so open with me when I travel, you would have to ask them. I do know that no matter where I go, I am just me. During a Hamar tribe wedding there was an instance when a young girl threw a rock at me, and it hit me. Some other girls laughed, but I hadn't really slept or eaten anything and it made me cry a little. I was sad because I didn't understand why on earth she did that. But in the end I think they were just fooling around, and in that same community of Hamar a man named his next-born child after me, so I got over it pretty fast.
Were you ever scared? Like, when a guy handed you gum to smuggle… do you think that was really gum?
Ha, it was gum. I saw it, but when I asked if I could have just one packet of gum he said no. I was nervous that the police would find it on me and I would get in trouble, because why would I be traveling with that much gum? But other than that I wasn't too scared at that moment.
OK besides the gum, there had to be some dicey situations.
I was really nervous when my second translator, Yibltal (his name means "the great one"), got punched on a bus by a guy with a gun. Yibltal had a mouth on him though and was somewhat arrogant, so I am pretty sure he did or said something that led to the punch. Then anytime I traveled at night on an Isuzu truck was frightening. They called the trucks “Al-Qaedas” because accidents were so common. Plus, foreigners are not allowed to ride in them at all, so sometimes I would have to hide a little bit. The first time I rode in the back of one there was a man next to me who used to be a driver and he was missing an arm due to an accident. Then there were certain major roads that were known for hijackings and robbers and we had to travel in Isuzu convoys for safety.
I was the most scared when I was riding in the front of the Isuzu truck and Yibltal was in the back. We couldn't communicate, and I was wedged in between two drunk men and a driver who was pretty high on Chat. One of the men kept touching me. I would say "yellum" (no), but he would keep on doing it, and then the guy on the other side--the owner of the truck--would occasionally try to put his arm around me. These thoughts kept flashing through my head that they were going to lock the doors and have their way with me, so I made a scene.
I told the driver I had to pee. I begged him to stop the truck and let me out. They hesitated, and then did so. I screamed to Yibltal what was happening and fortunately there was a police officer back there with him. The owner of the truck fired the guy who kept touching me right then and there and let Yibltal sit in the front with me.
That was lucky. Good to know that “I gotta pee” girl trick works in all kinds of languages. Back to the bright side. The video documentary portion of Staring into the Sun starts with (mostly) men transferring water with buckets while singing quite hypnotically. What's going on there?
This is the Borena tribe. They have these manmade wells all around the area where they live, and they are known for the way they sing while they work in them. I believe there are at least five wells in the surrounding area. In any case, the wells are filled only after a good rainfall, and lucky for me I arrived in Borena country the morning after a rain. There are three levels. I am not sure if it is that clear in the video, but the top level is where all the other villagers come to feed the camels and other livestock and to get water for their homes. And there is a chain of people from the lower to the middle level, and another chain from the middle level to the top. I jumped in the well and did some buckets with them, but they asked me to stop because, I realized much later, I was filling the buckets to the brim and they only fill halfway so it is easier to pass up the chain.
Music is such a huge part of these people’s lives, how they use song to keep rhythm to complete certain tasks. It’s so cool that the jewelry the Hamar ladies wear on a daily basis double as musical instruments. Makes me think how in the US we mostly use music as a way to disconnect from the world around us, like with iPods. Or how we separate ourselves and almost fetishize music through concerts and stuff. Am I just being harsh?
I agree with you 100%. In the communities I visited in Ethiopia, I found that music was a way to connect with everyone, and everyone was involved in making it. They do it when they work, when they play, when they walk, when they drive, when there is a celebration... always. In general, I find that in our culture we are disconnected, and creating more and more things that further that disconnect, which is perhaps what draws me to tribal communities.
Were these people ever putting on shows for their visitor, or were you catching them in their natural rhythms of life?
Mostly I was lucky and caught them naturally doing what they do. A few times I arrived and there was nothing happening, so I said I was curious to see the music. In these instances they were always happy to share it with me, but I do wish I had more time so I could have just hung out and waited for something real.
Speaking of realness, a lot of the imagery you see from this part of the world is destitute, decimated, and depressed. Yours is very celebratory and full of life, showing how these people are not victims of nature or circumstance.
OK, so life isn't exactly a bowl full of cherries over there. Women do the majority of manual labor and in some tribes are circumcised after marriage, and their husbands will take on other wives. While I was there a lot of people died of cholera in the Dassanech communities. It wasn't my intention to not show this, it just wasn't what I was there to focus on, really, and it wasn't anything I witnessed firsthand. A lot of times the news and others focus on tragedy, but whenever I visited places that look devastating in the media I find that there is actually a lot of joy in life and a lot of laughter.
Do you see this changing as the Gibe III dam is instated?
I do fear that the dam will change things over there. Many of the tribes’ lives revolve around the river, and the impacts of introducing a dam are yet to be known. Some of the groups I documented rely heavily on the river for agricultural and livestock purposes, and they live downstream from the dam. It is speculated that the dam will dry out parts of the river and change the seasonal flooding they have grown accustomed to. It is difficult to know how well they will adapt to such changes and what they will do in order to adapt. It isn't always easy to come by water or food during droughts in these areas in the first place. Will it change their daily lives? Yes. Will the communities along the river stop singing and dancing? I don't think so.
Staring Into The Sun
Saturday, October 1, 9 PM
1550 N. Milwaukee, Chicago
With performances by Sun Araw and Oneohtrix Point Never