The southern Ethiopian town of Arba Minch lies on the high savanna between the two huge lakes of Chamo and Abaya, surrounded by mountains. This is the here of the Rift Valle, thought to be the cradle of humanity, and it is here that the extraordinary Thousand Stars festival takes place each year.
What makes this festival so unusual is that it is dedicated to sharing the culture and music of over 50 distinct ethnic groups from within Ethiopia, most of which are totally unintelligible to each other. Music brings them together before a crowd of about 50,000 enthusiastic people.
Here, traditional enemies meet for the first time in friendship, and a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation is almost tangible. Many of these diverse and colourful tribes have travelled for weeks to be here, and have never seen or even heard of many of those they’ll meet. This is a showcase for everyone, a stage where they can demonstrate their own culture with pride.
The festival lasts for three days, but for a week beforehand rehearsals take place all over town, It opens with a grand parade of all the Performers, led by exotically dressed, spear-wielding horsemen from the Gamo highlands, in a noisy, seemingly endless stream. Here are fabulous looking people: the Hamar, with their elegant, clay-encrusted hairdos, the Surma and the Mursi, both sporting enormous lip plates, and scores more.
The music is rhythmic and exciting, unusual instruments are played, and drumming and foot stamping are continuous. By the last evening, the dancing becomes wilder and wilder, until absolutely everyone is participating. Flaming torches are lit, children sing, elders assemble on the stage for a final address and then it’s all over for another year. This is a fantastic, fascinating festival – catch it if you can.
Arba Minch, southern Ethiopia
Culture, music and dancing
You should know
This free festival began in 2003, funded by The Christensen Fund of Palo Alto, California, USA. In 2005, the UK charity Global Music Exchange was invited to help stage, promote and record it. The festival is now being organized by the Arba Minch-based organisation GIAMA (Gughe Indigenous Act and Music Association), set up with assistance from Global Music Exchange.