‘You know, hyenas aren’t the bad ones…these days it’s humans you should fear’.
Anbessa follows the life of Asalif, a 10-year-old boy living with his mother on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While it’s technically a score to the 2019 documentary of the same name, Anbessa is musically and thematically strong enough to stand on its own two legs, much like Asalif himself. Anbessa marks Erik K Skodvin’s first solo work in years, and it’s also his first solo film score.
Asalif is caught between the old and the new, the imposing monoliths of tradition set against the ever-rising dunes of modernism. Anbessa’s score helps Asalif; it is a friend. He must make sense of deep change, which is occurring all around him. Western capitalism and ‘progress’ (which benefits a select few rather than the local population, disguising itself through slogans and spin) is slowly seeping into his way of life, threatening his mother’s safety and the lives of others in the community. By transforming into a lion (‘anbessa’ in Amharic), Asalif is capable of fighting these outside forces, better understanding himself and protecting his heritage while maintaining some semblance of control against a capitalist invasion.
Asalif is able to fight back against those who are trying to cast him out, and in this respect, Anbessa’s score is appropriately dark. It isn’t apparent in the first couple of seconds – where children are laughing and playing together – but thicker drones soon come to blot out the light of their youth, throwing literal shadows over them with the prospect of a towering condominium, constructed on Asalif’s farmland, leaving both himself and his mother with a mere tool shed and no water. And the growth will not stop there; there are plans afoot to redesign and redevelop the area, the buildings beginning to mushroom outwards until people like Asalif and his mother and his friends are long forgotten. Both the country and the company will be sure to slant and spin the development, boasting of prosperity, vital economic development, and progress, when in reality it is anything but.
Asalif taps into a fantasy wherein he becomes a hero – a lion – and uses his imagination to fight back, and as he does so, the score transforms, too. Skodvin is able to capture Ethiopia through field recordings of voice, song, and the nation’s percussive flavours, adding a ferocious roar where necessary.
Under the alias of Svarte Greiner and as one half of Deaf Center, Skodvin’s music has slanted into shadows. It checks the boxes of being both haunted and bleak, but the dark was splintered by an ache of beauty and a delicate exploration of what it means to be human. Skodvin swaps the cabin in the woods for Asalif’s hut, where a simple life off the grid is on the brink of being destroyed.
The promise of a better life is often too good to be true; there are always ulterior motives, usually to the detriment of its citizens or those who were originally promised to prosper from new developments. The drones prowl around, and thrumming textures cut into the mix, chopping the air like the blades of an approaching helicopter. Asalif’s voice mingles with the sound of thunder, shaking the ground. The roots of a justified anger echo through an intense, vengeful synth, but there is hope, too. Asalif has suffered injuries, and there’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded lion, but with Anbessa’s message of hope and steely resolve, those wounds will, in the fullness of time, become battle scars.