1000 Stars Festival is the “Woodstock of Africa”. Groups from 50 tribes in South Ethiopia gather together for a three day celebration of Music and Culture in their struggle for freedom of expression. Last year the protestant in the government closed the festival and arrested the organizer.

a film by Assif Tsahar,




December 2008, Arba-Minch, a shanty town in South Ethiopia with a population of 70,000, was transformed, for three days, into the “Woodstock of Africa”. 1,000 performers from more than 50 different tribes of the Rift Valley came together to celebrate their culture, filling the town with sounds and colors of joy. 

The festival is called “1,000 Stars Festival” .  As Befetary Chombe, the Festival's organizer says; “for them; everybody is a star, even the audience are stars”. This is an amazing event with the synergy of music, culture and social activism all happening under one umbrella, in one of the most remote areas of Africa, where modern society has hardly touched.

In 2009 the protestant government closed the festival and arrested Chombe.

The film “1000 Stars” follows the festival from the preliminary stages of production till its conclusion. Our main protagonist is Chombe, the festival organizer and creator who made this festival his life work.Chombe is a photographer by profession. He has a little shop called “Photo Chombe” on the main street. He is very lively and expressive; very outward and open with his emotions and always speaks his mind.  He is nicknamed " Che", which is well fitting, as he never stops fighting for what he believes in. The film intimately follows Chombe, from the preparations of the 2008 festival, during the festival itself, to the point where his NGO and the festival are closed down by the government, he is arrested and has to leave his home and family to be safe.

It is a film about love and music, how essential they are to our social fabric and how easily they are lost. It's about vanishing cultures from the heart of Africa who have kept the ancient traditions of religion, music and dance that have held their social fabric together for centuries. These  Cultures and music have rarely been seen or heard outside South Ethiopia, and only few in the western world are aware of their existence.

On one side of this story we have people who, driven by their love of those cultures and music, give everything they have in their struggle for freedom of cultural expression in their society. On the other side, a group of protestant missionaries, politicians who manipulate the local people and try to eliminate these old traditions which they deem worthless and barbaric.

This story raises very strong questions about how and what happens as traditional societies are being run over by modern society.


The Rift Valley of South Ethiopia is culturally one of the most diverse areas in the world.  In the Ethiopian Federation, the area is called “Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region” or SNNPR.  There are more than 50 distinct Peoples who live there, each speaking a different language united by the official language of Ethiopia- Amharic. The uniqueness of this region in Africa is that it was never colonized and until lately there were only few missionaries working there.  The  people within this region have kept their traditions and religions for centuries. They have been living almost totally untouched by modern society.  

In the past two decades, the Protestant church greatly increased its presence in the SNNPR area. According to the 2007 census the number of traditional believers is down from 4.6% in 1994 to 2.6% (in all of Ethiopia),  almost a 50% change.

The protestants entrench themselves in  local politics, even though the Ethiopian constitution calls for total freedom of religion and a separation between religion and State. The Protestants forbid their followers to practice their old traditional practices. They forbid dancing and singing which do not follow the church dogma. They forbid traditional music at funerals and celebrations of harvest, marriage or birth. They have been desecrating local holy grounds, making a point of building churches on them,  causing violent conflicts throughout. 

Five years ago, through the funding of the Christiansen fund (U.S), which devotes itself to cultural diversity around the world, the “1000 Stars Festival” began. It brought together more than 50 groups of around 20 performers each, from all the different Peoples of the SNNPR, for a three day festival in the town of Arba Minch.  During the 3 days, each group plays for about 10 minutes at the town’s soccer field before an audience of more then 20,000 people mostly from Arba Minch. The performers all sleep together, share food and music. Tribes that have been in conflict will sleep next to each other and the rival tribe elders will gather and talk.

In addition, the organizers of the festival establish a small association (usually headed by one person) in each tribe, which is responsible for keeping alive the unique practices of the culture, music and dance of each tribe throughout the whole year. These associations also engage in environmental work, growing local native crops and keeping the past traditional agricultural practices alive.

Last year, the local government of SNNPR, which is strongly influenced by the Protestants, closed the festival, it's organization and all the local associations. They did so with no real official reason. This is one of the poorest places in the world. The Christensen foundationfrom the US gives around $200,000 for the festival to happen. Closing it and the associations is a very hard blow on a lot of the local people. Chombe, the organizer of the festival was put  jailed for 2 weeks and  ordered to stop any activity concerning the festival.  This year, when we came to continue filming, we were stopped for questioning and after a few days, we were forced to leave. Chombe was arrested again and later released. In June there are elections in Ethiopia, we hope that they will bring a positive change.



“1000 STARS” will be made as a 56:40 minutes film. It is filmed in HD.  The hour format fits the story as it combines both very rich visual and sound materials with a complex story covering more than two years of intensive activity.

The film will be using two approaches to tell its story. The first, a very strong story which is told by our main protagonist Chombe, in the style of  cinéma vérité. Since we are good friends, the story unfolds through the intimate interactions and conversations between us.

Our second approach is to indulge the audience in the amazing visual and audio experience of the "1000 Stars Festival"and the amazing surrounding scenery. By using different editing approaches with strong connections between the visual and audio, we wish to materialize the experience of being there, which we feel will provide the viewer with a very strong emotional connection to the story line.


The movie opens on the mountains of south Ethiopia, the camera follows the performers of the Konzo tribe as they walk down a dirt road. They all wear the same traditional costumes in red and blue woven cotton, some hold long spears in their hands.   It is a beautiful scenery with green mountains all around.  As they arrive down the road, they sit in the shade waiting. A truck stops. They all rush toward it, scrambling to get on to the back of it. The women raise their dresses to climb onto the side of the truck; a sandal falls off as one women pushes herself to get on top. They are all crowded in with their spears and bags. The truck leaves a cloud of dust behind.

We are in Arba Minch, a shanty town of 70,000 people in the remote area of the Rift Valley. It lies in a valley between two lakes surrounded by beautiful mountains. The town has one paved street full of little stores, bars, cafes and a daily bazar market. The streets are crowded with kids playing and people wandering around. We meet Chombe Betefary, a photographer; he is the heart of the festival. This is his life's project. Everybody calls him Che and this name is well fitting. He is very charismatic and well known in the area but in his spirit he is anything but a politician, he is a pure idealist. He takes me on a motorbike from the festival grounds to the office where we sit to talk. Chombe - “The religious tell them this is ‘Devil’s music’. You should sing about Jesus. This is why we started this festival, to bring back the fertile knowledge, fertile music, and fertile art. The peasants, they always sing, when someone dies they sing, when they cultivate they sing. That is why we call it 1,000 stars, because for us everybody is a star. For the Europeans there is always one man who is the star. But for us everybody is a star, even the audience is a star.”

In the soccer field at the end of town, a group of workers construct the performance area, Chombe walks us through the field, instructing the workers.  Our team works on erecting the sound system.As the camera rises, overlooking the soccer field, it zooms out over the field as a beautiful full moon rises above.

Night time, the silhouettes of people walking are seen through the passing cars lights. A few buses turn into a big courtyard. From one of the buses the performers of the Daasanach tribe step down. They are dressed in colorful tight shirts. They look like kings. Hundreds of performers are gathering, music is all around. A group from the Hamer tribe is clapping long wooden sticks in polyrhythmic patterns. Above, they all chant a simple catchy melody in haunting voices. The circle of the group is broken. The camera from below watches a man wildly dancing, the full moon above him. The horse men are leading this night's parade through the main street of Arba Minch. Behind them, all  the tribes are walking, singing, while some jump together keeping a simple rhythmic pattern in their steps.  The performers from the Darishe and Ari are playing one note flutes, creating a polyphonic melody like a forest of birds.

        It is dawn, the sky has a beautiful purple hue. A few women are walking the street, they are covered with white Netela; a traditional Ethiopian scarf.  The performers are getting ready for the opening parade and ceremony. Most of them stay at a hall called the “police hall”, where they sleep on yellow foam mattresses spread on the floor. In the yard, the performers of the Arbore and Nyangatom tribes paint their bodies in traditional patterns; each one paints the other in delicate movement. It is a beautiful and intimate way in which they relate to each other.  At the same time, other tribes rehearse their performance. The Sidama line up a row of men in front of a row of women. As they step toward each other, they begin a wild dance with their heads swinging back and forth, as if in a trance. All around, it's a beautiful chaos of sounds and colors as they all start the parade to the performance field.   The Camera follows their shadows on the road as they step holding spears in their hands. It looks like an image from a greek vase. The Konso tribe forms a circle. They clap short sticks giving clave rhythms while in the middle a man and a woman dance moving their chests wildly, creating the image of two birds in a mating dance. The camera moves in a long shot along the parade from tribe to tribe as they dance their way past the “stage” with the different sounds blending together like in an “African" Ives Symphony.

It is the opening ceremony, Chombe is running  around everywhere, he is gathering the tribe elders on the stage to give the opening blessing for the festival.  The first tribe to perform is the Surma. They step out from behind the backstage all in a row led by a woman playing a small drum, giving a simple steady beat. An old man steps out from the group and walks towards the audience, holding a long stick. He has a kind of a metal horn tied to his forehead. He shakes wildly and then stands totally still, his facial expression is very intense like that of an African Kabuki dancer.  For the next three days, each of the fifty tribes will perform for ten minutes, from 10 AM until sunset. As the first performances go on, backstage, the bus with the Zala tribe arrives. It's roof is covered with their huge drums. While they unload the drums, the last thing left behind on the roof is a goat which has travelled with them. They go on stage, arranging a long row of their two headed drums on the floor, one in front of each drummer.  They play an intense rhythm as their hands stretch to each side of the drums, flapping the drum heads like big bird wings. From the audience, people run onto the stage. The whole stage is covered with people jumping and dancing.

The happening all around is as electric as the shows themselves. There is music everywhere as the musicians check each other out. Rivaling tribes share food and bed. The performers experience the town, going shopping and bar hopping. The people of Arba-Minch are swept away by the joyful and festive ambience. The festival feels like a time-out from everyday reality for everyone there, giving rise to surreal situations; for example, some of the performers do not use currency in their daily life but are still getting paid by the organizers.

A proud Mursi woman, with her bare chest and a big lip plate, walks into the room, approaching the desk. She doesn't know how to write so she signs with a finger print. The organizers give her the payment for her performance in the festival.  She counts it, a little distrusting, turns and walks away, as we see her friends' faces peeking through the glass.

The performers from the Dizi tribe spend their time between shows at the local bar, drinking home-made alcohol, they sit in a tiny hut drinking some brownish brew from a metal can. They drink, two together from the same can and then make a big noise laughing. They eat red beans, again, one man feeds the other with a spoon. There is such a beautiful intimacy between all of them.  When they finish drinking, they go together to shop for machetes for work.

We are preparing a recording session with the Zala tribe. I play my tenor sax with the drummers as the others dance in front. High above us, a flock of eagles circle the sky. It's a wild session. After we sit together to eat raw meat, an Ethiopian delicacy, we quickly edit the recording on a laptop. When they listen back, their excitement is enchanting. Once the headphones cover their ears, their whole body starts to move and their faces lighten up. Chombe is there with us, he is telling us how he saw the two waring tribes of Erbora and Borana sleeping together sharing food. He says “The festival is changing everything it is bringing the people together, humanity together.”

This fantastic quality spills over to the event itself, the state of the art sound system amplifying a big rock concert played with handmade traditional instruments. Although it is the first time for most of the performers to play in front of such a large crowd, not one of them seems stage shy. A 15 year old girl sings in front of tens of thousands of people as if it were most natural, yet she has never held a microphone before.

We are immersed in all the visuals of the festival and the tribe people's experience of Arba Minch (“the big city”)  in a kind of a video clip with no words,  just the enhanced addition of the changing music.


I am back in Arba Minch. It is the date of the festival, but this year it has been cancelled by the Protestants who took power in the government of the southern region. Everybody is upset but no one will say much. I go to “Photo Chombe”, Che is sitting outside his shop with his wife and sister, chewing “Ghat”. Overjoyed to see each other, we hug and sit down to talk.

His stories pour out, the police searching his house and shop; he was put in jail last month, but laughs at the experience. One small room with 40 men, some killers, big bugs crawling all over. “It was great” he jokes. Writing a petition as a last resort to save the festival is what got him in jail.

We Visit Chombe's mother who lives in a mud brick house with a beautiful small yard in the back roads of the town. It is the day the festival was supposed to start. On the wall of the house Chombe hangs pictures of last year's festival creating a small exhibition. We all sit around for the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, talking about the power struggle against the Protestants.  It's a complex situation in which the Protestants help and gain strong influence on the local leadership and then use this power to manipulate the poorer population around them. All along is the long process of making the coffee from roasting the coffee beans on a small pan, grinding them with a small metal rod, then cooking the coffee.

We go up the mountain to the village overlooking Arba Minch. Chombe talks to an old man who is the local musician. We ask him to play some of the old songs for us. He says he can't. It is bad music he says; "Jesus says so". We keep insisting. When we go to his house away from the street, he agrees and sings with his Karr (the Ethiopian harp) a beautiful song, an old universal blues.

The scenery is breathtaking. The Gamo highland is famous for cotton weaving, and beautiful colorful cloths are spread all around. We are in a lodge sitting around. I show Chombe, his wife and sister our clips from last year's festival. Chombe's eyes fill with tears.  “If they look at this, next to their children, I don't know what do they say to them", he says. 

On the computer screen we see the closing performances of last year's festival. The Darishe are on, they are a group of twelve people each playing a one note flute of different length. They weave a complex web of whistles, the sounds are like a forest full of birds, all singing in synchronized rhythms, and the huge audience loves them. We hear their roar with each jump of the group’s dance.

For the last performance it's the Wailaita tribe, they dance wildly, jumping high and using long spears. The pulse is set by two drummers, while long horns play powerful rhythmic patterns. The audience dance, everyone is on their feet. As the sun sets, the crowd lights small string candles, swarming the performance area, small ceremonial fires are lit around. Chombe is crying “we did it, we did it...”.  He is running around overjoyed, hugging everybody.


We wanted to finish our filming during our last visit to Ethiopia in December 2009, but because we were arrested and had to go back, coupled with Chombe's situation, our plans were changed. We won't go back to Ethiopia until after the election in June this year, probably around September, October. We would like to have about one more week of shooting there.

We are now starting to edit the material we have and are working on raising additional funds for  post-production.

1000 STARS