DigiBlogs: Notes from Ethiopia: the jazz revival in Addis Ababa

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I’m submerged in a heaving, sweaty mass of bodies, all singing, dancing, clapping along to the mesmeric crooning of Alemayehu Eshete – the gentleman regarded as the Ethiopian Elvis. It is Saturday night time and I’m sharing limited oxygen with Addis Ababa’s good and excellent at Mama’s Kitchen, a wood-and-glass bar on the fourth floor of an innocuous browsing mall near Bole airport. Eshete, a shining star of the 1960s Ethiopian audio scene, conducts the revelry in nearby Amharic tones as his band deliver a hypnotic combine of funky jazz, rockabilly and the swinging scales of classic Ethiopian folk. This is Ethio-jazz.

A fusion of the eerie rhythms of ancient Ethiopian tribal audio with the soulful undertones of jazz and the funky bounce of Afrobeat, Ethio-jazz had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s but in new many years has been generating a gradual but unmistakable comeback in the country’s cash.

“There are little ones now playing Ethio-Jazz. It is truly starting to be large once more,” audio legend Mulatu Astatke tells me on the sidelines of a gig at his bar, African Jazz Village. “I have this radio programme for 7 many years I have been pumping out Ethio-jazz, instructing the persons what it is all about, but it is unquestionably catching on now.”


Mulatu Astatke. Photograph: Alamy

In the basement of Addis’s historic Ghion Lodge (doubles from £60), African Jazz Village includes a large, round wooden place with a sunken dancefloor, and could effortlessly be mistaken for a stylish jazz bar in a chic Chicago resort. I encounter a pretty unique variety of Ethio-jazz to that of Mama’s Kitchen. The band, Meleket, engage in gentle, mellifluous absolutely free-variety jazz peppered with the odd drum solo. It is interspersed with the enchanting snake-charmer seems of the Washint, a tribal flute, giving the audio a mystical Arabian Nights sense.

That mysticism is mirrored in the music’s heritage. Western-model instruments only came to Ethiopia in the twenties, when Emperor Haile Selassie adopted a 40-strong brass band of Armenian orphans on a state check out to Jerusalem. The new palace band, and Selassie’s fondness for their audio, helped popularise jazz across the nation. In the mid-50s, nearby musicians this sort of as Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed and Gétatchew Mèkurya commenced fusing the western-motivated jazz with classic Ethiopian folk audio. And so the musical style Ethio-jazz was born.

The style, even so, was all but extinguished underneath the eighteen-year reign of Ethiopia’s communist military junta, the Derg (1973-1991) with the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam suspicious of the music’s absolutely free-variety nature. Even so, just after the Derg’s demise, Ethio-jazz professional a gradual comeback in the 90s. But with the aiding hand of Astatke and other previous masters, the revival has picked up speed in Addis Ababa given that the start out of the 21st century.

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A efficiency at Mama’s Kitchen. Photograph: Oliver Gordon

Ethio-jazz is now played on the radio and taught at all the capital’s audio colleges, and a new crop of musicians is commencing to flower as a end result. “There are gifted youthful musicians out there, this sort of as Girum Gizaw (from the aforementioned Meleket) and Samuel Yirga, who are truly coming up’,” suggests Astatke. “But they’re not just mimicking the old audio, they’re evolving it into new directions.”

Other put up-Derg exponents involve Henock Temesgen’s Nubian Arc, the JAzmaris, Girum Mezmur’s Addis Acoustic Renaissance and Melaku Belay’s Ethiocolor Band. They can all be identified playing at the city’s favorite jazz haunts: the aforementioned Mama’s Kitchen and African Jazz Village, along with the grittier Jazzamba, Espresso Household (opposite the Egyptian Embassy, Off Angola Stret, Sidist Kilo), Le Bateau Ivre (Dejamach Beyene Merid Street, Kazanchis) and Fendika Azmari Bet.

A dim, dank jazz den connected to the Lodge Taitu playing gigs 7 nights a 7 days, Jazzamba is at present shut due to a hearth past year but is expected to reopen afterwards in 2016. The good thing is, Espresso Household, one of Addis’s oldest jazz houses, not long ago reopened just after a spell on the sidelines and hosts the capital’s major Ethio-jazz players on Thursday and Saturday nights. And if you like to get up near and personal with your jazz, Le Bateau Ivre is a laid-again but cramped tapas bar in the Kazanchis district that normally has reside concerts. Also in Kazanchis, Fendika is the prototypical azmari guess (practically, Household of the Musician) and hosts jazz and Ethiopian folk.

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Taitu Lodge, a excellent spot for hoping Wat (stew). Photograph: Alamy

Right before hitting the town, it is worthy of fuelling up on two of Ethiopia’s specialities: coffee and meals. For the previous, check out Addis’s oldest and most commemorated coffee house, Tomoca or, for a more folksy expertise, any of the multitude of gap-in-the-wall coffee stalls all over the metropolis. For meals, fill up on any of a wide variety of Wat (spiced stews) served on the significantly-revered injera (sourdough pancake) at the low cost and cheerful Taitu Lodge – Addis’s oldest, and the environment of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop. Or, for the total gastronomic immersion, delight in a spectacular meal buffet and classic tribal dancing performances for all over £10-£15 a head at Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant.

If you are eager to get underneath the skin of Addis’s jazz scene, go to Fendika, the doing the job man’s musical refuge. Wandering through a nondescript gate in the Kazanchis, you locate yourself in a cavernous tavern, adorned with animal hides and resembling a wide bedouin tent. Most nights there are performances by azmaris (classic musical satirists). But each and every other Saturday it is residence to the Ethiocolor Band: a collective of musicians mixing experimental jazz with the unique seems of Ethiopian tribal instruments this sort of as the crar (Ethiopian lute) and Masinko (a type of one-string violin) and accompanied by shoulder-gyrating Eskista dancers.

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Espresso shop Tomoca. Photograph: Alamy

“Famous jazz musicians from all over the entire world arrive to engage in at Fendika,” the bar’s operator and Ethiocolor’s orchestrator, Melaku Belay, tells me, reeling off an esoteric list of Norwegian saxophonists and Chicagoan drummers. But irrespective of his optimism for the trajectory of Ethio-jazz in Addis, he confides he harbours fears over the homogenising impact of western musical society, and the precedent established by a new spate of federal government-enforced closures of quite a few of the city’s azmari bets to make way for new high-increase properties.

Inspite of its new revival, Ethio-jazz is continue to fairly underground in the metropolis and has a way to go to match its previous glories: sitting in one of the Addis’s Soviet-era Lada Sedan taxis, you are more most likely to hear Orthodox Amharic folk audio and frequenting one of the city’s high-conclusion nightclubs, more most likely to encounter the Ethiopian equal of Rihanna. However, as I begrudgingly board my flight residence, only to be fulfilled by the dulcet tones of Mulatu Astatke, I’m reminded – and certain – of Belay’s parting words to me: “Ethio-jazz will in no way die.”

For listings of Ethio-Jazz nights in Addis check out thisisaddis.com

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