Took a Break

So I’ve been a little less attentive to the blog than perhaps I should be. In my defense, I’ve been trying to get a pile of things done and I’ve also started a new job. I have, however, made time to write a little bit. Some of my favourites: I wrote a piece for Cult Montreal with my pal Doudou Kalala, a little something for the Montreal Gazette on Dominica, and had the opportunity to report on Astro Saulter’s show for LargeUp.

I travelled to Ethiopia to give a paper alongside Jahlani Niaah at the International Conference of Ethiopian Studies on returned Rastafari repatriates and was able to fit in an interview with Haile Roots. More on that soon.

The biggest news, however, is that I have a contract with NYU Press. A book on the Ethiopian perception of the Rastafari movement is in the works…

Reggae vibes ina Itiopia

Next week, I’m going to be talking about my research at a workshop far far away. My dissertation was called (with apologies to Mr. Kalanji) “Moving Out of Babylon, into whose Father’s Land?: The Ethiopian Perception of the Repatriated Rastafari”, and I’ll be speaking specifically about the space of Shashemene, Ethiopia and the way the very space of the town impacts the relationship between Rastafari and Ethiopia/ans.

I recently wrote a little something about Ethiopian reggae for Arte.tv’s Tonspur website (accompanied by a few of my photos and some fun videos). I presented a longer piece on the topic at the Rastafari conference in August at UWI and I’m working up a longer paper. Anyhow, the little German I know tells me that the piece was shortened and edited a little. For those interested,  the original English is here. I’d be happy for comments–this is a wee little piece of a bigger project.

Shashemene, Reggae and Rastafari

Shashemene, Ethiopia is a bustling, busy crossroads town 250 kilometres south of Addis Ababa. It’s most well known not for its huge, busy market, or proximity to the wonderful hot springs of Wondo Genet, or the fact that it’s a great place to stop before traveling onwards to the south, but for a group of settlers living on the outskirts of the city—the Rastafari.

One passes the brightly coloured Rasta houses and businesses—some that look like they could have been lifted from Kingston, Jamaica and plopped down in this place, thousands of miles away—and enters the town where the streets are filled with people. Rastafari stick out.

There’s a definite divide between the Rastafari and the Ethiopian population. Physically the Rastafari are outside of Shashemene—a car, bus, horse cart or motorcycle taxi ride away—and they are a community of hundreds next to a town of over a hundred thousand. Rastafari culture (or cultures, given that Rastafari in Shashemene hail from over a dozen countries) is significantly different from Ethiopian cultures. I met with Rastafari who would tell me how hard it was to adapt to Ethiopia. Many spoke of how hard it was to learn languages like Amharic and Afaan Oromo, others spoke about how the climate was a lot colder than what they had expected. But regardless of any discomfort, their love for the land could not be shaken.

While doing my PhD research, I worked as an English teacher at a local college in Shashemene. When I told the students I was doing research that had to do with the Rastafari, the class giggled. One made a joke about how maybe I just wanted to get my hands on “hashish”. Another said that his parents wouldn’t want him going near their area, known in Amharic as the “Jamaica sefer” (Jamaican village/area).

I told the class I was interested in what Ethiopians thought about the Rastafarian population and they all looked at me with surprise. I got this reaction a lot. “No one has ever asked what we think about the Rastas,” said one Ethiopian friend. In general, people I spoke to told me that the Rastas were nice people, but these Shashemene locals worried about marijuana and didn’t understand the belief in Haile Selassie as divine. To my students, and to every other Ethiopia I interviewed, the former emperor may have been well liked, but he certainly wasn’t God.

Even though there’s an obvious disconnect, something that works to bring both communities together is music. Once a year, on July 23, the Rastafari make themselves known with a motorcade through the town. Very few Ethiopians take notice of this afternoon affair, but at night, the Rastafari throw a huge concert party to celebrate the birthday of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie. The doors of the headquarters of the Twelve Tribes of Israel are thrown open to the surrounding community. Reggae music is played nice and loud by tremendously talented repatriate musicians, and delicious Caribbean food is cooked by tremendously talented repatriate cooks. Listening to heavy bass while eating curry goat or escoveitched fish is to be expected in Jamaica, but in Ethiopia it’s a unique experience. Tourists, Ethiopians and Rastafari of all ages all share in what is a genuinely good time.

One year I invited my translator to the Rastafari bash. As a Protestant Christian, he’s not exactly thrilled about Rastafari beliefs. But after shoveling down piles of rice and peas and jerk fish, he turned to me and said “You know, they aren’t that bad. Their food is good, and the music is all right too. I just wish they didn’t play it so loud!”

Though repatriates Rastafari like Sidney Salmon (who’s been singing “Ethiopia Is Calling” for years-see below) and Teddy Dan perform often in Ethiopia, it’s not just the Rastafari that make reggae in Ethiopia.

Artists like Jonny Ragga, Eyob Makonnen, the Mehari Brothers and the near-legendary Teddy Afro, among others, have all taken a crack at Jamaica’s most well known export.   

However, while Teddy has used the reggae rhythms to get across political sentiments, as in the banned critique of the current regime, “Yasteseryal”, folks like Jonny, Eyob and Henock Mehari, simply see it as another genre of music. Jonny Ragga’s “Give Me the Key” is an upbeat track that wouldn’t be out of place at a Jamaican dance, but the lyrics are about love for a hot girl, not for Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. The same can be said for Henock and Eyob. Henock told me that dreadlocks are connected more with “style”: “Most Ethiopians are not into this faith. It is a bit confusing here. Everybody loves reggae music here. Bob Marley is famous and well known. This is one of the influences. And reggae music and culture is getting bigger worldwide. It is not just Rasta. I see the music as originally theirs, but many artists have been adapted it to their beliefs…I see it like normal music.” 

When people ask me what Ethiopians think of Rastafari, I often have them listen to some Ethiopian reggae. Certainly, some people I spoke in Ethiopia really didn’t like Rastafarian beliefs and therefore had no interest in the Rastafari. What’s interesting about music, however, is that it allows people to connect. Sure, Ethiopians and Rastafari might not have the same attitudes and opinions, but through the various versions of reggae that have been created in Ethiopia as a result of the Rastafari presence, there is an element of understanding—through music, culture can be shared.