Listening to Addis Ababa in Kingston

This coming weekend it’s the annual EMP Pop Conference. This will be the fourth time I’ve spoken at the conference, which is an annual music nerd-fest of epic proportions. There’s so many interesting papers, discussions and performances going on that it’s hard to choose which to attend.

I co-presented a paper on screwed and chopped hip hop in 2007, then talked about soundclash in 2008, and finally, in 2011 I talked about collaborations between Jamaican dancehall artists and folks from foreign. This year it’s all about Addis Ababa. I decided to submit an abstract after reading about Benjamin Lebrave’s disappointment with contemporary Ethiopian music. Of course, those who have done a little reading of this blog or who know me know that I’m a pretty big fan of Ethiopia and Ethiopian music (shout out to Debo Band!). I have, however, been specifically interested in the reactions people have to the music they hear in Addis Ababa as well as the work of someone like Melaku Belay–emblematic of what one might call a recent traditional music renaissance (or perhaps just another approach to the traditional).

This means I’ve been listening to a whole pile of Ethiopian music here in Kingston, and I’ve renewed my big love for Teddy Afro and reminisced about the Ethiopian millennium…

Anyhow, if you’re interested in what Addis Ababa sounds like, I’ll be talking on the Repositioning Urban Pop panel on Friday, March 23, 2012, 9:00 – 11:00. Here’s the abstract:

‘Layers and layers of not-so-dope synths’: Listening to the Music of Addis Ababa

In a recent Fader column, record-label head and African music affectionado Benjamin Lebrave spoke of a recent trip to Addis Ababa. He had become enamoured with a particular tune with a particular synthy sound. After a week in the city, he was disappointed, finding the music either equally as synthy but “not-as-dope”, traditional, or representative of a long-past jazz period. He left frustrated.

But frustration is Addis Ababa. The city is one that demands a renewed listening ear. For Western listeners, the pentatonic backbone of much Ethiopian popular music sounds awkward and grating, especially when played on a tinny synth. Traditional instruments like the masinquo and krar accompany jerky, difficult dance moves. And though Ethio-jazz, made famous outside of Ethiopia by Mulatu Astetke, is more comfortable listening, it is representative of the sound of Ethiopia during the end of Haile Selassie’s reign—the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There are “layers and layers” of music in Addis. Like the city, its music is a complex web of old and new, serious and playful, discordant and harmonious. Addis challenges the notion of metropolis as it also challenges the notion of contemporary popular music.

This paper will take a sonic trip to and through Addis Ababa, looking at the tensions between the traditional and the modern. From the music shops of the merkato that blast Amharic pop and Celine Dion in equal measures, to the Azmari bets where stories, songs and insults are served up alongside folk dancing by traditional performers and musicians called “azmaris”, to the new generation of musicians that are playing around with bits and bobs of Ethio-jazz, Addis Ababa redefines “dope”.

Haile Roots Reggae

Ethiopian singer Haile Roots just released his first album of Amharic-language reggae called Chiggae (indicating a mix of the Ethiopian 6/8 time rhythm called “chikchika” and reggae). Arefe, of the always informative Addis Journal, wrote a post announcing the release today.

I know this record has been a long time coming…I heard of and heard Haile Roots in 2006, when I first started research into other Ethiopians doing the reggae thing. The music by the man otherwise known as Hailemichael Genet is good–though it still maintains the synthy sound emblematic of Amharic pop. This might turn off some roots reggae puritans, but it really shouldn’t. As regards the single “Mela Enimita”, I suggest that folks listen to the whole song–after all, you get to hear Luciano and Mikey General on the track too. Luciano’s vocals are terrific, and the chorus is pretty great. The video combines footage of Addis with some bits of Shashemene. Apparently Luciano was pretty darned impressed with the resulting clip.

Sorry for the low quality–I can’t seem to find a better version (or one that has better sync), as this one seems dragged from one of the ubiquitous video cds slap dashed together to sell at music shops across Ethiopia. The actual video was made a while ago by Aida Ashenafi, the director responsible for the incredible Guzo, a film that documented what happened when two Addis Ababa city kids take a trip to the countryside to see what it’s like to live far from urban conveniences. The Simple Life this aint. You can get an idea of the film from this clip, but it’s a shame the whole thing isn’t online. And after, if you want to listen to more Haile Roots when you’re done, check here and here.

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’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.

Bringing Addis Ababa to America: part 1

Travellers to Ethiopia lucky enough to visit Ethiopian bars called azmari bets do not easily forget being a part of an enthusiastic crowd who drink cold beer and honey wine while enjoying the stories, songs and stinging yet silly insults served up alongside folk dancing by traditional performers called azmaris.

This unique experience (and hundreds of years of musical tradition) was brought to Somerville, New York, Richmond, Philadelphia, Providence, Milwaukee and Chicago over the past couple of weeks thanks to artists from Addis Ababa’s renowned Fendika azmari bet alongside the Ethiopian jazz and funk of Boston-based Debo Band. And there’s still time to catch them in Cambridge, MA on October 4.

More than a concert, Debo Band and Fendika match Ethiopian
melodies with incredible eskista—dancing that isolates the shoulders and the neck in ways that appear impossible. Melaku Belay, Fendika’s owner and principal dancer, is famous throughout Ethiopia, having performed internationally in Europe and North America dozens of times.

I’ve had the opportunity to not only see Debo Band in Ethiopia on more than one occasion, but also visit Fendika and being blown away by Melaku. All this happened because of my great good fortune–through the always fantastic Heruy Arefe-Aine, I met Danny Makonnen. Danny is the leader of Debo Band, and probably one of the most dynamic people around. His ability to explain and express opinions on music (and ethnomusicology) are only surpassed by his remarkable passion for the music he makes.

Just before the tour, I spoke to Danny about Ethiopian music, Debo, Fendika and making connections. For today, I’ll begin with his comments on the azmari tradition…

My understanding of the concept of the Azmari was really informed by early trips to Ethiopia—I was twelve when I first went to Ethiopia. My family is from Gonder, from the countryside. All the main streets in Gonder are lined with Azmari bets. I didn’t go to these places when I was twelve, but whenever a guest would come in to visit, the local azmari would be invited to come to my grandmother’s house to play for us. So my earliest memories of azmaris were these great folk musicians. It was their function to celebrate and sing praises—and to welcome long lost family members. So it’s something that I grew up hearing and appreciating in my grandmother’s house in Ethiopia. Flash forward to when I am in my early twenties and visiting Ethiopia as an adult, and I get to go and appreciate the Azmari bets myself. And these are the places where the Fendika musicians work, Addis Ababa in the Kazanchis neighbourhood.

My friend Simeneh Betreyohannes has studied them as being these things that grew out of the late seventies and eighties as places where people would basically set up shop in their living room or something like that and patrons would go to the azmari. So the azmari bet is a home for people in cities to go and experience the folk music, whereas in the country the folk comes to them. I think people in the city like to have a sense of a connection to their more idealized culture. The azmari people are folks who are the town storytellers, people who would tell accounts of the news. And these people are incredibly hip and aware of current events. Now in azmari bets in Addis, people are talking about Obama and the DV [US diversity visa] lottery. There’s lots of humour they incorporate. And they use modern, contemporary discourse, while being very rooted in the culture and in tradition. I see that relating to our project, because our project is very inspired by 1970s Ethiopia, but I don’t think that at the same time we are trying to be pure about it. I’m not trying to be a strict cover band doing things exactly as they would have been done in the 1970s. I’m aware of recent developments in music and my background is in jazz and avant garde jazz so were not trying to the most strict versions of things. And I’m also someone who has worked with contemporary Ethiopian-American hip hop artists and trying to bridge that gap as well. So the way that the contemporary azmaris function in Addis is a way that is very much playing with the idea of mixing modern and traditional.

I know that Melaku, the dancer and owner of the Fendika azmari bet, if you look at his website and read his bio, something that he talks about is that he’s not looking at the tradition in a very static way. He’s an innovative dancer. Rather than being in the cultural troupes of Addis, being at the tourist restaurants where you see all the flavours of Ethiopia in one hour, I feel that what Melaku is doing with his Ethio-color band, a 13-piece band that does folkloric music, and what he does with his performances alongside half a dozen groups from Europe and abroad like the Ex and all these other projects, I think that he’s really taking the tradition and pushing it to its limits. And I think this is something that is at the heart of what the azmari tradition is all about—and I think it’s an interesting way of also looking at what Debo Band is doing. I think we take, not necessarily the tradition of the azmaris, but the tradition of 1970s Ethiopian pop and, like azmaris, we are taking some modern twists on it.

Stay tuned for part 2. Until then, download Debo Band’s amazing new Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn) EP.

Tings and Time

A few things I’ve been doing over the past two weeks after getting back from lovely, rainy Dessie, Ethiopia.

Toronto’s Caribana was a week ago, and to commemorate the occasion I interviewed two of my former city’s finest promoters of West Indian music and culture, Nurse Karen and Tasha Rozez. You can check the pieces out on Nurse Karen gives the soca rundown and Tasha provides insight into the J’can side of things. Both, however, took the time to big up local Toronto artists, so click away and take note of the talent we have up north!

The reggae fest came to Montreal, and I wrote a piece about Bunny Wailer, but the man didn’t make it. In the Hour, Richard Burnett outlined previous Wailer-related disappointments, but the press release, issued at 2:12 AM the day of the show, demonstrated a little more than disappointment with their expected headliner by stating “Bunny Hops out of Montreal International Festival and rabbits back into his hole!” Seems that Bunny and band didn’t pick up their Canadian visas while in the UK.

Next week is the Inaugural Rastafari Studies Conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus in Kingston, JA. I’ll be there presenting a paper, moderating a panel and hopefully enjoying a few mega patties while I’m at it.

“I was pain in the ass, maybe”

As promised, Ethiopian reggae. We start with some tracks from Jonny Ragga, a performer who seems to capture what you might call a combination of hip hop attitude and 80s reggae sound. In Ethiopia, music is everywhere, and the repetition of music over and over again seem to cause tunes to grow on me big time.  This is the case with Jonny Ragga’s entire oeuvre. His imperfect English leads to wonderful lyrics like the one used for the title of this post. Over the past year or so I haven’t heard a lot from him, but I can tell you that “Abeshewi” was quite a popular tune.

“Kulfun Sechigne” (literally, “Give me the Key”) was not only popular, but its accompanying video was made by Aida Ashenafi’s Mango Films. Aida’s the director behind the excellent and visually beautiful film Guzo (meaning “Journey”), which has two Addis Ababa city kids see what it’s like to live in rural Ethiopia. The Simple Life it aint.  The high production values of the video led to it being shown on South Africa’s Channel O and winning an award.
I also like this one, it’s apparently supposed to act as a part two to “Abeshewi”, entitled “Konjo Ende Anchi”. The video was sponsored by a paint factory: Mega Paints. See if you can spot the product placement.
And, of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without “Pick Up the Phone”, the tune with the amusing lyric. I’ll leave it to those interested to search for further Jonny Ragga tunes-he has a song dedicated to Oprah (“the soul mother of the world”).