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.