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In Ethiopia’s Capital, a Resurgent Jazz Scene – NYTimes.com

In Ethiopia’s Capital, a Resurgent Jazz Scene – NYTimes.com


In Ethiopia’s Capital, a Resurgent Jazz Scene


Mulatu Astatke, seen as the father of Ethio-jazz, performs at African Jazz Village, which opened in late 2013. Credit Nichole Sobecki for The New York Times 

Cultured Traveler 



On a recent Sunday evening, a stylish audience in their 20s packed Mama’s Kitchen, a wood-and-glass lounge on the fourth floor of an otherwise closed shopping center near the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. They were there to hear an adventurous young pianist, Samuel Yirga, as he careened between free jazz, études, R&B and the popular local style known as Ethio-jazz, a bewitching genre that fuses jazz with traditional Ethiopian music.

Mr. Yirga’s fingers flew across the keyboard, and the crowd nodded their heads reverently even through deep forays into dissonance. The musician’s intricate arrangements for his band featured psychedelic guitar lines and funky drumming, but the focus remained on the piano melody, which Mr. Yirga accentuated with the kind of ornaments and leaps characteristic of Ethiopian music.

“I think we Ethiopians love our own thing more than other things,” the dreadlocked 29-year-old, who has signed with Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records label, said before the concert. “We respect and love other cultures, but we love our own music, our own food, dance and clothes the most.”

Mama’s Kitchen is one of several venues featuring different jazz styles — from swing to acoustic, instrumental to free jazz — that have sprung up in the Ethiopian capital in recent years. The resurgent music scene is far from the only change occurring in this frenetic city of nearly four million.

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Samuel Yirga – Ambassel in Box Revisited (Live) Video by Real World Records

Bulldozers have created canyons between the palm trees planted on busy boulevards to make way for a light rail system, set to debut in 2015. Domed Orthodox churches and tiny stalls with tin roofs and painted signs are interspersed with brand-new skyscrapers, glass-fronted malls and the spaceship-like complex that houses the headquarters of the African Union. During rush hour, visitors can spend a lot of time listening to Ethiopian pop in the Soviet-era blue Lada sedans that serve as taxis.

Nowadays jazz concerts take place all over the city, and on nearly every night of the week a clarinet is being played in a mirrored discothèque in an old hotel, or in a smoky one-room club near the airport. But even though Ethio-jazz dates from the 1960s, its reappearance in the capital is a fairly new development.

For nearly two decades until 1991, the country was ruled by a Communist military junta, the Derg, and its dictatorial leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam. There was an evening curfew in place, so the nightclubs, concert spaces and traditional music houses called azmari bets that had been vital parts of society essentially ceased to exist. The free-form nature of jazz music made it particularly suspect to the country’s authoritarian rulers. Many musicians, along with hundreds of thousands of other Ethiopians seen as fomenting opposition to the regime, were killed, jailed or exiled.

“Imagine the city where you live without a single night of night life for 18 years,” said Francis Falceto, the producer of “Éthiopiques,” a 29-disc series of music recordings from the 1960s and 1970s that helped ignite global interest in Ethiopian jazz. “It totally destroyed, almost overnight, the music life and radically stopped the development of Ethiopian modern music.”

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Colonel Mengistu was overthrown in 1991, but the Addis music scene began a slow comeback only starting in the late 1990s. “The curfew was there for so long that it really was a part of the lifestyle. It took some time for people to start to go out more, for nightclubs to flourish,” said Girum Mezmur, who plays in the jazz group Addis Acoustic Project. “After the Derg time it was a lot freer. People started moving back home, and it was a revival not only for music but for other forms of art as well.”

Known for its jazzy arrangements of midcentury Ethiopian classics, Addis Acoustic Project performs every Friday night at Jazzamba Lounge, a popular music space that opened in 2011 in the former ballroom of the capital’s oldest hotel, the Itegue Taitu. Owned by musicians who returned to Ethiopia after decades in exile in the United States, the club hosts live performances seven nights a week, mostly of jazz.

Outside Jazzamba sits a cannon commemorating the Battle of Adwa, which saw the Ethiopian army defeating the Italians in 1896 and halting a planned colonization of their country. Patrons enter the club through a wooden revolving door. Inside is a large, homey space with antique furniture, yellow patterned curtains and a French chandelier hung from a painted dome. Framed photos of musicians decorate the walls, and waitresses in gold embroidered tunics pour glasses of the local Gouder red wine for music fans at candlelit tables.

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Addis Acoustic Project by Girum Mezmur – Live at Jazzamba August, 2012, "Meche Dereshe"Video by Addis Acoustic Project

On a recent evening, Addis Acoustic Project’s concert at Jazzamba began with a short, mellifluous composition played on a krar, a traditional lyre made of wood and hide. Afterward the members of the band, ranging in age from 29 to 73, took to the small, elevated stage. A snaking clarinet melody began, quickly merging with a hypnotic drumbeat and a double bass guitar rhythm. A dapper man in a light blue suit began strumming a mandolin. He was Ayele Mamo, a venerable musician who had recorded prolifically in the 1950s and helped shape the sound of that era.

The honeyed melody coming from Mr. Mamo’s instrument provided a perfect backdrop for the strong, clear tenor of Girma Negash, a legendary singer from the old days. Before Jazzamba opened, he had not sung in decades. After years of making ends meet as a school bus driver in the capital, Mr. Negash was clearly enjoying his moment back in the spotlight, beginning his love ballads with whistles that mimicked bird song. “I hope I will see you again. Even though I am so scared, I still have hope,” he crooned in the Amharic language, beaming nearly as brightly as his golden tie.

Across town, the Ethiocolor Band, dressed in leopard-print costumes and clutching wooden spears, was launching into an expressive hunting dance from the small town of Konso, in Ethiopia’s southwest. Every other Friday, the music and dance troupe performs something of a cultural variety show for a rapt local audience at Fendika Azmari Bet, a cozy bar where colorful fabrics cover the walls and braided palm leaves decorate the ceiling.

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The Addis Acoustic Group plays at Jazzamba Lounge, which opened in 2011. Credit Nichole Sobecki for The New York Times 

Ethiopia has been home to azmari bets — taverns featuring sung comedy accompanied by a lyre — for centuries, but what the Ethiocolor Band does at Fendika is quite different. Led by the charismatic Addis-born dancer Melaku Belay, the 13-member group has reimagined traditional Ethiopian culture for the 21st century, combining tribal dances and indigenous instruments with jazz, rock, theater and lots of costume changes. On a recent late night, the crowd that gathered around the dancers — wearing spiky wigs made from the hair of gelada baboons — was invited to show off their skills at the eskista, a shoulder-shaking jig.

“I believe tradition is never stuck,” Mr. Belay said. The self-taught dancer, who is 38, had first come to the place where the Ethiocolor Band performed when he was a child living on the street. Mr. Belay said that he’d slept under the bar for seven years, earning his board by working without pay. Many years later he bought Fendika Azmari Bet from its former owners and began to shake up the city’s cultural life. As he put it, “I am the bridge to connect jazz and theater to azmaris.”

While azmaris are traditional here, jazz instruments first made their way to Ethiopia through a surprising route early in the 20th century. In 1924, Haile Selassie (then known as Ras Tafari) visited Jerusalem. The future emperor was welcomed to the ­city at the St. James Cathedral, a Crusader-era Armenian church, by a brass band composed entirely of teenage orphans, survivors of the Armenian genocide. What happened next changed the course of musical history in Ethiopia.

“Prince Ras Tafari adopted 40 Armenian orphans from Jerusalem to be the first imperial band,” said Aramazt Kalayjian, a documentary filmmaker working on a film about the Armenian community in Ethiopia. “They played for his honor, and he loved the music and what they were doing, and decided to give them jobs.”

This palace band, called Arba Lijoch (The 40 Orphans), helped to popularize trombones, saxophones and trumpets in Ethiopia. With this foundation, and the work of a few inspired bandleaders, including several Armenians, a jazz scene began to take shape in Addis over the next decades. During the 44-year reign of Haile Selassie, jazz and brass bands were often hired to play for the emperor and his guests.

Starting in the mid-1960s, musicians like Mulatu Astatke began fusing Western-style jazz and funk with traditional Ethiopian folk and religious melodies, creating a unique strand of jazz. Mr. Astatke is seen as the father of Ethio-jazz and is Ethiopia’s most famous living musician.



Fendika Azmari Bet. Credit Nichole Sobecki for The New York Times 

While the 70-year-old Mr. Astatke has a demanding tour schedule, he still found the time to open a music venue and school called African Jazz Village here in late 2013. On a recent Saturday night, a boisterous crowd of Ethiopians and expats was just beginning to trickle onto the sunken dance floor of the club, a historic spot on the grounds of the boxy, government-owned Ghion Hotel, known in its heyday in the 1970s for hosting Bob Marley and Billy Ocean.

The circular room, with its disco ball and colorful strobe lights, looked like a mirrored roulette wheel. A saxophone player launched into a sinuous lead-in, then Mr. Astatke strode out on stage and began to play the conga drums. The crowd, delighted at this rare live appearance of the jazz icon, showed its appreciation by thronging the dance floor.

Before the concert, Mr. Astatke spoke enthusiastically about the future of the genre he invented and the next generation that is embracing it. “There are a lot of young musicians playing Ethio-jazz,” Mr. Astatke said in his low, raspy voice. “It’s developing, which I think feels great.”


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