Ethiopian News

Notes from Ethiopia: the jazz revival in Addis Ababa

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

A fusion of the eerie rhythms of ancient Ethiopian tribal music with the soulful undertones of jazz and the funky bounce of Afrobeat, Ethio-jazz had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s but in recent years has been making a slow but unmistakable comeback in the country’s capital.

“There are kids now playing Ethio-Jazz. It’s really becoming big again,” music legend Mulatu Astatke tells me on the sidelines of a gig at his bar, African Jazz Village. “I have this radio programme; for seven years I have been pumping out Ethio-jazz, teaching the people what it’s all about, but it’s definitely catching on now.”

Mulatu Astatke. Photograph: Alamy

In the basement of Addis’s historic Ghion Hotel (doubles from £60), African Jazz Village comprises a large, circular wooden room with a sunken dancefloor, and could easily be mistaken for a stylish jazz bar in a chic Chicago hotel. I encounter a very different kind of Ethio-jazz to that of Mama’s Kitchen. The band, Meleket, play soft, mellifluous free-form jazz peppered with the odd drum solo. It’s interspersed with the enchanting snake-charmer sounds of the Washint, a tribal flute, giving the music a mystical Arabian Nights feel.

That mysticism is reflected in the music’s heritage. Western-style instruments only came to Ethiopia in the 1920s, when Emperor Haile Selassie adopted a 40-strong brass band of Armenian orphans on a state visit to Jerusalem. The new palace band, and Selassie’s fondness for their music, helped popularise jazz across the country. In the mid-50s, local musicians such as Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed and Gétatchew Mèkurya began fusing the western-influenced jazz with traditional Ethiopian folk music. And so the musical genre Ethio-jazz was born.

The genre, however, was all but extinguished under the 18-year reign of Ethiopia’s communist military junta, the Derg (1973-1991); with the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam suspicious of the music’s free-form nature. However, after the Derg’s demise, Ethio-jazz experienced a slow comeback in the 90s. But with the helping hand of Astatke and other past masters, the revival has picked up pace in Addis Ababa since the start of the 21st century.

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