Discovering Addis Ababa’s Jazz Scene

This blog has been written in an attempt to address the apparent lack of information regarding Addis Ababa’s live music scene on the internet. At the end you will find a musical calendar, of sorts, giving where to go, and what night, if you want to find good live music in this wonderful city. It also evolved into something of a story of how we uncovered that scene, and includes some Ethiopian musical history and (badly) recorded sounds from some of the gigs we attended.

We, a pair of young Irish music-friends, Colm Ó Conchúir and Raphael Ó Muirthile, had plans to go and visit Ethiopia in May 2010. Itineraries and detailed schedules are not the best way of travelling – we knew that we wanted two things from our trip, music and mountains. The latter should be quite easy to find in a country which claims to be home to over 50% of all of Africa’s mountains. The former, one would hope, would also be easy to find, given the rich musical tradition that Ethiopia is steeped in.

Musicians such as Mulatu Astatke, Alemayehu Eshete, Afer Yemegnshale, Menelik Wossenachew, Imperial Body Guard Band, Bezuayene Zegeye and Mahmoud Ahmed have been playing on our turntables for years now, inspiring a deeper look into the musical jewels of the African continent, compositions and choices of gigs and bought music. Throughout the reign of Emporer Haile Selassie (1930-1974), large brass bands trained by Europeans and Americans were commissioned to play for him in his courts. In the last ten years of his rule, many musicans started to fuse jazz with traditional Ethiopian music (using the qenet modal system), with a little funk thrown in for good measure.

Haile Selassie (born Ras Tafari, and worshipped as the second coming of Jesus by Rastafarians), was overthrown in 1974 and brutal communist rule, the Derg, came into power until 1991. The Derg were not as favourable towards music as the Emporer had been, and where possible, musicians fled the country. The Ethiopian music scene, in its home setting, all but died.

But enough history lessons…

Raphael had been in Ethiopia twice before, and on his second trip he tried to find the elusive musical onion, going to Coffee House on a Thursday night on the recommendation of a guidebook, only to find it was shut. Several taxi drivers were asked where live jazz could be heard, which culminated in sitting listening to horrible pop music in an overpriced bar on the Bole Road, surrounded by businessmen, ex-pats and prostitutes. The pursuit of live jazz was abandoned on this particular trip, but record shopping was not. For those crate diggers amongst you, we can testify (and have it on good authority), that there is one, and only one, record seller in all of Addis Ababa. He is an old man, set deep within the enormous Merkato, Africa’s largest open-air market. He was found after hours of searching, asking, following, walking and having (empty) pockets being picked. The shop is a sort of second-hand electronics, antique-store cum charity shop. Within it lie several dusty old boxes, filled with old Amha and Philips records from the 1970’s. Many are terribly scratched and damaged, but the man will patiently let you listen through them one by one, and sold each record for 70Birr (about £3.50). We have been told that he now sells them for 200Birr. Raphael’s are not for sale, and never will be – the value is in the golden music captured on those grooves.

Raphael had told Colm all of this, and expectations were not too high of finding much in terms of live music. However, on one night out, listening to wonderful live music from West Africa in London’s finest venue, Passing Clouds, we hatched a plan. It was quite simple. We would follow the music. We would find it, first. And then we would follow it. Finding it would be the hard part. Go to music vendors. Ask taxi drivers. Ask barmen. Ask people in bars. Someone, somewhere, would have to know of someone, somewhere, in Addis, who played live music from the good old days. We would find that gig, go to it, enjoy it, and then do our damndest to befriend the musicians. Once we had found the onion we would start to peel it, go to more gigs, befriend more musicians, and uncover the musical scene in Addis Ababa – if it still existed.

So the stage was set, a determined plan was hatched, and planes were boarded. Raphael arrived a day earlier than Colm, and quite easily found the first gig, in a venue much advertised on the internet, Harlem Jazz. To his great dismay he found out that the venue was to close a week later, as the government had decided that the building should be knocked so that (another) large, overpriced hotel could be built in its place. Despite the venue’s name, jazz did not seem to feature at all. In fact, the band playing was Teddy Dan and Heartical Spence with the Natural Groove Band, who were mainly Jamaican musicians who now live in Shashamene, Ethiopia’s rasta capital. The music was enjoyable, melodic reggae – nothing to write home about, but a good atmosphere helped by Teddy Dan’s enthusiasm. The man seemed genuinely delighted to be playing to an Ethiopian crowd here in Zion, his spiritual home.

You may have heard Teddy’s famous hit, “United States of Africa”:

Colm’s arrival was unfortunately marred by a nasty flu which left him bedridden for a day, but to his credit he pulled himself out of it by the evening, and after a feed of pasta in a swanky Italian restaurant with hilariously over-attentive waiters, we went off in search of music. The hunt ended with something of a fizzle as a taxi-ride across town led us to a bar that was closed, as it was Sunday night. Perhaps a combination of Colm being unwell and the general unlikelihood of actually finding live music on a Sunday night led us to give up – we asked the driver to take us back to a bar near our hotel, where we planned to have a quiet beer or two before going to bed.

On the way, during conversation with the driver, he casually asked us if we liked jazz. Trying not to fall out of our seats with enthusiasm, we casually answered that yes, we did. He said he knew of a place at the end of Bole Road where he could take us, which he believed should have live Ethio-jazz that night. Suddenly, the window of possibility had re-opened. Unfortunately we were to be disappointed – the bar was a horribly shiny, new-age place completely devoid of soul, and with no music whatsoever. We had regained some enthusiasm, though, and decided to try a little harder. We asked the barman here if there would be live music later, and were told that no, they only had a (rock) band on Thursdays. We asked if there was any place that would have live music tonight, and after some humming and hawing, he said that yes, there was a place not far from here. Directions were given, and off we went.

As it turned out, we inadvertently walked right past where we were supposed to go. And kept walking. And nearly gave up. But, then, all of a sudden, we heard the distinctive sound of cymbals crashing and beautiful tinkling keys of a piano. We were now outside a bar about 200m further on from the one we had been given directions to. And through this bizarre sequence of events, we had unwittingly stumbled across our first night of good music in Addis… in fact probably the best gig we would see here.

We were usuhered upstairs by the friendly bouncer, the warm glow of jazz chords becoming louder with every step -  at the top of the stairs we both looked at each other with faces of silent hysterics – this was something special. Round, elevated tables with high stools were scattered carefully around the room, dim illumination courtesy of some table candles, streams of cigarette smoke visible here and there, a murmurous crowd huddled in twos and threes, smart attentive waitresses whizzing by with silver plates of beers – very new york jazz club you may think, and you’d be right except for one thing – the music. At the top of the room everyone’s gaze was held by a band called The Nubian Arc – it comprised of bass, kit, percussion, tenor sax, trombone, and keys. Settling at a table down the back we ordered two beers as the band launched into fantastic ethio-jazz track, one after another. These guys were all extremely talented musicians, and as the night went on this became abundantly clear. Their arrangements on traditional jazz, funk and ethio music were perfect, every track meandering on for well over the 8 minute mark, shamelessly long individual improvisations, super tight rhythm section, every member completely comfortable in their role and with each other on stage. This dynamic showed, and the audience were more than appreciative, the crowd growing to capacity by end of the night. The Nubian Arc band deserves much kudos – their music was a mixture of originals and covers, but the take on each of the tracks and the individual solo’s were truly unique – this was top-class, beautiful ethio-jazz. One of the performers in this band particularly caught our eye, the pianist Samuel Yirga. We both actually took it in turns to go up by the side of the stage to watch his solos, words cannot describe well enough how talented he is – his hands were mostly a blur to watch. We ended up talking to Sammy afterwards. To our amazement, he told us he had only started learning to play 7 years ago. He told us how he had also played and recorded with a UK band, Dub Colossus. A brilliant musician and true gentleman, we would later meet up with Sammy in London, where he was firming up details of his forthcoming solo album.

If you check out one link on this blog, watch this clip of Sammy playing the keys:

[VIMEO 11804510]

Here’s a recording taken on one of our phone’s from the night – quality isn’t great, but should give you a flavour of what we were listening to (watch out for Sammy’s solo!).

Here’s a mini-documentary about Dub Colossus, Sammy’s other band:

Later in the night we noticed a young man standing beside us with a black saxophone case. In keeping with our plan to peel back the musical onion of Addis, we started up a conversation. Girum, a recent graduate of Addis’ Jazz University was part of what we would later discover to be the new generation of gifted jazz musicians in Addis Ababa. A great guy, humble and polite, he loved his jazz and spent his days practicing the sax for hours and hours and his nights gigging and watching groups such as The Nubian Arc perform. We spent the rest of the night chatting to Girum about the music scene, jazz favorites, and his own gigging band. At one stage we were deep in conversation when suddenly he turned to us, eyes wide with excitement, and said “I go play now” – and nonchalantly walked up on stage to jam with the band! It was a brilliant insight into this fantastic scene, where all musicians are in total support of each other – friends, class mates, teachers, professionals, amateurs, young, old, black, white – there were no divisive lines or conditions of acceptance. If you love your music then you’re in, total unconditional support. This is how music should be.

The next night we went to see Girum’s band play at the Hiber Hotel. They play here every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night, from 6-8pm. The Hiber Hotel is quite an upmarket place, but very tastefully decorated, with extremely friendly waitresses. They also do the best lega tibs we tasted in our time in Ethiopia.

What was most shocking was the fact that apart from one other group of people, we were the only ones there to watch the guys play. It made for a slightly awkward atmosphere, with often the only clapping after songs being from the two of us. The music, however, more than compensated for this and it quickly didn’t matter how many of us were in the room.

The band, Impression, comprised of drums, bass, keys, sax – all members recently graduated from Addis Ababa’s Jazz University. You could see they were young, but eager, and talented. There was an easy listening mixture of jazz favorites (“Autumn Leaves” etc.) to funk gems (“Watermelon Man” etc.), to ethio jazz classics (“Yekermo Sew” etc.). They played no original music but Girum had told us previously they were working on such material. Their arrangements were fantastic, a Latin twist to some, an Ethio vibe to others – every song engaged you. The guys loved their music, and it showed. We were very lucky to have met Girum, we attended these almost private shows several more times. We excitedly agreed that this was indeed the future of jazz in Ethiopia.

Impression

Here are some short clips we recorded of the guys using a phone, unfortunately the recording quality is poor:

and here:

We chatted with the band for an hour or so after their gig, and to our astonishment they were able to list off a venue and a time at which you could see live jazz being played for every night of the week in Addis. We were due to leave to head north the next day, but we made arrangements to meet the guys again once we returned to Addis ten days later.

The trip to the north included stops in Bahir Dar and Lalibela, which we won’t write about, as so much has been written about these wonderful places before. The one thing we will mention is that the six-day trek on the Meket escarpment was absolutely mind-blowing, and done with such a wonderful organisation, TESFA. If you ever go to Ethiopia make sure you support them and do one of their treks.

As wonderful as the trip north was, we were both very excited to be back in Addis the following week. We went to see Impression play again at the Hiber Hotel. They were actually even tighter this time, seeming more relaxed and out to enjoy themselves. Colm was invited to come up and play the drums for a Herbie Hancock number, which he did… if only we had had a camera!

Afterwards we drove with them across town to the Jupiter hotel, where we saw Bibisha Teferi and his Four Star Band play a two-hour gig. These guys were pure magic. Every bit the professional outfit, this was something along the lines of a Ronnie Scott’s headline act in London on a Friday or Saturday night. Unassuming and modest on stage, the band oozed class and the music flowed effortlessly from start to finish. Sitting back, sipping a beer in the swanky five-star Jupiter hotel, the band rotating through an assortment of fused covers, we couldn’t help but think this was something special. Top quality Ethio and traditional jazz, being played by top quality Ethiopian musicians – it didn’t get much better than this. Although the whole band were quality in every way, we were both in agreement that the guitarist (Bibisha) and the drummer (Tafari) were stand out performers.

Here’s a photo of the band (minus Tafari):

Video of Tafari Assefa playing in Atlanta, Georgia:

After the gig, Bibisha came over to say hello to the young musicians in whose company we were. He sat and talked with us about his career, the music scene in Addis, his great friend Mulatu Astatke, and his pride in the talented young musicians in this country that are starting a musical revolution of their own. We were struck by his soft way with words, his humble nature, and his warmth of spirit. After having seen him play we were both somewhat starstruck, in the company of what was clearly one of the country’s most important musical icons.

Shortly afterwards we were joined by Tafari Assefa, the drummer from the group. He told us of how he had studied music in Poland before moving to the US, where he worked as a musician before returning to Addis last year. He spoke of his love for Ethiopian traditional music, and how his experiences of all the forms of music of the world in the US had led him to have a passion for fusion. He said that we were very lucky to be around this weekend, because there was a gig on the following night in an Azmari Bet, Fendika, which occurred once a fortnight, and it was the best night Addis had, in his opinion. He spoke with passion about how this night showcased the old, the traditional… not just musically, but in costume and dance, and in a way that was honest and true to a culture of which he was extremely proud.  Abe (Impression’s drummer) later told us that Taferi had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ethiopian history – clearly this was a man who was proud of his history and roots.

When researching a little before writing this blog, we found the following article, which appeared in the January 28, 2010 print edition of the Economist, that mentions Tafari:

“ADDIS ABABA (The Economist) — Aficionados are hoping for a revival of the golden age of Ethiopian jazz, as players who emigrated westward a generation ago, especially to America, come home amid the global recession.

Tafari Assefa now plays his drums in a band at the bar of the Jupiter Hotel, one of the fancier newer establishments in Addis Ababa, the capital. Born in 1974, he studied music in Poland before emigrating to America. Life as a jazz man there was hard. “You had to beg for gigs,” he says. “Here, they call you.” He earned $70 a gig in America. Now, back home, he gets only $40. But the monthly rent, at $180, is several times less. He can get along. A cup of Ethiopian coffee, he notes, costs only 25 cents.

Ethiopia’s jazz tradition goes back to the 1920s, when Armenian orphans from the massacres in Turkey were adopted by Ethiopia’s imperial court and formed a band called Arba Lijoch, meaning Forty Children. Other big bands followed suit. “The Addis swing” caught on. By the dying days of Haile Selassie’s reign, in the early 1970s, musicians were fusing jazz and funk with more traditional Ethiopian tunes to create a distinctive Ethio-jazz.

After the grim Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam took over in 1974, Ethio-jazz soon died, along with much else. The communists were suspicious of free-form jazz. Many players and fans were killed or fled, mostly to America. Hotel bands were replaced with drab synthesisers.

The doyen of Ethiopian jazz men is Mulatu Astatke, now 66, who used to divide his time between Britain, America and his home country, drawing inspiration from all three. When Duke Ellington visited Addis, Mr Astatke transposed some of the American bandleader’s numbers from the West’s eight-note scale into Ethiopia’s five-note scale. The revivalists reckon that cross-fertilisation of this kind can now start up all over again.”

The next night we made our way to Fendika, excited by what Tafari had hyped to possibly be the best gig we would see in this wonderful city. The venue was a fairly small, cosy room, with a floor covered in grass, and tiny wooden stools to sit on. To our great delight we found that they served Tej, a delicious honey-wine that we had grown rather fond of. We sat back on our stools and listened to two white guys (an Englishman and a Norwegian) playing excellent old 7” Ethiopian funk records from the 70’s.

We caught the eye of a man who was chatting to the DJ’s, and smiling, he immediately came over to introduce himself. He was the owner of the bar, and was named Melaku Belay. He told us how he had bought this bar almost 15 years ago, and how for the first nine years he slept under the bar, such was the struggle to make ends meet.

Melaku Belay

He had a vision of what an Azmari Bet should be, and central to this was to pay his musicians and dancers enough so that they would not be reliant on tips. In many places like this the dancers can aggressively look for tips by constantly dancing in front of richer foreigners, and even demand money, making the experience somewhat less pleasant. More importantly though, it means that these talented performers would be able to go out and enjoy themselves, not needing to worry whether they would earn enough to pay the cost of life.

Melaku was one of the friendliest people we had met on our entire trip, and his enthusiasm and warmth of character was truly inspiring. He mentioned that he was a dancer, and when he spoke of friends he had made in Europe and the US, it became apparent that he was in fact quite a good dancer. Not only quite a good dancer, but as we saw later that night, one of the best in the country. Our taxi driver home that night told us that most people in Ethiopia know who he is. A quick search on google will confirm his fame. And yet, here he was, chatting to us, telling us his story, and showing a genuine interest in our experience in this country, and a wish that our evening in his establishment would be memorable. Incredible stuff.

That night we experienced one of the greatest gigs we have ever seen. There was a house band and several guest artists playing, one after another – all traditional Ethiopian music played on traditional Ethiopian instruments. All the musicians were clothed in flamboyant Ethiopian costume, accompanied by a set of dancers (led by Melaku) in even more decorative traditional clothing. We later found out that many of the songs told a story of various animals, these animals were portrayed brilliantly in costume, dance and music – a truly amazing spectacle to behold! The music engaged you from the off, pulling you into it, the fantastic traditional krar instrument beautiful in chordal, bass, and melodic variations – there were several krar players on stage.

krar ethiopian instrument

krar

The drummer, again using a traditional Ethiopian instrument (no kick or hi-hat pedals), drove the music with incredible penetrative rhythms. Many of the guest singers that night were famous, well established artists in their own right, with albums and strong fan bases. Each brought their own unique style to the show – and amazed the crowd with their wonderful vocal performances. The venue by now had doubled its capacity at least, most people crouched low on the ever abundant crates – topping up on tej from the leap-frogging waiter. We had positioned ourselves a few rows back from the front, huddled amongst hysterical, fanatical, local enthusiasts. The atmosphere in there was unparallelled – electric, contagious, heaving, everyone swaying in unison to the performers – the energy of the dancers and musicians flowing down amongst the crowd; smiling, happy faces all around. It was hot, sweaty, our knees ached – we didn’t care, this was pure joy. Song after song we found ourselves nodding in unison with the crowd as if we had been born listening to this music. We found ourselves again referring to this night as another example of a wonderful music scene – the community spirit, everyone in unconditional support of each other, contributing with all their might and energy to the artists and musicians  -  this element makes us particularly proud to have uncovered some of the finest music in the world.

Check out this video clip of Melaku dancing in Fendika:

The music ended at about 1am, and still shaking from the experience, we went outside. We bumped into Tafari, who had arrived late, having played another gig earlier. He spent a few minutes chatting with us, and seemed pleased that we had enjoyed our evening of music. Melaku came out to us then, and asked what we had thought of the show. It was difficult not to gush.

Standing out there, in the cool night-time Addis air, we looked around and noticed how everyone here knew each other. Even we, after only a few nights in the city, had managed to tap our way into its blossoming music scene. We had found where the good music lay, and here we were, chatting, as friends, with some of the most important members of this scene. A music scene, when it occurs, is one of the most beautiful social structures that there is. It becomes so much more than about the music. Of course, it is bound together by a love for several particular styles of music across a diverse group of people, but it lays in place the conditions for human interactions which are some of the most socially satisfying. The ability to go to an event where you haven’t arranged to meet anyone, but know you will find friends. The ability to strike up conversation with strangers, knowing that you will have a shared passion. The sense of community. The innovative creative processes that flourish. All of these wonderfully intangible gifts come from any good music scene. And right there, then, we were both struck by how incredible Addis Ababa’s music scene was. It is from scenes like this that great musical forms are born, and the people of this city are so very lucky to have something like this happening there.

It was with heavy hearts that we went to the Hiber Hotel the next night to see Impression play one last time. We spent an hour with the guys afterwards, reminiscing, and thanking them for everything they had given us, in terms of friendship, music, and introductions to sounds and musicians. We had done what we set out to do… we had found the onion, and started to peel it…


Below is a brief guide of what to see on what nights in Addis, as a help to anyone who might be so lucky as to visit Addis, and might want to uncover some of what it has to offer. It is a hastily transcribed list, which was accurate in May 2010.


Mondays:Hiber Hotel (near airport, end of Bole Road) – “Impression”, 6-8pm
Tuesdays: Showroom – “Wudasse” (another band of Tafari’s), starts ~9pm
Wednesdays (First of every month): Jazz+”, with Abegasu Shiota.
Thursdays: Hiber Hotel – “Impression”, 6-8pm
Jupiter Hotel – Bibisha’s Four Star Band, 7-11pm
Fridays: Every second Friday – Ethio Colour Band @ Fendika, get there before 9pm to get a good seat
Saturdays: Tim and Professor Abi Ford play drums while you eat your dinner at Antica restaurant, 8-10pm
Hiber Hotel – “Impression”, 6-8pm
Yeha (band Edward, Impression’s keys player also plays with) play in Alize, from 10.30pm.


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8 Responses to Discovering Addis Ababa’s Jazz Scene

  1. Kate Thorman says:

    Absolutely amazing boys! Not only is it beautifully written, inspiring and informative, but you have also managed to capture the heart and soul of Ethiopia! Thankyou,
    Kate x

  2. Meron says:

    Beautifully written and very informative. You missed a couple of more spots on your guidelist :-)) Thank you

  3. addisjazz says:

    Hi Meron, thanks for the feedback – we’d love to add additional content to the blog that we may have missed on our visit. If you have any other info on local Ethio-Jazz nights/bands in Addis please private message us and we’ll update the musical calendar

    if nothing else, will give us yet another reason to go back!

    regards,

    Colm

  4. Ankami says:

    I enjoy a lot reading this post and remainding AA. Melkau is a great guy and Fendika is more than a azmari bet.
    I`ve enjoyed too with Addis Acustic Project in Alize Club

    Thanks
    http://www.mamaetiopia.blogspot.com

  5. matdd says:

    fascinating and really well written.

    i was there in 2009 and i had so much trouble finding any jazz, but luckily stumbled on some in the first place you described (i don’t know the name either).

    mulatu has his own club as well – it was closed for refurb last year – i take it you didn’t find that open then?

    i can second the TESFA trip – absolutely wonderful and such a great ethos.

    matt

  6. matdd says:

    ps worth checking these out if you haven’t already….

    mulatu live recording dvd & dl http://mochilla.com/timeless

    cut chemist new mix album (free extract here) http://cutchemist.bandcamp.com/track/adidas-to-addis

  7. ghostdawg2 says:

    Impressive,informative,i have linked you to my site,please write more,i plan to be there in 2012 to enjoy what you wrote about.

  8. justin dupee says:

    this info was great, im writing from addis right now. oh, and as luck would have it, my friend and i found the one guy in addis who sells vinyl in the merkato and we came out with some amazing scores. kudos!

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