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.
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.
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.”
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.
Ethio-jazz is now played on the radio and taught at all the capital’s music colleges, and a new crop of musicians is beginning to flower as a result. “There are talented young musicians out there, such as Girum Gizaw (from the aforementioned Meleket) and Samuel Yirga, who are really coming up’,” says Astatke. “But they’re not just mimicking the old music, they’re evolving it into new directions.”
Other post-Derg exponents include Henock Temesgen’s Nubian Arc, the JAzmaris, Girum Mezmur’s Addis Acoustic Renaissance and Melaku Belay’s Ethiocolor Band. They can all be found playing at the city’s favourite jazz haunts: the aforementioned Mama’s Kitchen and African Jazz Village, along with the grittier Jazzamba, Coffee House (opposite the Egyptian Embassy, Off Angola Stret, Sidist Kilo), Le Bateau Ivre (Dejamach Beyene Merid Street, Kazanchis) and Fendika Azmari Bet.
A dark, dank jazz den attached to the Hotel Taitu playing gigs seven nights a week, Jazzamba is currently closed due to a fire last year but is expected to reopen later in 2016. Fortunately, Coffee House, one of Addis’s oldest jazz houses, recently reopened after a spell on the sidelines and hosts the capital’s top Ethio-jazz players on Thursday and Saturday nights. And if you like to get up close and personal with your jazz, Le Bateau Ivre is a laid-back but cramped tapas bar in the Kazanchis district that often has live concerts. Also in Kazanchis, Fendika is the prototypical azmari bet (literally, House of the Musician) and hosts jazz and Ethiopian folk.
Before hitting the town, it’s worth fuelling up on two of Ethiopia’s specialities: coffee and food. For the former, try Addis’s oldest and most venerated coffee house, Tomoca or, for a more folksy experience, any of the multitude of hole-in-the-wall coffee stalls around the city. For food, fill up on any of a variety of Wat (spiced stews) served on the much-revered injera (sourdough pancake) at the cheap and cheerful Taitu Hotel – Addis’s oldest, and the setting of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop. Or, for the full gastronomic immersion, enjoy a spectacular dinner buffet and traditional tribal dancing performances for around £10-£15 a head at Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant.
If you are keen to get under the skin of Addis’s jazz scene, go to Fendika, the working man’s musical refuge. Wandering through a nondescript gate in the Kazanchis, you find yourself in a cavernous tavern, adorned with animal hides and resembling a vast bedouin tent. Most nights there are performances by azmaris (traditional musical satirists). But every other Saturday it is home to the Ethiocolor Band: a collective of musicians mixing experimental jazz with the unique sounds of Ethiopian tribal instruments such as the crar (Ethiopian lute) and Masinko (a sort of one-string violin) and accompanied by shoulder-gyrating Eskista dancers.
“Famous jazz musicians from all over the world come to play at Fendika,” the bar’s owner and Ethiocolor’s orchestrator, Melaku Belay, tells me, reeling off an esoteric list of Norwegian saxophonists and Chicagoan drummers. But despite his optimism for the trajectory of Ethio-jazz in Addis, he confides he harbours concerns over the homogenising influence of western musical culture, and the precedent set by a recent spate of government-enforced closures of many of the city’s azmari bets to make way for new high-rise buildings.
Despite its recent revival, Ethio-jazz is still relatively underground in the city and has a way to go to match its past glories: sitting in one of the Addis’s Soviet-era Lada Sedan taxis, you’re more likely to hear Orthodox Amharic folk music; and frequenting one of the city’s high-end nightclubs, more likely to encounter the Ethiopian equivalent of Rihanna. Nonetheless, as I begrudgingly board my flight home, only to be met by the dulcet tones of Mulatu Astatke, I’m reminded – and convinced – of Belay’s parting words to me: “Ethio-jazz will never die.”
• For listings of Ethio-Jazz nights in Addis visit thisisaddis.com