Fendika is a traditional Ethiopian music and dance group based in Addis Ababa, founded by musician and dancer Melaku Belay.

By Angel Romero |

Ethiopian act Fendika is set to perform at North American world music showcase globalFEST on Sunday, January 16 at the Ballroom stage in Webster Hall, New York City. Fendika’s concert begins at 19:00 (7:30 p.m.).

Cultural entrepreneur, dancer and Fendika leader Melaku Belay talks to World Music Central about the upcoming concert.

Can you tell us about the band you will be taking to globalFEST 2016?

Fendika is a traditional Ethiopian music and dance group based in Addis Ababa. Our performances draw from Ethiopia’s azmari – like bardic – tradition while adding creative movements and sounds that extend these ancient musical forms. At globalFEST Fendika will feature seven performers – two dancers, two singers, and instruments including kebero drums, masenqo (a one-stringed bowed lute), and krar (a five- or six-stringed lyre). I have traveled throughout Ethiopia to learn the music and dance traditions of the country’s 80 plus tribal groups.

Our performances present a cultural journey starting in the highlands of Tigray, Wollo, Gonder, and Gojam, also including dances from the Somali and Afar regions and southern Ethiopian dance forms from the Gurage, Wolaita, and Konso traditions where music is an integral part of life. I have danced with people from all these groups, and sometimes I bring them to Addis to perform with us – this is a great way for us to continue learning about the wonderful diverse cultural expressions of our country and to bring different traditions together.

My artistic vision is to present the rich musical traditions of Ethiopia to the world, while also including a natural innovation in our expressions. I believe that culture is always changing, but should also honor its roots and sustain that heritage while building cultural opportunities for the future. We are creating a new tradition!

Many influential North American arts presenters will be at globalFEST 2016. What do you expect to get out of it?

We are so excited to bring our culture to globalFEST, and hope to meet many presenters who would like to book Fendika for their shows in the future. We love to tour in America and have many supporters from our previous performances here who wish to see us again!

Can you give our readers a brief history of your band?

I am passionately committed to the preservation and development of traditional culture, from my early days as a boy fascinated by the celebrations I saw in the streets of Addis, such as Timket, our Feast of the Epiphany in mid-January. This religious festival is attended by thousands of people, we dance and play drums and express our spirituality and also our joy in gathering with others. Music and dance is a central part of that – I started dancing there and have never stopped! I participate at Timket every year with my group and family and sometimes also bring musicians from the countryside to Addis to dance with us. For me, the experience of dance is cultural expression, life, the practice of culture, it is not just a performance for an audience.

Timket at 2:00

From those beginnings, I went on to work at a club where traditional azmari musicians played every night. I danced for tips and often slept there, it was a rough beginning but I loved performing and now I manage the club, Fendika Azmari Bet in the Kazanchis neighborhood of Addis Ababa. In Ethiopian culture, an azmari bet is a traditional house of music where people come to be entertained, informed, and sometimes playfully insulted by the azmari who serve as current events commentators while they dance, play masinqo, and improvise songs.

In addition to the azmaris who perform every night at Fendika, I established two traditional performing groups – the smaller elite group Fendika and the 12-member Ethiocolor. We present our traditional repertoire of music and dance at the club, and also love to collaborate with guest artists from Ethiopia and from around the world – musicians, dancers, poets, circus performers, all genres! For us this is an opportunity to exchange cultures, to grow and learn, to provide a bridge for all artists, and to connect on a human level.

I wish to mention something that is important to me – at Fendika club, the azmaris and the musicians are paid for their work. Not every music venue does this. Also, I help the musicians as much as possible to set up accounts, attend classes, and find accommodations. It is an investment in Ethiopia’s future, through culture.

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