A hypnotic mix of musical styles, Ethio-jazz has a fascinating history and is enjoying a comeback at venues across the city – and it’s not just names from the past who are setting the tempo
By Oliver Gordon |
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 program; 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 dance-floor, 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.
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