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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4 Responses

  1. Alemayehu Eshete

    This is a sign that the double digit economic growth by the EPRDF with all the shiny buildings is bringing tourists and jazz admirers to Ethiopia. We got a lot of starving artists in Ethiopia that need the chance to show their hidden sklills to the public. 67% of Ethiopians (60.8 million Ethiopians) out of the 93.5 million total Ethiopian population are under the age of 30 with so much variety of skills the school system failed to identify yet .The few jazz clubs are not even enough to give a chance to all students to show their skills to the public. According to the report below Ethiopia is the second poorest country in the world because of the lack of people having access to show any skills they might have.

    http://www.sundayadelajablog.com/top-ten-poorest-countries-in-the-world-all-in-africa-mpi-2015-ranking/

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