The Ethiopian capital has always been an ebullient, ambitious, swinging city – apart from a brief interlude of civil war and despotism. SOPHIA DEBOICK reports
“If you’re here it means that things are better than where you come from.” This is how Francis Falceto, the Frenchman behind the Ethiopiques series of reissues from the golden age of Addis Ababa’s music, explained the attitude he encountered in the city – a “chauvinism that borders on the xenophobic” – when he first went there in the 1980s.
There is much to be chauvinistic about. Ethiopia has been a heartland of African civilization for centuries. Evangelised long before Britain, it was the home of the earliest Christian church in Africa. The capital, Addis Ababa, was founded in 1886 by nonother than emperor Menelik II, who ten years later sealed his legend by driving the Italians from the country at the Battle of Adwa. The city’s name means ‘new flower’, and it was appropriate for the capital of a country always straining towards the future.
While the Italian invasion of 1935, sending emperor Haile Selassie into exile, was a moment of humiliation, Addis gained a unique Italian-flavoured culture which Selassie embraced after his triumphant return in 1941. Buildings by architect Arturo Mezzedimi, including Africa Hall, now headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and the impressively monolithic City Hall, stand alongside the emperor’s self-aggrandising Jubilee Palace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. Addis may have been where Selassie’s autocratic power was most keenly felt, but it was also where Ethiopian ambition was writ large.
Three days after Selassie returned to Addis, Mahmoud Ahmed was born in the city, and he came of age at a time when Ethiopia was a beacon of African pride and independence as nation after nation sheared off from colonial rule, and Addis itself was swinging. The party district of Wube Bereha was an incredibly fertile hotbed of live music, and while in the previous decades Addis’ music had been dominated by the brass bands of the imperial institutions (they had originated with the Russian Tsar gifting emperor Menelik with a full set of instruments and a Polish bandleader to go with them), by the late 1950s a new age was dawning.
It was at this moment that an 18-year-old Ahmed found himself working as a general factotum in Addis’ Arizona Club. Having nurtured a love of music by listening to Tèquali Radio, the station of Selassie’s powerful Imperial Bodyguard, one night he stepped in to sing with the club’s house band when the booked performer failed to turn up. Ahmed’s musical dreams began to come true.
Ahmed soon landed a job with the Imperial Bodyguard Band itself, recording with them in the early 1970s and then with his own jazzy Ibex Band (that outfit latter morphed into the Roha Band, Ethiopia’s most successful group). Singing in Amharic, the most widely-spoken language in the country, Ahmed’s multi-octave voice and mastery of the Amharic rhythm (a five-note scale with complex circular patterns of rhythm) made him a sensation. Ahmed’s hypnotic voice is perfectly captured on the title track of his 1975 masterpiece Ere Mela Mela, an example of the heady, seductive, dark and mysterious brew dubbed ‘Ethio-jazz’ that had emerged by that time.
Ethio-jazz was firmly rooted in Ethiopian soil but both intensely international and hyper-modern, and a host of Ahmed’s contemporaries made vital contributions to the genre. Mulatu Astatké was central to the birth of Ethio-jazz. Educated in Britain and the US in the late 1950s and 1960s, the arranger and multi-instrumentalist soaked up western musical influences and hung out with Ronnie Scott. He returned to Addis in the early 1970s and joined up the threads others were already beginning to knit together. His landmark LP Yekatit Ethio Jazz (1974), recorded in Addis, fused soul, jazz, funk and traditional Ethiopian music in epic, mind-bending instrumentals and is the primary argument for crowning Astatké the father of Ethio-jazz.
Also active in Addis in this golden age was Bizunesh Bekele, an extraordinary singer of Ethiopian soul who performed with the Imperial Bodyguard Band and was known as ‘the First Lady of Addis’. Gétatchèw Mèkurya was a saxophonist and clarinettist in the Addis Ababa Police Orchestra in the mid-1960s before becoming a purveyor of the free-form jazz sax. Alèmayèhu Eshèté did a stint in the Police Orchestra before pursuing a singing career where he took Elvis and James Brown as his lodestars. As bombastic as those comparisons would suggest, he was confidence and swagger made flesh.
But no sooner had Ethio-jazz arrived than it was cut off in its prime. The 16-year Ethiopian Civil War that began in 1974 saw Selassie overthrown and the establishment of a communist state under the Derg military junta. Ethio-jazz was deemed suspiciously nebulous and was suppressed. The Ibex Band broke up and fled. Alèmayèhu Eshèté was co-opted by the regime. Mahmoud Ahmed and Mulatu Astatké stayed, but faced straightened circumstances. Ahmed stopped performing and opened a record shop in the north of Addis.
But the music that period gave birth to could not be erased. When Ere Mela Mela was issued in Europe by the Belgian Crammed Discs label in 1986, Ahmed came to international attention at a time when Ethiopia was synonymous only with famine in the rest of the world. Ahmed made his first trip abroad in 1994 and his stage presence – which included impressive performances of the chest and shoulder-snapping eskista Ethiopian dance – left him much in demand. In 2008 Ahmed, Astatké, Mèkurya and Eshèté played both London’s Barbican and headlined Glastonbury’s jazz stage in a moment of triumph for Ethiopia’s musical heritage. In 2016, then aged 75, Ahmed performed at Carnegie Hall.
Today, Addis still thrums to Ethio-jazz, with venues like the African Jazz Village club at the Ghion Hotel, near the Jubilee Palace, and the Royal Lounge hosting live music. Artists like Eténèsh Wassié, born in the north of the country in 1971, but later to become a well-known singer in Addis’ clubs, and Addis-born guitarist Girum Mezmur, who founded the Addis Acoustic Project in 2008, keep the tradition alive in the city today.
But you are more likely to hear Ethiopian pop music on the radios of Addis’ bars and famous Soviet-era Lada taxis, and one name dominates. While the likes of Aster Aweke – raised in Addis but rising to fame among Ethiopian ex-pats in the US when living in exile in the 1980s – laid the groundwork, there is no greater name in Ethiopian pop than Teddy Afro. His 2017 album Ethiopia was the fastest-selling in the country’s history and topped the Billboard world music chart, his upbeat, synth-laden reggae-pop also proving popular with the large Ethiopian diaspora. The multi-million selling pop juggernaut The Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye in Canada to Ethiopian parents, has claimed Afro as a key influence.
But Afro’s songs are no bland, unchallenging pop music, and he has frequently confronted his country’s struggle towards full democracy since the fall of communism in his lyrics. Yasteseryal, from 2005, came in a feverish election year and was banned for its lyrics criticising government corruption. When he was imprisoned for a hit and run shortly afterwards, he maintained his innocence and alleged a political motivation. Tikur Sew, a 2012 LP, controversially celebrated emperor Menelik II – while many Ethiopians are nostalgic for the days of imperialism, others remember the Ethiopians trampled underfoot by those regimes.
Now, Ethiopia faces another crisis of leadership, as Nobel peace prize-winning prime minister Abiy Ahmed has dashed hopes of a democratic renaissance by launching an assault on the northern Tigray region. Old tensions between regions and ethnic groups were revived in September when Tigray held elections in defiance of the federal government. Following last month’s military action, hundreds have been killed, atrocities alleged, and thousands displaced. The break-up of the country is threatened.
On the title track of Ethiopia, Teddy Afro insisted “Even though the world calls her backward today/ She will be the front runner of the coming age”. Only this nation’s extraordinary pride and ambition – which has always been highly in evidence in its music – will see it through its renewed troubles.
TRIBUTES FROM THE ISLAND
Ethiopia’s identification as Zion – the promised land – in Rastafarianism inevitably gave rise to mentions of Addis Ababa across Jamaica’s rich modern musical history. The Skatalites recorded a 1964 instrumental named after the city, as did roots reggae band Culture in the mid-1990s. In 1972, singer Delroy Wilson released Adisababa, a touching ode to the city set to the tune of House of the Rising Sun.