Fortune News | Aug 31,2019
Apr 15 , 2023
By Bereket Balcha
On a quiet street in Addis Abeba stood an old villa bearing the insignia of The Sun, an English weekly published in the 1990s. Two decades ago, as a 25-year-old writer, I pitched the editor an article on jazz and blues, focusing on Louis Armstrong. Surprised by my passion for a genre that seemed out of step with the turn of the millennium, the editor nevertheless published the piece, setting the stage for a lasting relationship between the two of us.
I would go on to contribute another article on French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his existentialist school of thought, in January 2002.
Fast forward to December 2022, and I found myself on a hard-earned vacation in Addis Abeba, exploring the city and its cultural offerings. One such attraction was Mulatu Astatke's Africa Jazz Club, open Thursdays at the historic Ghion Hotel.
A long-time fan of Mulatu, I mentioned him in my jazz and blues article published in The Sun. Little did I know that this rediscovery would lead me on a journey through the world of Ethio-jazz at the Africa Jazz Club, housed in a traditional Ethiopian-style building in the hotel's basement.
The club's atmosphere is reminiscent of Hard Rock Café, with life-size replicas of legendary musicians like Mulatu, Tilahun Gessese, Mohammud Ahmed, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington adorning the walls. The dim lighting, accented by red, yellow, and green beams, casts a hazy glow over the space, further enhancing the club's nostalgic and mystical ambience.
The stage is situated at the centre while the walls radiate in a circular fashion, a traditional Ethiopian style in contrast to the Western four-walled rectangular standard. The audience, a mix of expatriates and locals, eagerly awaits the performance while a DJ plays one of Mulatu's famous Ethio-jazz pieces. The place has a faint odour of old wood, adding to the nostalgic and mystic feel. The musicians were on stage, calibrating their instruments and fumbling with the electric cables.
I was sucking in the vibe, which made me feel comfortable, with some degree of anticipation and curiosity about what was to come. I catch a glimpse of Mulatu from a distance, mingled with the crowd as he always would, except for when he steps on stage and performs.
Before realising it, the audience was generously treated to a recipe of the highest level of musical excellence; ingenuity with the highest calibre of improvisation; and sometimes merging different pieces of music all played at the same time with harmony, yet diversity.
A melancholic touch on the keyboard, finetuning for the first piece, some tunes from Washint (a traditional Ethiopian wood instrument), some strokes from the lead guitar and finally, the drum and Saxophone start the first piece in unison. The band began playing in full swing. As always, the first piece, an icebreaker like a morning coffee, was sure to foretell what was to come. The music climbed to the trough and crests, some improvisation escalating to the climax and died down to a stop, a clap of hands from the expectant audience.
The pieces progressed from one beat to another, from one musician to the next, a concoction of tunes and sounds ebbed and flowed endlessly. The audience oscillated in cascading musical styles, ranging from two to four and eight different chords, returning to unison, branching out like rays of the sun. Suddenly, I lost track of everything, bringing me back to where it all started.
I reflected on the history of Ghion Hotel, an iconic establishment from the Imperial era, whose grounds are adjacent to Emperor Haile Selassie's Jubilee Palace. The hotel boasts beautiful gardens, several restaurants, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and a mineral water hot spring from an ancient, dormant volcano – the reason for Addis Abeba's founding.
The resident band, ASLI Band, consists of renowned saxophonist Jorga Mesfin, Tewodros on a keyboard, Tasew on Washint (a traditional Ethiopian wood instrument), Admas on lead guitar, Bubu on bass guitar, and Mulugeta on drums. Their performances feature a blend of jazz standards, Ethiopian melodies, and improvisation, weaving together different musical styles and genres.
I was particularly struck by the band's ability to merge seemingly disparate songs, such as Bob Marley's "Exodus", with an Ethiopian jazz piece by Muluken Melese. This unique fusion showcased the band's extraordinary talent and versatility.
Having become a regular attendee of the club's Thursday performances, I wanted to express my appreciation for the band and the club, presenting them with a framed copy of my 2001 article on jazz and blues.
After searching for the newspaper copy at home, I found it at the Ethiopian National Archives, where it is now considered intellectual property. With the necessary permissions granted, I have the page copied and framed, presenting it to Mulatu as a tribute to his lasting impact on jazz.
As the club continues to attract a diverse audience, it serves as a melting pot of various cultures, languages, and ideas. The ASLI Band's performances resonate with listeners not only because of their technical mastery but also of their ability to communicate a sense of unity and shared history through music.
Ethio-jazz, a unique blend of traditional Ethiopian melodies, Western jazz, and Latin rhythms, first emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, spearheaded by the legendary Mulatu.
Mulatu, often dubbed the "father of Ethio-jazz," studied music in London, Boston, and New York, where he was exposed to different jazz styles and began experimenting with incorporating Ethiopian elements into his compositions. The result was a distinct sound that has since captivated audiences worldwide.
Over the years, Ethio-jazz has been embraced by many contemporary musicians, both within Ethiopia and beyond its borders. It has inspired a new generation of artists who continue to explore the depths of this diverse and eclectic genre. His contributions to the world of jazz have not only earned him international acclaim but have also paved the way for future musicians to pursue their own creative endeavours.
In a globalized world where cultures are constantly colliding and blending, Ethio-jazz is a shining example of how different musical traditions can come together to create something entirely new and captivating.
Africa Jazz Club's importance extends far beyond the stage. It is a space where people from all walks of life can come together to celebrate their shared love for music, connect with one another, and pay homage to the jazz legends of the past. Much like the genre it celebrates, the Club stands as a testament to the power of music in bridging cultural divides and fostering a sense of unity among its listeners.
In this age of ever-increasing global connectivity, it is fitting that the Club should be housed in the historic Ghion Hotel, which has long served as a symbol of Ethiopia's rich cultural heritage.
As I left the Club with a renewed appreciation for the genre and the musicians who have shaped it, I was grateful for the serendipitous rediscovery that led me to it and the opportunity to pay tribute to the legends who have left an indelible mark on the world of jazz. In this sanctuary of music, I have found a space where the past and the present come together, where the melodies of distant lands converge, and where the transformative power of Ethio-jazz continues to captivate and inspire.
PUBLISHED ON Apr 15,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1198]
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