Dec 16 , 2023

It is not uncommon to hear EthioJazz in hotels cultural and diplomatic centres. The best is yet to come. It has the potential to be a cultural export to the rest of the world, writes Bereket Balcha, celebrating the anniversary of his weekly endeavour to the African Jazz Club. (

It has been a year since I first set foot in the iconic Africa Jazz Village, on the premises of the historic Ghion Hotel. How fast time flies!

It was by a serendipitous visit I came to discover the weekly performance. Since then, I have become a regular whose absence is instantly noted, skipping only a couple of shows due to technical difficulties with my car.

The major factor that kept me going was the sheer genius of the band flavoured with the decades of research that birthed EthioJazz —a blend of Ethiopian pentatonic scale to the conventional North American Jazz. The Club, owing its name and concept to legendary Mulatu Astatkie, is putting Addis on the map.

Mulatu's ingeniously authentic compositions and timelessness remain unmatched enthroning him as the father of EthioJazz. The Africa Jazz Club concept existed on his radio show with an eponymous name and club grounds of the now-defunct Agase restaurant around the Bisrate Gebriel area. I got to hear the final fragments of the last piece on the show when the Ethio Jazz phenomenon was in its infancy, through the groundbreaking album that contained his signature pieces like Yekermo Sew, Tizita and Yekatit.

These iconic pieces dating back nearly half a century were used as soundtracks in the movie Broken Flowers, which grossed over 47 million dollars in profit. Featuring Hollywood stars Bill Murray, Jeffery Wright, Sharon Stone and Tilda Swinton, it was highly favourable amongst the audience on the Tomatometer with an 87pc score and a moderately high 70pc audience score.

My passion for Jazz is no secret. I explicitly wrote about it on different platforms since 2002. Having my article on Jazz and Blues published in the Sun Newspaper framed at the Club gate along with memorabilia ranging from Mulatu’s shows around the globe to legendary Duke Ellington, from the time they performed at the Hilton Addis, is a massive honour.

Legends like Tilahun Gessese, Mahmoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke, Abegaz Kibrework and Miriam Makeba also graced the walls. The flickering red, yellow and green neon lights embellish the italicised insignia serving as a beacon to the basement of the 80-year-old mansion that dabbles as Tukul Cultural Restaurant. An arc with a small fountain in the centre reveals the Lion of Judah engraved into the stone wall, with the unmistakable cross and flag that served as the coat of arms for Emperor Haile Selassie I. It comes as no wonder as the hotel is adjacent to Jubilee Palace which is currently the residence of Ethiopia's President.

The performances and improvised solos by musicians are accentuated with claps, whistles and shouts. It comes as no wonder when audiences from all walks of life never seem to get enough of the two-hour show. The ASLI band surely got a hang of what Mulatu envisaged and the genie is long out of the bottle even as they are constantly researching and coming up with new melodies.

Jorga Mesfin, the seasoned saxophonist leads the piece and Teddy, the veteran keyboardist, shows what quintessentially defines EthioJazz. One regular piece that mesmerises me begins with the famous opening chords of My Favorite Things, by the iconic musician John Coltrane and merges with the famous Ethiopian folk song Wey Fikir, with the last version played by Gerawork NeqeaTibeb.

The versatility with other genres could be seen as guest musicians and vocalists from around the globe adorn the performance from time to time. Within the year, I got to see a Swedish saxophonist, a Jamaican reggae group, a Japanese hybrid musical troupe, a Sudanese violinist and vocals, a Caribbean steel drums making piano sounds, an American cowboy playing harmonica and Munit Mesfin singing Yekermo Sew.

Trailblazing electronic music artist Rophnan was in attendance at some point. But the guest star who casts a spell on the audience during his few appearances on stage is none other than Masinko player Haddis Alemayehu, a.k.a. Haddinko. His stage name is coined to fuse his first name with the instrument he plays. With his dreadlocks, enchanting smiles and touches on the Masinko strings that sound like an electric Guitar on a hard rock piece, he takes the audience to a reverie and elation that show the true power of music.

I consider myself part of the family with Mulatu, his son Michael and ASLI band members (Jorga, Teddy, Tassew, Bubu and Admasu). The powerful drummer Mulugeta was replaced by a young talent Dawit who spiced the band’s colour with his energetic touch. Another addition is the Puertorican-Armenian Petros on Bongo drum which sounds like a horse galloping while jingling on its neck.

Good music relaxes and heals the soul. Apart from entertainment, I believe the weekly visits greatly contributed to my life in terms of emotional and intellectual stimulation. I feel highly indebted to the crew who made it possible despite the landscape not necessarily conducive to commercially pursuing EthioJazz yet.

In my opinion, the mainstream musical scene has not yet matured enough for this high-quality genre to be enjoyed. Mulatu and the current generation of EthioJazz musicians are paving the way to the future where it will become commercially rewarding.

Mulatu not only conceived, researched and gave birth to the genre by producing his iconic albums, but also did long decades of work, experimenting with traditional instruments, and collaborating with famous Ethiopian musicians. Tilahun Gessese’s Hasabe and Kulun Man Kualesh, Menelik Wessenachew’s Fikrachen and Muluken Melese’s Che Belew can be cited from the 1970s. A relatively recent performance of Zelesegna, an iconic church melody-laced piece by Tewodros Tadesse also ticks the cord. It was recorded in the Ethiopian Television studios in the 1990s and performed at a grand scale, which is a testament to how far Mulatu has gone in his musical prowess.

It is not uncommon to hear EthioJazz in hotels and restaurants like the Ethiopian Skylight, French restaurant Louvre and cultural and diplomatic centres like the Alliance Ethio Francaise. The best is yet to come. It has the potential to be a cultural export to the rest of the world.

Two decades ago, my article began with how Blues originated among the exiled African American slave folk and later evolved into Jazz in New Orleans honky tonks with the black community. With EthioJazz, Mulatu Astatkie is bringing the exiled genre home to Addis and Africa, where it belongs.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 16,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1233]

Bereket Balcha works in the aviation industry and is passionate about fiction writing and can be reached at (

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