Ah man. I’ve only been in Addis Ababa for 4 days but I’m already in love with the place. I’ve eaten so much Ethiopian food. Considering there is a State of Emergency here, people are just carrying on as normal. There’s a strange dichotomy – a seemingly free will to do as you please but also a really rather communist regime controlling things. Social media is banned, you can’t point at military or government buildings, and police and military loiter with surly and cantankerous intent. I probably can’t write any of this. In China, who we view as communist, they also ban Facebook and WhatsApp and all those things, but the reason is because they have their own Chinese version of it and want people to support their own development and businesses. They don’t need Facebook when they can have a Chinese one that is basically the same thing. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Although limited internet is irritating for many people in the modern world, there are ways around it here. Smoking is apparently banned in public places too but everyone puffs away freely.
Addis Ababa means New Flower in Amharic, the most commonly spoken language here. The letters in the alphabet are the different sounds – so for the letter ‘a’, you’ll have 5 different ways of saying that, and each one has its own letter. I think Japanese works like that too. Amharic is lovely to listen to, both spoken and in the endless Ethio-Jazz I’ve consumed.
I’ve been hosted by George, the Ugandan economist working for the U.N. and part of the crew that drink in Top One Bar and Restaurant at the bottom of the block of flats he lives in. He’s been such a welcoming and hospitable host and I am very grateful. Due to his lust for nightlife in Top One, he has ended up telling me the same 2 stories 4 nights running. He has lived all over England and still has a house in Putney. Top One only opened a year ago but there’s a small group of regulars who all have wide-ranging and fascinating jobs and they basically go there every night. Captain Moses is a pilot. George works for the U.N. Gatera, a U.N. Civil Engineer, (he’s the Rwandan Sheikh… well it was a joke outfit to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday but he can be the Rwandan Sheikh) – he’s got Steak and Chips named after him on the menu and has it most lunchtimes. Zoe’s Dad George, who everyone calls Frank after his surname, is a real international man of the world – born to a Russian Dad and French Hungarian Mum in Hackney and brought up in Woodbridge, Suffolk, he has lived all over Africa and married a Rwandan. He’s an AA French and English interpreter too.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa is round the corner from Top One, so this is why their staff drink and eat there. You’ve got people from the World Food Programme coming in too, including 4 friends, one English, two Brasilians (Sao Paolo) and one Belgian, who I’ve got chatting to a couple of times. Nice bunch. Callan, the English one, really reminds me of my Brighton mates, so I like him.
This area of Addis is called Kazanchis and is a microcosm of the city as a whole – huge buildings going up everywhere, cracking restaurants, massive hotels and decent bars. Buildings here are huge and there are more being built all over the city. The population is large but there’s plenty of room to wander around and the intensity I experienced in West Africa is very mild here. The weather suits me too. After the sweltering West African heat 24 hours a day, here the weather is a bit like a really nice day in May in the U.K. The sun shines during the day and is lovely and warm and then it drops to around 11-14 degrees at night. I hadn’t felt the cold for 9 weeks so my body went ‘oh hello you’ when I arrived.
Ethiopians, quite rightly, are immensely proud of their country and people. It has been said that Christianity was formed here, and what we can be sure of is that coffee originated in Ethiopia. Many of the tribes in the whole of Africa have their roots in Ethiopia too. Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia were the earliest African civilisations we know of. And of course Jah Rastafari is Ethiopian, more of which later.
I’ve already met loads of people that are really welcoming and well connected. Everyone is so helpful and happy to organise music stuff for me to see and do. They really don’t have to be so helpful and I’ve been blessed to have already met these people and already done so much. They tell me it’s the Ethiopian way. Right by Top One is the Dinq Gallery, run by 4 business partners and a team of girls working for the gallery. Edom, one of the business partners, kind of runs things there day to day. She is from Addis and is totally cosmic and was the facilitator for the highlight of the trip so far. I’m a little bit in love with her. We had a coffee and I told her I was here for music and I love Ethio-Jazz, so she just phoned Mulatu Astatke, Godfather of the movement. He said I should pop down to his club the following night as he is in town and playing. Madness.
Some of the art from the Addis Foto Fest comes to the gallery on Saturday. I’ve been pootling around there a fair bit, talking to the girls and having lunches with them. Needless to say they are all gorgeous.
There is also Biniam, who Zoe introduced me to, and he is the live music fixer upper. On Wednesday night we went to Bar Elegant in town and watched this amazing Jazz band. These were proper Jazz boys – you know the types; sickeningly good musicians who have been playing nothing but Jazz for years and years and can still be fantastic on autpilot. They had a brilliant female vocalist and did a Jazzed up version of my Mum’s favourite song, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. It was really great. Biniam had a word with the bass player and I got up and played So What by Miles Davis with them on drums. I completely winged it because I’m not a Jazz player in any form but being sat behind a drum kit is probably my favourite place so I savoured it. I’ll never forget a Brasilian I met in London in 2011 that said ‘when I play music it is the only time I don’t feel like something is missing’. Exactly, old friend.
Another person looking after me and helping immensely is Haile, a photographer and all round wide boy who always knows someone who knows someone and no job is too big or small for him. He and Edom are no longer together but have two kids, 5 and 7. He gives me a lift to places and came to the museum yesterday afternoon with Anthony, a Kenyan chum of his. The museum in question is the Ethnological Museum, based in an old Administrative building in Haile Sellassie’s old palace, that is now the grounds of the Addis Ababa University. Sellassie gave away much of the space in his grounds to open Ethiopia’s first University in 1950. After he was exiled in Bath when the Italians failed at their colonisation of Ethiopia in WWII, he returned and used their buildings to form a University.
Speaking of Italy – there is a very small remaining visible Italian presence here. I have only seen it with Italian restaurants and some of the buildings. Spaghetti is served in a lot of places. They never colonised the country properly though and weren’t here long when they knocked about, but still had enough time to massacre 30,000 locals in one day in one particular incident. An obelisk on a roundabout near the University marks that.
Outside the University are concrete steps that represent every year of Italian fascism, with a lion on top. The lion is everywhere in Ethiopia as a symbol of strength and pride. The one on top of the steps symbolises the failure of the Italians and that Ethiopia was never successfully colonised. When Menelik II was Emporer and Ethiopia deafeated the Italians at the Battle of Axum in 1896, much of Africa adopted the Ethiopian colours of red, green and yellow. This was the first country to win against European oppressors.
This picture is of Ethiopian soldiers. Their hair, long, dreaded and shaggy, was deliberately unkempt and dirty to show that they were soldiers. This is apparently where the Rastafari get their hair from.
On to the Rastafari and a potted history of their link to Ethiopia. In the early 20th century, Marcus Garvey, reknowned Pan-Africanist, said that the Second Coming will be black and will come in the form of an African King. Ras Teferi Makonnen became Emporer Haile Sellassie of Ethiopia in 1930 and a group of Jamaicans took this as the fulfillment of Garvey’s prophecy. They adopted his name, Ras Tafari, and using a lot of the Bible as a base, formed a new religion. To be black and Jamaican at that time was very tough and this distinct celebration of blackness and focus on Africa empowered them greatly. Haile Sellassie was a modest man but respected the beliefs of the Rastafari, and he did visit Jamaica on April the 21st 1966, Grounation Day. This was basically like Jesus coming to see you if you’re Christian. A 6 figure number of Rastafarians greeted Jah at the airport in Kingston and he gve them 500 acres of land in Ethiopia for those that wanted to repatriate to Africa. This area is called Shashamane and I’m visiting it soon. Around 800 Jamaicans still live there today and it’s well known in Addis. When mentioned, a big smile sweeps across the face of the locals and they say ‘Rasta man!’ Reggae music became the voice of the Rastafari and songs of Zion, Ethiopia and Haile Sellassie number in the thousands; the former Emporer of Ethiopia is God incarnate for thousands round the world. Being Rasta is so much deeper than dreadlocks and ganja.
The museum is great – 3 floors of the history of Ethiopia. The buildings were built for Haile Sellassie so a lot of the doorways are tiny. There is a chronological walk through from birth to death of the life of the different tribes, a section of musical instruments, walls of religious artwork and a stuffed black lion. The grounds of the University are gorgeous and lined with trees and flowers.
A lot of the buildings around town were commissioned by Haile Sellassie and built by Europeans, so they look like your typical 50s and 60s European flats. Haile Sellassie was incredibly well travelled, visiting nearly 200 countries, and had a healthy relationship with John F. Kennedy. When the Derg administration overthrew him in 1974, all of his good work was undone and they tried to wipe him from history. Places named after him were renamed and nobody really knew if his body was where they said it was when he died in 1975. It is believed that many of the issues that plagued the country at the end of his reign were due to him having dementia. He eventually got a state burial in 2000.
After that I went to see Kidus, a Norwegian who lives in Addis and is a man connected to the music scene here. He has a selection of old Ethiopian records and I spent the afternoon drinking coffee and listening to them. I bought 3 off him. He facilitates the international releases of lesser known Ethiopian records from years gone by and regularly DJs. He’s off to Sudan next month to expand his collection of Sudanese music, which kind of sounds Ethiopian but is more percussive. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
A bit of dinner in Top One and then the moment arrived. We set off for Ghion Hotel, site of the African Jazz Village, Mulatu’s club. As we arrived, Edom made a bee line for me and she looked incredible as she’d just been to the Foto Fest. Mulatu was chatting at the Bar. He and I had a brief chat about London and Edom asked him in Amharic if there was any chance of me playing. “Yeah why not! Come and have a jam with us” he said. So I did. Towards the end of the gig, I was called up on stage and took a seat at the drum kit. “Start playing and we’ll follow” Mulatu said, so I started playing a funk beat without thinking and we had a 10 minute funk jam. I was so nervous but once I started playing I was alright, as is often the way. I even get nervous at rehearsals. Mulatu played the congas and I tried my best not to explode.
His son was there too and is a really lovely guy, just like his Dad. He gave me Mulatu’s London phone number. I’m supposed to carry on as normal now but playing with Mulatu Astatke at his own club in Addis Ababa will stay with me forever. What a lucky, lucky boy I am. Now for the next one.
Also on the bill was a Russian balalaika player who switched between acoustic and electric balalaika. It’s not my favourite music but I had a chat with them and he gave me a CD. Yuri was his name. He did Flight of the Bumblebee on a balalaika, which is novel. Also there was an Angolan guitarist who took to the stage and jammed with the band for 2 tunes. He was great and had a lovely tone on his acoustic guitar. I didn’t catch his name.
The plans for now are more music ventures and to see some of Ethiopia outside of Addis. I’m seeing the Rastas, some old underground churches and a bit of mountain trekking. The first 5 days could not have gone any better.