AP Photo/Elias Asmare
By Jared Boyd
On the morning of the second Sunday in January 2015, the historic Itegue Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa burned to the ground.
The fire destroyed the landmark Jazz Amba nightclub, which had served as the capital of Ethio-jazz since the late 1990s. And up in flames went my hopes to hear the world-renowned sound indigenous to Addis Ababa.
Sitting in the lobby of the Bole Ambassador Hotel, shortly after arriving in Addis, I picked up a newspaper and saw the front-page headline reporting “Blaze destroys historic Taitu Hotel.” Shocked, I realized my personal quest to wrap my mind around the contemporary sounds of East Africa would take a major hit.
Built as the first hotel in Ethiopia in 1914 during the reign of Emperor Menelek II, the building was named after his wife, Empress Taitu Betul. Situated in the middle of the city, in a heavily trafficked area, the Taitu sat in the Piazza district just blocks away from City Hall, the National Palace, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. English author Evelyn Waugh used the hotel as the backdrop for his 1938 novel “Scoop.” During the fictionalized account of the writer’s coverage of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War for the Daily Mail, protagonist William Boot frequents the Taitu.
AP Photo/Elias Asmare
The importance of the masenquo
Less than 48 hours after the Taitu burned, I sat with Nebiyou Baye, dean of the Yared School of Performing and Visual Arts at Addis Ababa University. He says the key to understanding the cultural importance of music in Ethiopia lies in the school’s namesake. Yared, a saint of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, revolutionized religion in the country by emphasizing the importance of combining traditional wisdom with song, dance, poetry and performance. Very rarely are these acts separated in the Ethiopian artistic aesthetic, he says. As you sing, you dance, and vice versa.
Baye believes the link between traditional Ethiopian music and more modern sounds is the masenqo, a loom-like instrument as popular today as it was among ancient Ethiopian singers. Modern performers, known as azmaris, hold court on their masenqos in nightclubs, telling stories and interacting with guests, all through song.
The masenqo instrument appears as the centerpiece of both secular and religious music forms in the Ethiopian culture. The azmaris’ adoption of the ancient instrument fixates them as the visible representation of the melding of the modern and traditional Ethiopian experience. They bridge the gap between the numerous traditional restaurants we visited, which replicate indigenous performances ascribed to native ethnic groups, and the substantial impact of the Western world on Ethiopian music that began in the 20th century.
While I didn’t get to experience the Jazz Amba, I did get to interact with an azmari. Baye had warned me that azmaris are colorful individuals. He was right. At a club one night, an azmari playing a masenqo joked about my thick beard and called me “Al Qaeda.” “Are you related to Obama,” he sang. It was all in good fun.
The storied past of Ethio-jazz
During a trip to Jerusalem in 1916, former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, then known as Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, adopted a marching band of 40 Armenian orphans, displaced by the Armenian genocide. The band, dubbed “Arba Lijoch” (an Amharic phrase meaning ‘40 children’), was tasked by Selassie to act as the royal brass orchestra. The director of the band, Kevork Nalbandian, composed the Ethiopian national anthem and was among the founders of the Yared School of Visual and Performing Arts. His nephew, Nerses Nalbandian, appointed by the Emperor as the musical director of the Haile Selassie National Theater, is credited as one of the country’s most influential musical teachers, mentoring artists such as Mulatu Astatke.
Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethio-jazz, stumbled upon the vibrant sound after leaving Addis Ababa to study in Wales during the late 1950s. Playing among other African musicians in London, Astatke continued his tour of the West, eventually landing in Boston and New York, where his interest in American jazz heightened. When he returned to Addis Ababa during the late 1960s, he began recording as a performer and bandleader, blending the rhythms of the Americas, on instruments such as the vibraphone, keyboard and congas, with traditional Ethiopian music. The Western-influenced musician attracted attention. American jazz legend Duke Ellington invited Astatke to play with his band during a stop in Ethiopia.
The age of “Swinging Addis” was born. The 1960s saw the advent of Ethiopian radio stations and record labels devoted to a musical palette, directly influenced by the soul and jazz of the United States.
In actuality, the term “Ethio-jazz” may be a misnomer. The vast genre of music comes across like a pidgin of popular black American music from the 1960s with the instrumentation of Abyssinia.
Unlike the American cool jazz of that era attributed to acts like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, music of Ethio-jazz’s golden age features a hip swing-along that feels raw and warm. If Chuck Berry spoke Amharic, he’d feel right at home.
Amha Eshete began Amha Records in 1969, despite reported tensions from the Imperial government. Releasing around two albums and 20 singles a year, Amha birthed the careers of Ethio-Jazz stars Mahmoud Ahmed, Hirut Bekele, Tilahun Gessessse, and Alemayhu Eshete, also known as “The Elvis of Ethiopia.” The Philips Corporation embraced the music movement with its label, Philips-Ethiopia. Kaifa Records, owned and operated by Ali “Tango” Kaifa, also brought competition to the Ethio-jazz market.
After a military coup ousted Haile Selassie from the throne of Ethiopia in 1974, Ethio-jazz declined in the country. The Communist Derg military rulers imposed a nighttime curfew that prevented the performance of contemporary music in Ethiopia’s cities. Before the end of 1975, Amha Records had gone out of business. Its owner and many other musicians took their talents to the West.
It was not until after 1991 when dictator Mengistu Haile Mirium and the Derg’s rule were overthrown that the ban on nighttime activities was lifted. The 16 years of almost utter silence had crippled the legacy of the distinct Ethio-jazz art form. Recovery remains slow and steady. French record label Buda Musique compiled a 29-volume anthology of recordings from Amha, Philips-Ethiopia and Kaifa’s heyday, entitled “Ethiopiques.” The collection stands today as the basis for the survival of Ethio-jazz into the CD age, along with more traditional forms of Ethiopian music.
Various volumes of the seminal Ethiopiques series have been re-released in the United States on vinyl by Portland, Oregon-based indie label Mississippi Records. The record store borrows its name not from the state, but from Portland’s Mississippi Avenue, where it originally stood. By licensing the Ethiopiques catalog, Mississippi has been able to introduce musicians like Mahmoud Amed and Aleymaehu Eshete to audiences familiar with the funk and soul that was an instrumental basis of the Ethio-Jazz sound.
As jazz artists returned to Ethiopia, after escaping the political unrest that made an enemy of the popular music movement, clubs like Jazz Amba slowly reappeared. Starting in 2011, Jazz Amba serviced the country’s most historical hospitality venue with seven nights of live music each week.
That is, every night until the night I arrived in Addis in January 2015.
Investigators ruled the fire was caused by an “electrical overload.” Addis Ababa Deputy Mayor Abate Sitatow expressed interest in restoring the hotel.
I was able to see the charred remains of the Taitu hotel on my last day in Ethiopia. On the Sunday of Timkat — a week after the fire — throngs of Ethiopians celebrated on the streets where Bole borders Piazza. Coming to and from markets, the townspeople engaged one another with the once-regal edifice in the background. I felt defeated. Although the signature sound of Ethiopia fills halls such as Mama’s Kitchen, Gusto Ristorante and African Jazz Village, I could tell from the faces in the small crowd of people, peering up at the hotel, snapping pictures in awe, that an important relic of the city, country and continent had been diminished.
It is my hope that within the charred debris of the historic structure that included the Jazzamba, the spirit of Ethio-jazz that survived 16 years of disapproval by a former Ethiopian government will rise again.