All things seemed in order for my trip, health checks done, tablets and sprays packed, recording gear tested and my philosophy of travelling light yet efficiently put into action. Did I anticipate an overnight onslaught of tooth pain resulting in an emergency root canal before the evening flight? Not really. What to do…cancel? (next)… get well stocked with pain killers, brush up on some positive healing mantras and stay focused on the adventure.
Yes please. Off we go.
A little stopover in Dubai Airport introduced me to a colourful character from Cameroon peddling something that sounded like a dodgy counterfeiting operation….needless to say it wasn’t really my bag but I did say we had a similar concept in the music industry called “cd burning” which was a lot like forgery.However, unlike his expensive device, our forgery machines cost as little as $100 AUD. He wanted to know more……
Landed in Addis Ababa with much glee, (apart from the tooth), and met Dereb’s family clan. Felt an immediate sense of Jamaica but with an older history and culture. I was all senses open… my first trip to Africa. There was no denying the immediate vibrancy where everyone was doing something at every strata of society.This was one active city with a ramshackle energy that was invigorating. Deep into the fabric with coffee ceremonies (Bunna), Injera and Tibs, eating with the right hand only, sampling fermented drinks (Tedj), dodging the no-road-rules blue hi-ace vantaxi’s that had never seen a roadworthy certificate and pricking my ears to the upbeat wailing music that smiled from every crack of this buzzing metropolis. I think anyone who experiences the raw energy of Africa walks away with a new and evolving view of life. A gleaming modern 10 storey building jutting up beside a corrugated shanty. Shiny 4wd’s parked next to ancient wooden market trolleys. Juxtaposition. Affluence quickly gets a new perspective. Dignity, compassion and sharing take a priority. So with open arms I am invited to Mimi’s Bar which belongs to Dereb’s sister (Mimi) who is a magnificent singer in her own right.
Owning your own club is very typical of what popular performers do in Ethiopia. (Some with massive billboards showing a portrait and title of their hit song!) This club, no bigger than your average lounge room, has live traditional music every night with a funky little bar that serves all concoctions of elixirs! (Hey my root canal pain hadn’t subsided yet!) They could order in traditional food and ”Bunna” was always available. Mimi employed 3 permanent musicians and 3 waitress/dancers who all dressed in beautiful traditional white dresses. The staff were all subsidized by donations at the request of a song or particular dance. On many occasions the lead singer /masenko player would stop mid–song and focus on a patron. He would then proceed to make up a story(usually rude or humorous) about the person and on hitting the punchline the band would continue the song and the crowd would erupt in laughter.In this format it was easy to touch on subjects that would otherwise be taboo. There is a similar technique in Maltese singing called Spiritu Pront.
Dereb had been singing and playing the masenko in clubs like this all his life. This was how he made his living. He is reknowned as one of the best singers in Ethiopia and was constantly stopped in the street. It was a funny moment when some African musicians recognized me from Australia! (They had performed at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and had remembered Bomba from Federation square!)
The traditional music in its raw form is an uplifting experience. The band consisted of a drummer with 3 low tuned drums, a 5 stringed harp called the Kirar, a Singer and the Masenko. Coupled with driving grooves, call and answer style group vocals and body shaking dance moves you could be mistaken for thinking you were at a spiritual charismatic ceremony!
Over the next couple of days I arranged some workshops with the musicians to get a deeper insight into this ancient musical soup. First up we explored the rhythms called ChikChika, Conso, Gonder, Worlo Woylata and Gorege with each groove having a geographical home. There is also an associated dance.
Next up was understanding the scales and modes of which there are 4. Tizta-in which I heard Celtic colours, Bati- which speaks the blues, Anbahsel – oriental leanings and Anchoeyeh- the Arabic and Eastern tastes. There is an example of all of these on the Drums and Lions cd. I remember the first time I heard Dereb play was like having a flash back in a musical Tardis to these ancient sounds and melodies. Real roots.
With this in my subconscious Dereb took us on a 4 day trek to the south of Addis Ababa. Unlike the common perception of Ethiopia as a dry wasteland, I was amazed at the lush deep green hills and valleys threaded with mighty rivers that have flowed for millennium. Circular mudbrick huts, sometimes 2 or 3 together spotted the countryside. Horses wandered happily in the middle of the road, donkey taxis, cows, goats and sheep all being guided by stick wielding shepherds of all ages. Existence as it had been for centuries totally living in sync with nature. We visited Nazareth with the happiest street vendors I have ever seen. Sodere, by the mighty Awash river, has a sixties style mineral springs resort where monkeys steal bananas from your back pocket. Here I met an American evangelist who eloquently informed me (and anyone else who would listen) of a Third Heaven amidst personal metaphysical experiences!
A walk along the river presented us with a sonic natural orchestra that was like the soundtrack to a National Geographic feature . Amazing and humbling. From here we travelled to Awassa where the neighbouring lake hosted Hippos and birdlife as I’ve never seen. People dotting the shores either fishing, washing, boating, studying or getting romantic. We visited some traditional music clubs here and sat in with the band. Our next destination was Wondo Genet where we stumbled on a small mudbricked village in which the children sang songs for us. It is one of my favourite recordings to date. I was smiling from ear to ear. They invited us into their home and we talked of life and things. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip. On the way back to Addis we stopped at Shashamene which is the reputed spiritual homeland of many Jamaicans. There is a thriving Jamaican and Rastafarian community here with an active centre for music, gatherings, lessons in the Twelve Tribes and Reasoning. I chatted (and “reasoned”) at length with the elders as my initial interest in Ethiopia stemmed from the references often cited in Jamaican music.
The last few days I spent in Addis visiting relatives, going to Mimi’s Club as often as I could, sitting in when they’d let me. I even managed to pull off a shoulder shaking dance step that always seemed to have them in stitches. (maybe they were trying to tell me sumptin!) On the day before I left I was invited to a blind musical school attended by Terraze who was the Kirar player in Mimi’s band. (and also their star pupil). Given their resources they had an effective curriculum and concentrated on traditional music. It was inspiring to say the least.
The following day I bid my farewell to the tribe and headed for Morocco. After 10 days there I met up with Dereb in Spain at the Womex World Music expo where we represented Muticultural Arts Victoria in relation to the Visible Project.
Dereb returned to Ethiopia writing new tunes and setting things up for his family. The piracy issues have strangled the music industry there and making any type of living from music is getting increasingly difficult. He is also encouraging young musicians to be proud of their musical culture and stay active in response to the plethora of one singer with cheesy keyboard acts becoming all too common. He will return in early March and we will be touring the album around Australia. It was an honour to experience Ethiopia through music. My first taste of Africa.