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Obama’s Addis Ababa Music Guide

After a few days in Kenya, his ancestral homeland, President Obama heads to Ethiopia. It’s been a while since Afropop got the chance to visit Addis Ababa, so we reached out to musician Cory Seznec to give us an update on what’s new with the Addis music scene. So if Barack has a free evening and feels like catching a show, here are Cory’s suggestions: 

Ethio-traditional
Every other Friday night in an invariably jam-packed azmari bet (traditional music club) called Fendika in the Kazanchis neighborhood of Addis Ababa, the scorching hot traditional band Ethiocolor holds court. Here, people cram together, sitting on beer crates and drinking tej (honey mead). Run by Melaku Belayan electrifying dancer and in many ways the Ethiopian cultural ambassador of the hour, Fendika brings together some of the finest musicians, dancers and singers from Ethiopia’s many diverse regions. At the center of it all is Ethiocolor: One of the few traditional bands that tour internationally, they recorded their debut album with the Ethio-Swedish cultural outfit Selam. However, to get the most out of their music, one must see them in their element at Fendika. There, they kick things off with an hour-long jam that showcases their virtuosic talent and determination to bring the music in new directions, spiking their Abyssinian grooves with funk riffs, Afrobeat and jazz harmony. Following the jam, the regional singers and dancers take the lead and push the atmosphere into a feverish frenzy of joyous, sweat-drenched energy.

Ethio-jazz
After Jazzamba, the historic jazz venue in town, burned to the ground earlier this year, the popular nightspot Mama’s Kitchen in the swankier Bole neighborhood of Addis has become the premier spot for modern Ethiopian jazz. Amid this elite group of musicians one can spy–when he’s not on tour in Europe or the U.S.–the young, piano prodigy Samuel Yirga. Signed to Real World Records, Yirga released his debut album Guzo in 2012 and has gained wider international recognition through his touring and recording with the Ethio-fusion group Dub Colossus. His music has underpinnings of classical jazz and sounds from Ethiopia’s golden era of the ’60s and ’70s, but explores other styles ranging from soul and funk to Latin and classical music. He keeps the flame of the older Ethio-jazz alive without resorting to revue band mimicry.

Ethio-rock
Over the entire month of July at the trendy and somewhat seedy nightclub H20, the young Addis-based Ethio-rock group Jano Band is in full swingWildly popular among the younger generations, they have garnered attention abroad and have toured internationally. Assembled and managed by Addis Gessesse (former manager of Teddy Afro and Gigi) and underwritten by a U.S.-educated Ethiopian entrepreneur named Ermyas Amelga, the band is known for their association with Bill Laswell, spouse of Gigi and famed producer of, among many other commercial successes, Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock. Laswell produced the band’s debut 2012 album Ertale Ale, an explosive mix of hard rock, pop, funk and reggae with traditional Ethiopian pentatonic scales. Featuring wailing guitar, heavy bass, elaborate synthesizers, tight drums, and powerful vocals, the 10 musicians in the band are young, energetic, and ambitious and have financial and music industry support to boot. Watch out, America!

Ethio-Fusion
Despite Addis’ role as a cosmopolitan hub in Africa, there are few active Addis-based projects that feature both Ethiopian and foreign musicians. Hot bands like the Jazzmaris and Qwanqwa are on hiatus. Now, full disclosure, I’d like to introduce the collective I’m involved with: the quirky Ethio/Afropop fusion band with a sci-fi twist, MistO-MistO. Our highly original music comingles Ethiopian chikchika (6/8 over 4/4 pop rhythm) with Appalachia, Malian blues with Abyssinian ballads and American spirituals, Azmari-infused Afrobeat with pop hooks and modern r&b/hip-hop, and ’80s synth-pop with Ethio-jazz. Our band was spawned when kindred spirits John McKay and myself (Cory Seznec) met up in Addis Ababa in November 2013 and brought together a rotating cast of seasoned musicians from the Addis scene. Having performed regularly around town for the past year and a half, the band will be releasing their self-titled debut album sometime in the next few months. Members include: Kenny Allen on vocals/keyboards, Mesele Asmamaw on krar, Endris Hassen on masenqo, Cass Horsfall on bass, John McKay on guitar, Samson Sandeku on drums and kebro, myself on banjo/guitars/synth/harmonica/vocals, Yann Seznec on keys/synth/background vocals, Mesfin “Baby” Sheferaw on vocals, Etenesh Wassié on vocals, and Misiker “Bubu” Yohannes on bass.

 

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