A jazz revival in Ethiopia – The Economist print edition

January 28th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

AFICIONADOS are hoping for a revival of the golden age of Ethiopian jazz, as players who emigrated westward a generation ago, especially to America, come home amid the global recession.

Tafari Assefa now plays his drums in a band at the bar of the Jupiter Hotel, one of the fancier newer establishments in Addis Ababa, the capital. Born in 1974, he studied music in Poland before emigrating to America. Life as a jazz man there was hard. “You had to beg for gigs,” he says. “Here, they call you.” He earned $70 a gig in America. Now, back home, he gets only $40. But the monthly rent, at $180, is several times less. He can get along. A cup of Ethiopian coffee, he notes, costs only 25 cents.

Ethiopia’s jazz tradition goes back to the 1920s, when Armenian orphans from the massacres in Turkey were adopted by Ethiopia’s imperial court and formed a band called Arba Lijoch, meaning Forty Children. Other big bands followed suit. “The Addis swing” caught on. By the dying days of Haile Selassie’s reign, in the early 1970s, musicians were fusing jazz and funk with more traditional Ethiopian tunes to create a distinctive Ethio-jazz.

After the grim Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam took over in 1974, Ethio-jazz soon died, along with much else. The communists were suspicious of free-form jazz. Many players and fans were killed or fled, mostly to America. Hotel bands were replaced with drab synthesisers.

The doyen of Ethiopian jazz men is Mulatu Astatke, now 66, who used to divide his time between Britain, America and his home country, drawing inspiration from all three. When Duke Ellington visited Addis, Mr Astatke transposed some of the American bandleader’s numbers from the West’s eight-note scale into Ethiopia’s five-note scale. The revivalists reckon that cross-fertilisation of this kind can now start up all over again.

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