There’s one song by ’60s Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatqé that made me want to go to Ethiopia. It’s an instrumental piece called ‘Tezeta’, which loosely translates in Ethiopia’s Amharic language as nostalgia. In it, a sad, lilting saxophone rises and falls. Soft piano provides a rhythmic patter. It’s a piece that seemed to be written with the long shadows of a rising or setting sun in mind.
Ethiopia is dubbed the capital of Africa. Surrounded by a curving spine of mountains, it was the only country in the continent to resist colonisation. It’s a spiritual home for Rastafarians in search of Jah, their word for God, whose physical embodiment on Earth came in the form of Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie. It’s also a meeting place for African leaders who swarm to Addis Ababa to debate at the African Union. And then there are those, like me, who just dig the music.
Recordings back in the ’60s, like those made by Astatqé, as well as Mahmoud Ahmed and Alemayehu Eshete, were notoriously ad-hoc. They are jazz records, but the wail of Amharic singing and the undeniably African sound of these sessions captures a significant period of optimism in Ethiopia’s history. Most of the musicians were playing the clubs of Addis Ababa in the years after the short-lived Italian occupation ended, years before the Derg (Ethiopia’s oppressive stint at communism) and long before the Western world began to associate Ethiopia with the harshest poverty.
Now, mention Ethiopia to many in the West and their first image of the place couldn’t be worse: starvation, loss, stasis – a bare, arid country in the perpetual grip of famine. Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ might have helped truck aid into Ethiopia’s most troubled villages in the ’80s, but it also helped to shroud the country in a blanket of ‘why-would-I-ever-want-to-go-there?’ obscurity.
Not to be put off by that sort of thing, we head to Ethiopia in search of the remnants of the Ethio-jazz explosion. We’re after music, of course, but also that spirit in the recordings. And we’re keen to see the landscape that inspired this unique sound.
When we touch down in Addis Ababa (‘Addis’ to its heartily proud populace) it’s quite breathtaking – and not just in its sprawl of tin-roof shanties or the surprising profusion of trees. Addis, like so much of Ethiopia, sits at a lung-screaming height of over 2,300 feet above sea level. The country also still uses the Julian calendar, which means that it’s 2001 and the time we’d call noon is 6pm – that’s a lot of jet lag to deal with on thin air.
Not only do Ethiopians regard their country as the capital, seat and roof of Africa but the infusion of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and its proximity to the Holy Land has given the place its own Ethio-holiness. ‘Welcome to Zion,’ someone shouts to us, only minutes out of the airport. While Axum, in the north, claims to have the Ark of the Covenant, the original tablets of Law that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, beneath one of its churches. Bearded and sagacious monks wander the streets of Addis, each holding a staff and leading a parade of devotees to a ramshackle church painted in red, yellow and green. It’s a country where becoming a monk is still a career option, where bards (called Azmaris) wander from town to town collecting satirical stories to sing for swaying crowds drunk on ‘tej’ honey wine.
On the hunt for jazz, we check into the charmingly faded ’60s grandeur of Addis Hilton and head for Bole Road, the centre of Addis’ notoriously roaring nightlife scene. Streetside is surprisingly quiet, but after a pizza (the Italians left behind pizza, good macchiato and a legacy of saying ‘ciao’), we turn into Harlem Jazz bar, one of the city’s stalwarts that has been bouncing for years.
Packed to the nines with Ethiopians who smile welcomingly at a foreign face (or ‘faranji’, as we’re politely known), the room sways to the steady jazz roar. The raw ’60s sound has moved on, with the introduction of the keyboard helping, but there’s the same undulating Amharic wail – melancholic, reflective, even when the music is at its most raucous.
After some rhythmic swaying, and battling with other dancers to shake our shoulders, we come out into the night air in search of Addis’ other after-hours pastime: getting made fun of publicly by a robed bard playing a single string fiddle.
The Azmaris are still hugely popular with Ethiopians. Groups of twentysomethings pack into tiny rooms where the drinks are dangerously cheap and the music continues long into the night. Diving into a cab with stickers of Jesus and Bob Marley side by side on the windshield, our dreadlocked driver takes us to a small, plaster house. It looks a bit dead. ‘Here?’ we ask and he gives the customary Ethiopian sign of approval, a sharp intake of breath and a nod of the head.
When we enter, the surprisingly crowded room erupts into laughter and everyone turns their heads towards us. A group of young Ethiopians shift along for us to sit down and the bard breaks into a long string of Amharic as dancers shimmy and clap next to him. We keep hearing the word ‘faranji’ interspersed in his punchlines and we get plenty of affirming smiles from the people around us. He may be laughing at our hair. But even without a single clue what he’s saying, on the rhythm alone and the infectious atmosphere, it’s hard not to laugh.
The next day, we decide to head out of the city and jump on a small plane to Gondar. The ‘Camelot of Africa’ has the continent’s only indigenous castles. But we’re after something else. Just beyond the town is an expansive range of rugged mountains called the Simiens. Unbelievably high, the range is a well protected national park, home to rural mountain dwellers, lammergeyer vultures and ‘bleeding heart’ geladas, which are close relatives of baboons.
Accessible from the small town of Debark, only a couple of hours by bus or 4x4 from Gondar, we head up to arrange our trek. Taking a mandatory and inexplicably armed scout with us called Gehay (whose only English is ‘thank you, thank you’, which he uses to mean yes, no and maybe), we drive deep into the park before shouldering our gear and heading out on foot. Great green hills roll into cavernous, seemingly bottomles drops. Giddy on the thin air, we spot narrow waterfalls that collapse thousands of metres down and hear the bizarre squawks of the baboons as they rummage in the grass in front of us.
It’s tough, but satisfying walking and the landscape slowly changes to a parched and cracked yellow. Lungs squealing, we stagger up to a tiny house as the sun lowers. Our scout greets the family that lives there on the way in, who set about preparing coffee as the kids stare at us and smile. Before we know it, a sheep is slaughtered, a fire made and the family brings out Ethiopia’s staple injera bread, a spongy concoction of fermented teff flour and water, to eat with the rapidly cooking lamb.
As we eat, long shadows are cast from the hills around us. The wind blows, the temperature drops and, as stars begin to prick into the sky, I can just hear those first few bars of Tezeta. It’s a comforting swing that’s followed us around Ethiopia: a melancholia that’s just on the verge of a genuine smile, an infectious joviality. But as I watch the landscape darken, the song now seems like the colour of swaying East African grass, rendered in music.
Need to know
Ethiopian Airlines fly three times a day from Dubai to Addis Ababa. Prices start from Dhs1,800 (plus taxes and surcharges). Visit www.ethiopianairlines.com.
Where to stay
Hilton Addis Ababa (+251 11 517 0000)
A bit rough around the edges and as ’60s as anything, but there’s a certain charm to this place and it’s full of Ethiopians. Rooms start at Dhs877 per night with breakfast
Sheraton Addis (+ 251 11 5171717)
After roughing it, this is a good option on your return to Addis. Comfy if slightly austere, it’s certainly a reminder of that thing called luxury. Rooms start at Dhs1,230 with breakfast
Simien Lodge (+251 11 5524758)
Dive into a hot shower and huge bed after camping in the Simien Mountains. Elegant tukul huts perch 3,200m above sea level making this the highest hotel in Africa. Gelada baboons tend to relax around the grounds, and it has a good ‘lodge’ atmosphere. Rooms start at Dhs499
Fly direct from Addis Ababa to Gondar (Dhs1,208, Ethiopian Airlines). From there, the Goha Hotel (+ 251 11 513 222) can arrange 4x4s to get you to Debark. In Debark, follow signs to the park office to hire a guide and scout. Equipment is available in Debark (sometimes a bit worse for wear, but very usable) but the Simien Lodge have good gear and can arrange mules or porters from the hotel. Two days trekking with camping, transport and equipment should cost around Dhs1,000.