Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Music of Ethiopia, part two: Azmari

My driver brought me out to a local bar in Bahir Dar. This had a form of local music going on in it, which research suggests is called Azmari. In this place, there were a couple of people making music, including someone playing drums, someone was playing a stringed instrument called a masinko, and a couple of people were singing. The masinko sounds not unlike the fiddle in Irish traditional music, and at times it sounded like it was about to break into something you would hear at a trad session, but then the other instruments would come in and take things off in some crazy direction. Azmari is this folk musical form that seems to have adapted well to modern life in Ethiopia. It works both as unproblematic fun for the locals and a window into exoticism for whitey. Azmari's big thing seems to be the vocals, with multiple singers trading call and responses and stuff.

Now, my Amharic is not up to much, but it was easy enough to work out that a lot of the vocals were being improvised and consisted of chortlesome comments about individual members of the audience. It all seemed very good-natured. Or so I hope, for a fair few were directed at me, as one of very few white people in the place. I did a lot of smiling politely.

Whitey also got down. One of the things with this place (and perhaps with Ethiopia generally) is that people would keep hopping up and doing a bit of shoulder dancing to the music. Shoulder dancing involves moving your shoulders rhythmically at high speed, perhaps in combination with a weird kind of chicken strut head movement. If you haven't been doing it all your life it is all semi-impossible, but giving it a go is fun. In this case, I briefly partnered one of the troupes' dancers (a fellow clad only in red satin hot pants), providing more cheap laughs for the locals. No pictures of this event exist.

Shoulder dancing seems to go with all music in Ethiopia – Alèmayèhyu Eshèté did a bit in London, the Azmari fellows did it, and whenever I saw any music videos on television, there would always be a few shoulder dancers. While the dance does seem to be one for both men and women, with the ladies it leads to a certain jiggletastic action. This seemed especially noticeable on one tune I saw on TV, where the singer seemed to be trying to get two lady shoulder dancers to shake their breasts around as much as possible (and perhaps it is no coincidence that the song's chorus seemed to be "Pervert! Pervert!"). I have heard stories of topless lady shoulder dancers – great potential for eyes being had out.

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