Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Music of Ethiopia, part three: The Hotel Ghion house band

Back in Addis Ababa, and this time with my beloved, we ended up eating in the restaurant of the Ghion Hotel where they serve national food, with live musical accompaniment. As with the Azmari place in Bahir Dar, the extent to which all this was laid on for whitey was somewhat debateable – on one occasion, we were the only Caucasian diners present.

This music seemed to be of a broadly traditional sort, so from the world of neither 1970s Swinging Addis nor contemporary Ethio-pop. It was also rather different to the Azmari stuff too. At the start of the show, while the other musicians were tuning up or getting ready, this older guy who came across as the band leader would play haunting and almost melancholic notes on an accordion. I think he was improvising to some extent, at least with respect to timing; he sounded very much on one occasion like he was mocking some twunt who was ignoring his important Asian guests by talking loudly into his mobile.

The accordion player largely sat out the main performance, but he kept a watchful eye on things. I don't know the names of the instruments the other four musicians played, but I think one was a masinko and another this kora thing you sometimes hear about. That instrument was an interesting one, being a stringed instrument that produced sounds not unlike a guitar for all that it looked more like a lyre. This band was really impressive, sounding at times almost like The Fall (though without Mark E. Smith on vocals).

The band would play some of their tunes alone, but sometimes they would be joined by dancers and/or a singer. The dancers seemed, weirdly, to be the real stars of the show, typically getting applause from everyone after a song when it was usually only Irene and I who would applaud the dance-free tunes. There were four of the dancers, two men and two women. They certainly deserved their applause, displaying an astonishing skill at the balletic arts. They also changed their costumes between each number, on one occasion looking to me like they were meant to be whitey tourists. As is the way of these things, the lady dancers were amazingly rowr, while the two blokes were perhaps a bit camp, though one has to be wary of applying ideas from one culture to another.

The thing with the music in the restaurant is that I think it was just meant to be an accompaniment to your meal rather than a draw in and of itself, kind of like pubs that play music here. So when people finished their food they would wander off, even when the band was still playing. We stayed more or less to the death one night, and when the band proper finished, the accordion bloke swung back into action. Now he seemed to have turned into an Azmari singer, as he appeared to be singing songs about people in the audience. The feel was a bit different, though. His facial expressions and so on suggested that this was more ribald comment on the punters, but the music and his vocal tone suggested something more austere. It was all very strange, and I wished even more than when in Bahir Dar that I could understand Amharic. At times he sounded almost questioning, like we were meant to say something back to him, but we smiled politely and gestured to indicate our bafflement. We also did the local money on forehead thing.

It is hard to overstate how great this guy was – I have seldom seen a musician with such an air of authority.

You may have heard about how the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures this year had some of the Ethiopian jazzers over, playing with some American musicians. While in Ethiopia, I started thinking that what they really should have done is get the Hotel Ghion band over, as they would go down a treat and provide a much more world musicy experience for the festival-goers. While they are at it, they should get an Azmari band to play in one of the pub venues – people will not understand what they are singing, but they will surely get the idea.

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