Terp Records (www.terprecords.nl)
Review by Tom Pryor
If you’ve always hankered to while away an afternoon drinking tej and listening to Azmari music in a real live Ethiopian tej bet, but couldn’t afford that flight to Addis Ababa, then have I got the band for you.
Fendika is a musical collective based in Addis dedicated to exploring the Azmari repertoire — an acoustic tradition usually centered on a vocalist accompanied by the krar lute or the one-stringed masenko fiddle, and various percussion. Fendika has already made a stir with this sound; touring Europe with Dutch post-punk experimentalists The Ex, recording with Debo Band, and collaborating with Mahmoud Ahmed, Getatchew Mekuria, and more. And they damn near brought the house down with their exuberant, dance-filled live set at the January 2017 globalFEST in New York. Now they’re back with their fourth full-length album, Birabiro, and an even deeper-dive into Azmari tradition.
But first, some context: Azmaris are a kind of Ethiopian troubadour similar to the griots and djelis of West Africa. Their music has been an integral part of daily life in Ethiopia for generations: gracing the courts of nobles, celebrating weddings, funerals and festivals, even accompanying crop harvests and military campaigns.
Azmari songs range from aching love ballads to topical satire, to historical poems celebrating heroes and the genealogies of great families. Improvisation and poetic double-entendres known as “wax and gold” are prized, and their praise — and mockery — packs a punch. So much so that Amarzis were a favorite target of the authorities during Italy’s brief colonial occupation, and again during the military rule of the Derg regime in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Today the best place to find Azmaris are in tej bets and azmari bets, the informal tea houses/bars/performance spaces all over Ethiopia. Fendika, too, was born in an azmari bet, and the story is worth telling.
Fendika’s founder, Melaku Belay, grew up orphaned in Addis in the 1980s. There he danced for tips in an azmari bet in the Kazanchis district. At nights he slept under the bar. In 2014 he had saved enough money to buy the establishment from its owners. Today he runs it as the Fendika Azmari Bet, home base for Fendika and its many projects.
Belay takes music and dance seriously. He’s travelled all over the horn of Africa learning dances from over 80 different ethnic groups in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan. His previous group, the Ethiocolor Cultural Band was a 13-piece ensemble that performed regularly at the Fendika Azmari Bet, combining these tribal traditions with jazz, rock and a bit of theater. In 2009 he assembled a smaller, tighter, five-piece group to focus on the acoustic side of Azmari music, and Fendika was born.
As you might expect from a group sired in a live music venue and led by a dancer/choreographer, Fendika is best experienced up-close and personal. But Birabiro is the next best thing. The album is remarkably faithful to their live set, capturing the passion and drama of a Fendika performance.
“Ywolala Weyo” sets a rollicking pace, propelled by handclaps, the double-sided kobero drum and raucous whistles and trills, singer Nardos Tesfaw’s voice soars and wheels over Endris Hassen’s jaunty masenko. There’s no lyric sheet included to translate the Amharic lyrics, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this song was written with drinkers of tej [Ethiopian’s famous honey wine] in mind.
The propulsive hand percussion holds strong on the more sober “Maleda”, which boasts robust call-and-response vocals and an exploration of the, er, scratchier range of the masenko. While “Zelesegna” is an elegiac, minor-key miracle, where both Tesfaw and Endris stretch out and luxuriate in the full, pentatonic range of Ethiopia’s modal scales. You can practically taste Tesfaw savoring the microtones in her mouth.
Other standout tracks include the rocking “Nargi,” the hypnotic “Era Gedaye Gedaye/ Shellela/ Lale Guma” medley of songs from Gonder [The track listing helpfully includes notes on the regions where each song originated], and the somber “Anbessa”.
While the physical CD lacks any lyric sheet, it does include a nice intro from The Ex’s Terrie Hessels, and an excellent, informative interview with Melaku Belay that lays out the history of the band, and the challenges that traditional Azmari music and azmari bets face due to gentrification and rampant real estate speculation in Addis. There are also some stunning photos. It’s a good package and a helluva album from a great bad — but it’s too bad you can’t see them dance. - Tom Pryor
Actually, you can see them dance, here in a live performance from 2014.