Swing State: Jazz-Mad Ethiopia Rejoices at a Musical Revival

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Endreas Amare

Catching the tempo Jazzamba's unveiling couldn't have come at a better time

Walking into the jazzamba lounge in Addis Ababa as it readies for a Friday night is like stumbling into a gig by an Ethiopian Buena Vista Social Club. The venue is hung with low-lit golden chandeliers, candles dot the tables, the barman is flirting with the waitresses, and on stage, running through its discordant but not unappealing set, is a jazz band comprising seven musicians: a drummer, percussionist, guitarist, bassist, keyboard player and, sitting on stools out front, an elderly mandolin player and an equally aged singer.

My host, club co-owner Samuel Gezahegn, snaps his fingers for fresh beers and indicates I should sit. "The singer is Girma Negash, a legend from the old days," says Gezahegn. "He drives a cab today. Can you imagine?" Gezahegn points to the mandolin player. "Ayele Mamo: the only guy in Ethiopia who plays mandolin, and he's been playing 52 years." The band, I learn, is the Addis Acoustic Project. And just when I think this can't get any cooler, it does: midsong, Negash steps forward, microphone in hand, and points and smiles at me like Tony Bennett.

Africa might worship hip-hop, but Addis digs jazz — and has done so since it was first introduced in the 1920s by the imperial court. In the 1960s, Addis was jumping: Duke Ellington gigged there and the city had its own sound, Ethiojazz, a fusion of jazz and Ethiopian folk pioneered by percussionist Mulatu Astatke.

The music died in 1974, when the Stalinist Derg regime deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and banned almost every type of freedom, including a musical form based on improvisation. But jazz began a cautious revival after the Derg's overthrow in 1991. Bars began slowly staging jazz nights again. Interest was generated among overseas jazz fans through the cult success of Ethiopiques, French compilations of Ethiojazz recordings from the 1950s and '60s. (The first collection was released in the late 1990s and the series is now on Volume 27.) Then three new jazz schools opened. An annual jazz event, the Acacia festival, was launched.

What Ethiojazz lacked was a permanent home — until Jazzamba's opening in June. Addis now has its first seven-nights-a-week live-jazz venue, and the club represents a rebirth not just for the stars of yesterday but also for the building itself: a former ballroom in the old town attached to Ethiopia's oldest hotel, the Taitu. The space, which had been derelict for 20 years, is alive again, thanks to the music and an excellent chef. "We've been full every night," says Gezahegn. "It's the talk of the town."

Jazzamba is open nightly, from 8:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. The Addis Acoustic Project plays every Friday; phone Jazzamba's manager, Ermias, at (251) 912 047 614 to book a table. Also check out whatsoutaddis.com for a full rundown of that month's gigs.