I’m submerged in a heaving, sweaty mass of bodies, all singing, dancing, clapping along to the mesmeric crooning of Alemayehu Eshete – the man known as the Ethiopian Elvis. It’s Saturday night and I’m sharing limited oxygen with Addis Ababa’s great and good at Mama’s Kitchen, a wood-and-glass bar on the fourth floor of an innocuous shopping mall near Bole airport. Eshete, a shining star of the 1960s Ethiopian music scene, conducts the revelry in local Amharic tones as his band deliver a hypnotic mix of funky jazz, rockabilly and the swinging scales of traditional Ethiopian folk. This is Ethio-Jazz.
A fusion of the eerie rhythms of ancient Ethiopian tribal music with the soulful undertones of jazz and the funky bounce of Afrobeat, Ethio-Jazz had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s but in recent years has been making a slow but unmistakable comeback in the country’s capital.
“There are kids now playing Ethio-Jazz. It’s really becoming big again,” music legend Mulatu Astatke tells me on the sidelines of a gig at his bar, African Jazz Village. “I have this radio programme; for seven years I have been pumping out Ethio-Jazz, teaching the people what it’s all about, but it’s definitely catching on now.”