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Ethiopian band wins fans by melding rock with African sounds

By Xinhua-afp | China Daily | Updated: 2017-04-10 07:10

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - At a hotel in Addis Ababa well-known for hosting jazz greats, thousands of fans lined up on a Saturday night to headbang along with what is still a rarity in Ethiopia's diverse music scene - a rock band.

Jano, named after a popular item of traditional clothing, has made a name for itself in Africa's second most populous country, as well as abroad, by blending local styles of music with Western rock and roll.

"We're trying to make something very, very different," said Hailu Amerga, one of four vocalists in the eight-piece, mixed ensemble that also features a drummer, keyboard player, guitarist and bassist.

"Rock, it was really far away from our country, and it's not our tradition," he said.

Ethiopian music is generally known for its distinctly non-Western scales and instrumentation, and is a staple of the nightlife in the Ethiopian capital.

At open-air beer gardens, young people dance shoulder-shaking jigs to playlists that alternate between Ethiopian singers and hip-hop hits by west African artists like Sarkodie and Davido.

Perhaps no style of Ethiopian music is better known outside the country than its unique kind of jazz, pioneered by musicians such as Mulatu Astatke and Mahmoud Ahmed, and known worldwide as Ethio-jazz.

The longstanding jazz culture evolved from a brass band movement that was begun by an Armenian band brought to the country by Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's last emperor, after he saw it perform in Jerusalem during a visit in the 1920s.

"When ... you give them that traditional jazz, the satisfaction never (finishes)," said Melaku Belay, owner of Fendika, a club where crowds gather for Friday night showcases of traditional music by the dozens of ethnic groups in the country.

Ethiopia's music scene was not always so free.

During the 14-year communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, jazz was suppressed and many musicians fled the country.

Though the musical culture has experienced a rebirth in the years since Mengistu's 1991 ouster, rock music has not developed much of a following in Ethiopia, said Dibekulu Tafesse, another of Jano's vocalists.

"At first, we were afraid to introduce it," he said. "Some people are so confused. At the same time, it's not our culture."

Jano was assembled in 2011 by Addis Gessesse, a band manager and concert promoter, who has since cut ties with the group.

The band's sound drifted away from the reggae, jazz and pop that dominate Ethiopia's music scene as it took on new members.

"When we first came together, we didn't have the plan to create a rock band. Everybody has their own inspiration," said Dibekulu.

Bill Laswell, a New York-based bassist and producer who worked on Jano's first album, Ertale (2012), worried how the genre would go down in Ethiopia.

"I thought the rock thing would be kind of risky with the older audience, but I thought the younger audience would be ... ready for what they were doing," Laswell said in a telephone interview.

When Jano began performing after two years of rehearsals, audiences were sometimes taken aback by their unconventional style.

 Ethiopian band wins fans by melding rock with African sounds

Members of the Jano band take part in a practice session in Addis Ababa. The band has been playing in Ethiopia and touring in Europe for the past five years.Zacharias Abubeker / Agence Francepresse

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