Many thanks to John Grinling for this excellentt summary of the live music scene in Addis Ababa in mid-2014:
The music scene in Addis Abeba is wonderful, enthusiastic and varied. Ethiopian music, with its unique rhythms, beat, vibrations and sounds might be, like whisky, an acquired taste: it aims at inducing trance either by way of a distinctive and energetic dance music, or through hypnotic wailing melodies that have an undeniable Arab or Oriental clang.
Marvelous musicians and bands perform every evening in numerous venues, starting usually around 10.30 PM. Exceptions are the Sheraton’s Office Bar where the Zemen Band plays from Thursdays to Saturdays as from 8 PM. And the Jupiter Hôtel in Kazanchis featuring Bibisha and Co every Thursday after 7 PM.
But for a more thrilling experience, you should visit either the venerable Jazz Amba, on the right side of the Taitu Itegue hotel at Piazza. Or the pleasant and homely Mama’s Kitchen, on Bole road, the avenue leading to the Airport just after the huppé Black Rose bar, a fine place to waste time before a concert by watching Addis’s jet set.
And there is also Jams, a club situated 500 m. beyond Yod Abyssinia at Bole Medhane Alem, a comparatively new venue offering superb Reggae and Salsa. Reggae is on Thursdays and Saturdays by the well-established “Imperial Majestic Band” with Sydney Solomon as the star singer and dancer. Expect to hear also plenty of great reggae guest musicians there: Addis is indeed a required stop on the road to Shashamane, the Rastafari Makkah.
Good reggae, of a wilder kind, could be heard on weekends at the 3rd floor Smokey Blues Café in Shegger’s building. Barefoot Rasta, the polyglot veteran who doesn’t wear shoes, plays on Fridays at Zanzibar, a difficult to find joint near Bole Airport. But my personal favorite reggae singer is called Ayou. He sings on Thursdays at Jazz Amba with the Express Band.
Most performances do include some Reggae, even at the Sheraton. The band leader Vahé also sometimes interprets with much passion his own compositions in Armenian.
Virtuoso British percussionist Eshee Havana’s all Ethiopian salsa band plays on Fridays also at Jams. They conjure up a powerful Latino pulse that sends dazzling couples spinning. Unforgettable.
Mama’s Kitchen proposes a varied choice: First the famous Monday’s Jam Session, backed by the solid Nubian Ark musicians. It is packed with connoisseurs and artist who take turns to rouse the audience. On Tuesday, it is Michael Lema’s performance, a great new singer with his Ethiopian music band. Wednesday belongs to traditional Azmari Beit music, where the masinko (a one string sort of violin played usually by wondering minstrel) takes center stage, accompanied by drum and singer. On Thursday’s and Saturday’s, the Lubac Acoustic Band plays with most famous singer Alemayu Eshete, the star guest on the weekend. Friday you have the Blue Vibes Band and Sundays are for Samuel Yirga’s Jazz Band.
The ancestor of these venues is the steady Jazz Amba :
Tuesday: Ethio Jazz by Addis Taim band and the famed singer Getachew Kassa.
Wednesday: Legendary Alemayehu Eshete backed by the remarkable funk band named Nubian Arc.
Thursday, my favorite evening, with Michael Lema and reggae singer Asayehegn Alemu, better known as Ayu. They play with the Express Band of Haileyesus Girma.
Friday: Oldies interpreted by Addis Acoustic Project Band, with the elderly singers Girma Negash and Bahta Gebre-Hiwot as well as a few other excellent vocalists.
Saturday: Zemen Band with modern English and Amharic songs by Tsedenia Gebre Markos and other artists.
Sunday: Bati Groove’s Quartet Jazz Band plays with Dawit Melese.
The well-regarded Ghion Hotel, close to Mesquel square, now cooperates with the internationally famous vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke and has set up a “Jazz village” in its vast premises. The Belema Jazz Band is supposed to take stage on Wednesday and Saturday. Misto Misto Band plays on Thursday, Express Band on Friday, and when Mulatu is in town, he performs on Saturdays, joined usually by other great Ethiopian musicians.
This was the situation mid-2014. But venues and performers often change. Fortunately, most of these locations now run Facebook pages that are reasonably up to date. It is highly advisable to check them out.
True Ethiopian ambiance can also be found in less illustrious but more traditional scenes, such as Messafint’s cabaret (off Meskal Flower rd), or Fendika (in Kasantchis quarter)animated by renowned dancer Melaku, or my personal favorite, the Dome in the basement of the ill-famed Concorde Hotel on Debre Zeit road.
Crowded by locals as well as by lively Chinese and by Arabs keen to change from their diet of alcohol abstinence and veiled women, these hideouts propound a blend of music, song, traditional dances, drinks and Azmari performances that generate a special quality of happiness, abandon et euphoria you will experience nowhere else.