Impromptu Addis: A Cinematic Portrait of Samuel Yirga and Melaku Belay


Samuel Yirga

Samuel Yirga performing in Piassa, Addis, 2013.


The golden years of Ethiopian jazz have throughout the last decade been well documented on recordings and in writings but less so on film. That is until now. As we have previously covered, film maker Aramazt Kalayjian is currently producing a documentary film ‘Tezeta‘ exploring the collective reminiscence of Ethiopian Armenians and the Armenian influence on Ethiopian music. But he is not alone in this endeavour as film producer Chris Pencakowski and director Henrique Goldman of Mango Films are working on a feature documentary film called ‘Swinging Addis’ about classic Ethiopian jazz and groove. In March this year, Chris and Henrique began filming interviews in Addis and they are now working with prominent Ethiopian musicians such as Girma Beyene, Alemayahu Eshete, Mulatu Astatke and Getatchew Mekurya, and many others to realize the project.

While filming in Addis earlier this year, Chris and Henrique got the chance to shoot two short and brilliant public performance films with two of Ethiopia’s greatest artistic talents: pianist and composer Samuel Yirga (who featured on our ‘Best of Ethiopian music 2012’ list) and dancer Melaku Belay (who we interviewed back in 2011). See the two impromptu films below and read our interview with Chris about the creation of the films and why you just have to surrender to the improvisational character of life in Addis.


How did you come across Samuel and Melaku and what made you want to make them the central figures of your two films?

I first saw Samuel playing with legend Alemayahu Eshete and Girum Mezmur when I was visiting Addis in 2011. He was sensational, so I looked out for his album Guzo when it came out last year. Both myself and Henrique love Samuel’s music. We happened to meet Nick Page (aka Dub Colossus) who produced Samuel’s album – so he put us in touch. We had been researching for a while to make a film about Ethiopian music so when the opportunity came about to make these two films, Samuel was at the top of my list. Melaku Belay is one of the sweetest souls I have ever met. I didn’t know him, but I had watched him dance at his traditional azmari bet ‘Fendika’ in Addis (one of the best bars in the world!). He’s also in many video’s dancing with The Ex and with Getatchew Mekuria so I thought it would be great to work with him – to find a way to harness his energy into a very kinetic film – but also to show a bit of his skill at getting the people around him involved. As it turns out Melaku and Samuel are both good friends! Which makes these films portraits of two friends, their art and the city they share.



Samuel and Melaku seem to be driven by the same motivation: the desire to build bridges between traditional and contemporary Ethiopian culture (through music and dance respectively) and to bring this unique blend forward to the rest of the world. Did you get the same impression through your collaboration with them?

Absolutely. They are young and talented and both have a desire to push their art into new areas. Ethiopian jazz and groove music has by its very nature been innovative – fusing Western and traditional Ethiopian influences. Samuel is picking up the beat from the old 1960s and 1970s sound and bringing his own brand of modern groove to it. Just listen to his track ‘Dance with a Legend’ – a beautiful and playful take on Tihahun Gessesse’s ‘Lantchi Biye’. He tried that track for the film too but in the end we chose ‘Ambasel In Box Revisited’. Melaku is a real maverick, as far as I can tell. We asked him once how he learnt to dance, and his reply was quite simply “I never learnt how to dance, I was born dancing”. And when you see him really going for it you can tell he’s right. It’s great that he is bringing this dancing tradition (he is mostly dancing in Gurage style in the film) to a wider audience when he tours Europe and the USA with different Ethiopian bands. He’s even got some very modern moves of his own which he is introducing into the dance.

I want to mention a point here about Melaku’s ban from the United Kingdom. Melaku has been banned from visiting the UK for 10 years. This is due to a tiny mistake made on his visa application. He had applied once before for a UK transit visa for an upcoming tour – but he was turned down. Bear in mind that Melaku has toured the USA and Europe many times over. A while later, Melaku applied again – this time for a full work visa. Melaku’s English is not fantastic and it did not occur to him that he must mention his failed transit visa as information on the application. The authorities decided he was a liar and stamped a ten year ban on his name. It’s a great shame. Melaku just wanted to come to the UK to show how people dance in Ethiopia – he just wanted to give us pleasure. So I am glad that our short film was ultimately played nationwide in the UK by Channel 4. Though Melaku himself is banned from visiting the UK, at least his spirit can still reach the audiences in Britain though the film.


Melaku Belay

Melaku Belay on stage with dancers from the Ethiocolor band.

Both films seem fairly improvised. Why did you decide on this approach and on these locations in Piassa and Mercato?

These film were made originally for a British audience, and over here it is very hard to simply see what life in Addis Ababa is like. We see a very one sided view of Ethiopia in the media. So Henrique and I wanted to have the city of Addis almost like another character in the films. Mercato is one of the busiest places on Earth – so many people buying, selling, singing, socializing. And, as we had hoped, plenty of people were prepared to dance with Melaku. Likewise Piassa, in the Samuel Yirga film, is a vibrant and busy part of town where a lot of the nightlife is based. Its quite hard not to be improvisational in a place like Addis. As Westerners (or should I say ‘Northerners’) we are used to an organised and scheduled world. But life in Addis and Ethiopia does not work that way. Things have their own much more organic and meandering way of working. The best thing to do is to just surrender to it – and when you do that beautiful things can happen! We decided to subtitle Melaku’s film as ‘An impromptu ballet with Addis Ababa’.


Public performances are not a common-day experience for the Ethiopian by-passer. How did the audiences react to the performances in the public space?

Melaku has a skill at getting people really cheerful, really quickly – he was jumping around and dancing all the time – so people just laughed and joined in. Samuel played a very beautiful, meditative song – so people stood curiously listening and dreaming. As Samuel himself said “This kind of thing never happens in Addis”. People stopped what they were doing and took time out of their day to go and listen to Samuel. I think for most of them it was quite an unexpected and perhaps slightly peculiar treat. But I think the audience was pretty thrilled when Samuel finished.



The old guy appearing in the Samuel Yirga film in uniform and with the cassette tape. Can you tell us more about him?

He was quite old and a little drunk I suspect – but he felt at home in the centre of the crowd. He even tried to join in singing with a very husky voice to Samuel’s piano playing. I don’t know who he is. We gave him some money but he disappeared after we finished filming. I guess he is one of the many great singers and musicians that have faded into the background of the Addis landscape. He was probably sensational back in his day. If anyone recognizes him, I would love to find out who he is and hear some of his songs?


Filming in Ethiopia can be a hassle and pretty bureaucratic. How was your experience?

Yes, there is a lot of bureaucracy, but if you follow the simple rules you’ll be fine. Both the films were pretty straight forward ideas – we had a tiny crew and worked very quickly. At one point we had a problem with the power supply to the piano (there was a big blackout in parts of the city) – and in the end the local bank, opposite our location, just said ‘Hey, you can just plug up to our power if you like’. This is something that would never happen in London, I was quite surprised how kind they were.


Chris will be back in Ethiopia in 2014 to make more films and to continue building the Ethiopian music documentary project. If you are interested in getting in touch, try him at See the teaser for the ‘Swinging Addis’ documentary below. 



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