Building bridges: the potential of making the contemporary move through traditions
ADDIS RUMBLE meets Melaku Belay
Melaku Belay welcomes us to his apartment in Addis a few hours before his next performance at the Fendika Azmari Bet. We have sat down with him to a talk about the potential and future of traditional dance in contemporary Ethiopia, and takes off with his most recent project, the video Ahun (“Now”). In Ahun, Melaku takes the dance from the usual venues and into the urban environment, and to the supposedly largest market in Africa, Mercato. In the part of Mercato, where the blacksmiths are busy bending and cutting metal, Melaku performs to the rhythms of the blacksmiths’ hammering; moving and electrifying his body in accordance with the beats of Mercato. The performance is as much a contemporary artistic expression as a document for time, Melaku explains: “Merkato is changing and Addis is changing. Ahun is about documenting how things were before they became uniform.’’
Building bridges between tradition and modernity is fundamental for Melaku. Not only in his dancing but also in his other cultural endeavours. Melaku is not only Ethiopia’s most renowned and prolific dancer. He is also the founder and leader of the Ethiocolor band and the manager of Fendika, one of Addis’ most famous azmari bets. In Amharic, “azmari bet” means “House of the Azmari” and is a place where people come to enjoy traditional Ethiopian music. As a former street child, Melaku has turned Fendika into a house of both creative and social transformation. He sends his young Fendika dancers to school, opens saving accounts for them, and provides them with accommodation.
Melaku is only in his mid-thirties but he has already danced at Fendika for more than 15 years, he has been director there for three years, and during recent years his performances has taken him on numerous tours across Africa, to the US and around Europe. But he keeps returning to Ethiopia and to Fendika. “Many Ethiopians run away from Ethiopia. I always come back. I will die in my home, in my country.’’
Melaku is on a mission to realize the potential of dance. “Bringing traditional Ethiopian dance to the world can transform the image of Ethiopia. Dance is everywhere in Ethiopia. It is our language, the way we live. All our movements have meaning.” However, for most outsiders, images of famine and poverty are the first things that come to mind when Ethiopia is the subject of discussion. Melaku describes how the audience first time they witness one of his shows often thinks that the dance is from India and definitely not from Africa, as Ethiopian dance is so distinct from other African dances. He explains: “the melody and rhythm of Ethiopia is very different from the rest of Africa, and travelling can help show the diversity of Ethiopia.”
Yet, for Melaku the potential of Ethiopian dance is not limited to the relationship between Ethiopia and the world. His mission is as much personal and domestic as it is global. It is more of an exploration of the genealogy of Ethiopian dance and a search for his roots and cultural heritage than anything else. “The traditional dance and music of Ethiopia is the future. It is our identity. My dance is about protecting my culture.’’ Melaku, who now masters more than 30 different Ethiopian dances, explains how he often travels to the Ethiopian countryside to find the traditional and often forgotten dancers and musicians performing at wedding ceremonies and other parties. He then brings them to Addis and invites them to perform together with the Ethiocolor band at Fendika where the music and dance from different regions and of different eras in the history are mixed and a fusion of tradition and modernity created. The traditional Guragina dance is performed to the Ethiojazz. The old Eskista dance with its emphasis on shoulder movements is performed to sounds of Dutch punk-legends the Ex, the legendary Ethiopian saxophone player Getachew Mekuria or the blacksmiths at Merkato. In his dance there is no wrong or right, as Melaku believes that “…mistakes are beautiful.” He is a carrier of tradition. But tradition in a transformative and vibrant way – not a static and conservative one.
Talking to Melaku you realize just how powerful dance can be in bridging the gap between the past and the future, tradition and modernity, and even between different cultures and regions. This is a highly valuable feature when Ethiopia, and especially the capital Addis, is transforming at a level that makes you loose your breath. Take a stroll around town and this will become obvious in the huge amount of skyscraper-skeletons that strive to make this city grow tall and become a new modern East-African metropolis. Which by all means are good for the future, but unfortunately has a habit of neglecting the past.
And since dance is such an important part of tradition, history and culture, it is something that should be both valued and protected for the sake of future generations and their history. But of course, it too has to develop according to the new status quo of the Ethiopian society otherwise it will simply not be sustainable and relevant in the long run. Melaku’s innovation of the dance thus brings it to a new contemporary level, and builds bridges between tradition and modernity. Transforming it in favour of a modern world and audience, without compromising with either tradition or quality. It is an important attempt to make the Ethiopian tradition of dance resistant to the rapid changes that will without a doubt erase some of the visible features of Ethiopian cultural tradition and history. As Melaku also explains, thanks to TV different cultural dances are being spread throughout Ethiopia, so that rival tribes and regions now incorporate parts of each-others dance in their own dance. So despite regional disagreements, dance is something that everyone can agree on, and a place for people to meet despite rivalries.
An hour later back at Fendika, Melaku performs with the Ethiocolor band. His body sways and beats, and he doesn’t stand still for one second. The atmosphere at the packed venue is electric and full of anticipation. Guest musicians from the Ethiopian countryside joins in. Then follows the Ex, Norwegian percussionist Paal Nissen-Love and soundpoets from Addis and abroad. The sounds of the traditional Ethiopian flutes and string instruments are mixed with punk and avant-garde poetry and the movements and pulsations of Melaku. Bridges and potential, beauty and beats all join together in a symphony of moves and music, and the excitement of the audience underlines the importance and strength of this project driven by Melaku, one of the bravest and most admirable spirits in contemporary Ethiopian culture
For more info on Melaku, check his website: www.melakubelay.com
Join in on Fendika this Friday when Ethiocolor has a new show with special guests. Doors open at 8.00 pm with old Ethiopian vinyls’ warm up.
Entrance 20 birr to support the artists.
Check the videos below and have a taste of whats awaiting you at Fendika this Friday!
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