Ethiopia rocks to electronic music despite political storms
Electronic dance music has taken root in Addis Ababa. Is the arrival of its caustic, manic rhythms a sign of the turbulent times? James Jeffrey captures a slice of everyday life and music in Addis, while larger events unfold across the nation.
A throbbing beat was emanating out of the darkness on a Saturday night high up in the Entoto hills surrounding Addis Ababa. In an abandoned restaurant, the crowd put their arms in the air as the DJ at the decks kept up the relentless pace of the electronic dance music blasting from speakers. EDM, a style of electronic dance music popularised by US festival and rave culture, had come to the Ethiopian capital.
Addis Ababa’s music scene is typically famed for its traditional, shoulder-shaking iskista dancing, its mesinko-playing minstrels singing political satire masked in witty innuendos, and its live bands playing the hypnotic melodies of Ethio-Jazz.
The city has rightly never let go of a vibrant and eclectic musical heritage. But the timing and arrival of a thumping dose of very 21st-century EDM coincides with dramatic shifts in Ethiopia’s political landscape that have liberalised the country and generated great hope, while also releasing darker forces fomenting ethnic conflict.
“Younger Ethiopians have grown up with their entire experience of this sort of music being through their smartphones, watching EDM festivals like Ultra in Miami,” says Chuchu, a 33-year-old Ethiopian who began organising EDM nights three years ago. “So we have brought it home to them – we’re the rebels, a handful of people who took a leap of faith three years ago to see if it could work in Addis.”
Foreign – and especially American – influence in Ethiopia goes well beyond the local music scene being affected by distant images of decadent festivals and gorgeous millennials having the time of their lives. The US-based Ethiopian diaspora lobbies Congress and runs highly influential media beaming into the motherland, fuelling the ongoing political upheaval, for both good and ill.
“The problem now is that so many individuals are mixing up the roles of activist and media when they shouldn’t go together – media is meant to have its own ethics and rules,” says Abel Wabella, managing editor of the Addis Ababa-based newspaper Addis Zebye. “You have people running media who are calling for protests – it’s totally absurd.”
Ethiopia has a long history of musical trends ebbing and flowing in tune to the latest political upheaval, often accompanied by foreign influence. Following the return of Emperor Haile Selassie from his World War II exile, the city’s bands started to experiment with exotic new styles such as jazz, R&B and soul, which were being broadcast from the country’s American military radio station.
The musical spontaneity continued, fuelled by the volatile brew of edginess, uncertainty and excitement that characterised years bracketed by a failed coup in 1960 and a successful one in 1974, notes travel writer Philip Briggs in his acclaimed guidebook on Ethiopia.
“As was the case elsewhere in the world, the 1960s witnessed immense social changes in Addis Ababa,” says Briggs, noting this was fuelled by “increased exposure to an outside world that was itself changing rapidly, as more and more outsiders became affiliated with broadly left-of-centre institutions such as the Organisation of African Unity, Non-Alignment Pact and the American Peace Corps, which made Ethiopia their temporary home.”
Following the imperial era’s bloody conclusion, the live music scene disintegrated because of the military junta’s 16-year-long overnight curfew. Talented music stars fled to the likes of the US. But in recent decades, Addis’s music scene has bounced back. Those diaspora-based musicians kept on making albums that I heard forever playing in the city’s minibus taxis.
As developing Ethiopia opened itself to the world, local artists such as DJ Rophnan brilliantly blended traditional Ethiopian music styles with Western ones such as hip-hop and dance music. This paved the way for EDM’s arrival and the influx of international DJs now adding Addis Ababa to their tour rosters.
“Young Ethiopians are closer to the world now and more exposed to music events happening globally,” Chuchu says.
While EDM appears to represent the embracing of a singularly Western style, Chuchu says Ethiopians are embracing EDM on their own terms. In addition to simply loving the music, Chuchu says Ethiopians like how they don’t have to dress up for an EDM night, which is expected at the city’s main nightclubs or at more traditional music events.
“People are just there for the music, not to strut around,” Chuchu says. “They have never experienced such a raw energy like this before. It’s a beautiful experience.”
He notes how very few young Ethiopians can afford to pay for a visa and flight and all the other costs to go see their favourite EDM DJs at festivals in the US.
By 2017, about 7,000 people turned up to the first large, half-day EDM event Chuchu had organised in Addis. It helped that tickets were kept cheap, ranging from $7 to $17. Tickets to EDM festivals in the US cost into the hundreds of dollars.
“People had never seen anything like it,” Chuchu says. “The police providing security came up to me and asked when the singers would come on, or if anyone was going to use a microphone. That night marked the change, the revolution of what a music event could be in Addis. Afterwards people understood there was no band, it was just electronic and an all-DJ event.”
A Turkish businessman who has lived and partied hard in Addis for more than a decade says an underground EDM scene had already existed in Addis among the ex-pat community. Chuchu notes that initially it was mostly foreigners who came to his events, but now it’s much more evenly split between foreigners and Ethiopians.
Celebration and commiseration
The day before the EDM event at the abandoned restaurant, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first Ethiopian ever to do so. The Nobel committee cited his series of achievements during his first 100 days in power in 2018, including making peace with Eritrea after 20 years of acrimony closed the shared border, his lifting of the country’s state of emergency, the release of thousands of political prisoners, the legalisation of outlawed opposition groups, the tackling of corruption and the promotion of women in politics.
In the wake of Abiy gaining recognition not just for himself but for Ethiopia as a nation, there was even more reason to dance the night away in the Entoto Hills. But among the foreign NGO workers, embassy staff and locals taking a break from the dance floor on the terrace outside, people discussed whether to stay indoors the next day due to a planned anti-government rally in Meskal Square, a focal point in the city centre. People worried about reports of closed roads, arbitrary arrests, even shots being fired around the city outskirts.
In the end, a typically calm Sunday ensued, the streets full of Ethiopians returning from church. The rally organisers called it off at the last minute, citing the government clampdown.
But within little more than a week, though, an altercation between the government and Jawar Mohammed, a highly influential – and controversial – activist spiralled into violence that spread across the country. It began with Jawar, who also runs the highly popular Oromia Media Network, alleging on social media that police tried to remove his security guards assigned by the government following his return from the US after Abiy lifted bans on opposition groups.
In response, hundreds of young Oromo men soon gathered around Jawar’s house proclaiming allegiance to him, followed by further demonstrations spreading in other parts of Ethiopia. About 80 people were killed before calm was restored.
Addis parties on
As fierce debate ensued over where the blame lay for the violence – Jawar was heavily criticised and accused of inciting conflict, while his supporters argued he played no direct role in demonstrations that were a spontaneous response to a government campaign endangering his life – Addis Ababa partied on.
It was ever thus. During the 2017 state of emergency, as the country seethed with ethnic clashes and millions fleeing their homes, in the Piazza dive bars the speakers kept belting out DJ Rophnan while locals downed jugs of the famous local concoction called Turbo.
As the epicentre of Ethiopia’s rapid growth this past decade, Addis exists in a parallel universe to the rest of the country, which struggles to catch up. There are two very different Ethiopias. One in Addis. One outside of it. Both are blessed and cursed in different ways. But Addis’ insularity can only go so far in an Internet-soaked world.
Hence, just as in the 1960s, Addis finds itself undergoing serious changes amid a world that itself is changing rapidly.
But despite the problems with Addis’ insularity and rank greed, as long as the EDM DJs are playing on there is reason to be hopeful. Because if the party in Addis ever fully stops, it will mean Ethiopia is in serious trouble.
“Ethiopia could disintegrate,” says Befekadu Haile, a political blogger who was arrested in 2014 as a member of the Zone 9 blogging collective that faced terrorism charges for their writing. “It is no different to other countries – it is a political entity made by people, so if it was made by people, it can be destroyed by people. Ethnic nationalists are more powerful now than they have ever been.”
In the meantime, the music plays on…
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