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The members of reggae band Meleket left war-torn Africa to fight a new battle in America.
It’s a common-cold-provoking Sunday night in November, and the members of Ethiopian reggae group Meleket are rehearsing in the basement of their Capitol Heights home. The five-bedroom house sits on one of the area’s quieter streets, sheltered from the almost-nightly neighborhood gunshots. Inside, a large banner of Emperor Haile Selassie hangs over the couch. Downstairs, gray soundproofing foam covers the walls and ceiling and equipment decorates the floor.
Solomon Abate hops up and down behind a drum set; Tensae Berhanu nods as his fingers chase themselves across his bass strings; Abel Mekonnen hunches over his keyboard and drops some vibraphone-sounding chords. Since the band’s in-house keyboardist moved to San Francisco to live with his girlfriend, lead singer Mekonnen has been filling in on the instrument. For now, the microphone stands unused. So do the congas.
MeleketAmharic for the ceremonial trumpet ancient Ethiopian messengers used to introduce announcementsis short on staff. And the band members are a little worn out from looking for replacements. One musician fell asleep during his audition; another tuned his guitar the entire tryout. And once the group had to call the police to retrieve instruments another potential bandmate was holding hostage.
The members of Meleket want the kind of musicians who will move in and live with them. But the majority of the players they come across don’t share their long-term vision: an African continent free of the social problems currently plaguing it, a people bonded under a banner of black unity, and a reggae-music means of spreading the messages needed to accomplish those goals.
“When you’re building a band,” says Berhanu, the 6-foot-4 rebel preacher of the group, “you need strong soldiers who can overcome adversities. Not just jam and gig around and burn yourself out. We want to make a music that is big and huge. If you don’t have strong roots,
your stem cannot keep you up.”
“There is a line by Peter Tosh that really haunts me every day,” notes Mekonnen. “It says, ‘Africa is the richest place, yet it has the poorest race, and that’s a disgrace.’ That is something that should bother every black man every day of his life.”
Such frustration settles in alongside the musicians’ concern with violence in their native land. The mission statement of One Afrika Records, the independent label Meleket founded last year, reads, in part: “We, Africans, are tired of watching other Africans killing each other.”
With music as their weapon, the members of Meleket hope to make the world see, as Mekonnen says, that “personal gain is the easiest thing, but if you make a contribution towards alleviating poverty and all this oppression, then your soul will be at rest until eternity.”
The dates are etched into their minds as deeply as their own birthdays. March 22, 1984: Abate came to America from a refugee camp in Sudan in a sweater that barely shielded him from the cold, carrying only his paperwork. He was 18. June 7, 1989: Mekonnen arrived from Ethiopia to join his mother in America wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt that said “Africa Unite” and toting a large backpack. He was 17. June 19, 1989: Berhanu arrived at Dulles Airport, beads of sweat clinging to his body. He had not known such heat in his native Addis Ababa. To make things worse, he was wearing a suit. Tucked under his arm was his deceased father’s briefcase, which contained a thick Ge’ez-Amharic dictionary used to translate the ancient language of Ethiopia into the country’s present official language. He was 14.
All came to the United States for the same reason: to seek political asylum from Mengistu Haile Mariam’s communist regime and its National Service, which sent the military from house to house to round up men and boys as young as 14 to fight against regional uprisings. Many youth were kidnapped off the streets, given guns, and marched to the front with little training. They were dying in droves.
“I was old enough to be drafted, but I didn’t want to go to war for something I didn’t believe in,” says Abate.
From what the teenagers could tell, America would provide the perfect escape. Images they’d seen on TV and in the movies suggested that blacks in the United States were living the good life. They recall seeing shows starring Duke Ellington in which blacks had money, wore top hats and long-tailed suits, and became big-time musicians.
The band members’ dreams of a luxurious lifestyle in America quickly disintegrated, however. Mekonnen remembers the first night he stayed with his mother in Suitland, Md., and how eager he was for morning to come so he could see the “pretty” streets. When he woke up and went outside, there was trash everywhere, and, he recalls, “people were wearing tattered clothes, looking worse than the homeless back home.”
Abate, who had thought that the International Institute, the organization that sponsored his immigration, would provide financial aid for him to go to school, was forced to work in a St. Louis factory to support himself, feeding onions through machines that peeled and chopped them. “I thought I could handle [Western society] easily,” he says, “but when I got here, the reality hit of not having any family and being on my own.”
Berhanu was shuttled between foster homes in Centreville, Va. He remembers walking down a street one day when a pickup truck passed by and someone inside told him, “Go back to Africa, nigger!”
“It’s like you get out of one struggle and end up in another one,” Mekonnen says.
By the summer of 1992, Berhanu had perfected his screw facethe rude-boy equivalent of a rapper’s mug shot. He was vending T-shirts, reggae cassettes, and African artifacts outside the Safeway in Adams Morgan, hiding his bloodshot eyes behind sunglasses and covering his dreadlocks with a black turban. And he was pissed.
“I start asking myself: Why is life like this?” he says. “Why is everything so unbalanced? Why is there so much suffering? Why [do] people chase after vanity trinkets?”
Mekonnen stopped by Berhanu’s stand one summer day in 1993 to buy some incense, and the two struck up a conversation. Here in America, both had come to their own religious revelations, accepting, like their Rastafari peers in Jamaica and elsewhere, Selassie as their messiah. As a result, they were often criticized by many in the local Ethiopian community, which was largely Muslim and Christian. In the D.C. area, they found only a smattering of young Ethiopian Rastas like themselves.
“Seeing us checking for a foreign culture and religion, [community elders] thought we were somewhat brainwashed or hypnotized,” says Mekonnen. And, being somewhat alienated from both mainstream American and their own immigrant culture, Berhanu says, “we developed a certain kind of bond.”
By 1997, they were both making music professionally. Mekonnen had a reggae single out that he had recorded with some other musicians; Berhanu had started a band called Maebel, which jammed Ethiopian classical pieces at local spots such as the Lion’s Den on 18th Street NW and Kaffa House on U Street NW. Berhanu realized that he and his friend shared some of the same musical goals, so he asked Mekonnen to come by his T Street NW basement to “check out the vibe” and see how their styles would blend together. Mekonnen liked what he heard, and the session eventually led to the formation of Meleket.
In 1998, Berhanu and Mekonnen approached Abate, who had moved to D.C. and was playing at a Bob Marley festival at George Washington University as part of a drumming group called the Griots. “We spoke the same language. We could communicate,” Abate remembers. “But a big factor was we could play music from my country, and other things that I couldn’t play with other musicians, and that made it possible for me to feel more at home.” He, too, joined Meleket.
None of the band members had had much formal music training. (Berhanu had initially wanted to be a writer, Mekonnen had studied agricultural science, and Abate had gone to school in business administration and engineering.) But they were all fascinated by the old melodies of their homeland. And they all listened to artists such as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Bob Marley, and Jimmy Cliff. Together, they fused those sounds with American influences such as funk, disco, and R&B.
From his corner near the window of the basement studio, Abate energetically counts in the rhythm at the start of the band’s practice session. It’s a new song of Mekonnen’s that is still untitled. The band members work on the verse, the bridge, and the dancehall partwhen the drums kick a rude-boy beatas Berhanu struggles to compose complementary bass lines. After being implored by the others to keep his improvisation within the chord structure, Berhanu says, “See, they don’t let me express myself.”
Next, they run through some Ethiopian classics in a Jamaican rubba-dub reggae style. Then they ease into instrumental versions of a few songs on Humble Beginnings, which recently won Mekonnen a D.C. Annual Metropolitan Reggae Music Award for Songwriter of the Year.
Although Mekonnen is not singing tonighthe claims that concentrating on the keyboard parts alone is enough workhis voice rings clear on the album. He eschews the raw vocals favored by many reggae singers for an unusually sweet delivery.
In “Forward to Zion,” Mekonnen encourages blacks to return to the motherland; in “Dancehall Celebration,” he gives props to the new “conscious” roots-and-culture face of dancehall reggae; and in “Afrikawi,” sung in the provincial Ethiopian language Tigrinya, he pays tribute to Zeray Deres, an Ethiopian warrior who stood up to the invading Italians.
But if you take a moment to pore through the CD’s production credits, you’ll discover little about the group Meleket. Whereas Mekonnen’s face and stage name”Ras Abel”spring lionlike from the album cover, the only trace of the other band members is two mentions of Berhanu, who plays bass on a couple of tracks and is listed as co-producer. The majority of the musicians backing Mekonnen on Humble Beginnings are from Minneapolis or Chicago; they include Raphael Wolde Mariam, the drummer for Ziggy Marley’s Melody Makers, who was asked to participate in the project by Dula Tessema, a producer friend of Mekonnen’s.
Abate, who was traveling in Ethiopia during the studio sessions, explains that the disc was started before Meleket was formed, so Mekonnen completed it with the same musicians whom he had initially worked with. And scheduling conflicts prevented Berhanu from taking a greater part in the album’s production.
Although Meleket slinks silently in Mekonnen’s shadow on Humble Beginnings, all the band members have been helping with the album’s distribution and promotion through One Afrika Records. From their basement office in filmmaker Haile Gerima’s Sankofa Books and Video on Georgia Avenue, they work on putting out their own music and discuss plans to establish a venue where aspiring artists can develop their talents and members of the community can participate in educational programs.
“[We’re] trying to instill the idea that ‘one Africa’ should be and would be. And [to] use this form of art to create that vision,” Berhanu says.
Eventually, the members of Meleket want to move back to Ethiopia and spread the same messages of Pan-Africanism and self-sufficiency that Selassie helped initiate when he co-founded the Organization of African Unity in 1963 and that Bob Marley disseminated through his music a generation ago. But their toughest challenge for now is building a strong base here. Last month, Meleket finally found a new keyboardist, Daniel Haile Mariam, who recently moved from Addis Ababa and is currently learning the group’s music. When their new member is up to speed, Meleket will begin playing live shows.
In the meantime, the band is spreading its message far and wide, any way it can. The group was recently featured in Rootz Reggae & Kulcha magazine and on the Web site www.rastafaritoday.com. Meleket has also been working on two songs to distribute on promotional CDs that will give a quick sampling of the tunes on its next album. That one, Mekonnen says, will resemble Humble Beginnings but will feature all of the members of Meleket and a few more guest musicians.
“We’re trying to find a common harmony to unite people,” Berhanu says. “Hopefully, it works within our lifetime.” CP