The heat is stultifying in the stairwell of 2116 18th St. NW, as Tesfaye Lemma graciously welcomes his afternoon visitors. We enter Lemma’s fourth-floor walk-up, aka the temporary home for the Center for Ethiopian Arts and Culture, unsuspecting, a tad laconic. To our wonder and surprise, we encounter a small Adams Morgan apartment transformed, overflowing with treasures of Ethiopian culture past and present. Lemma’s tiny contemporary kitchen serves primarily as a place to hang musical instruments, from a sacred Ethiopian harp to a diamond-shaped ancestor of the violin called the mesinko. His living area has been overtaken by an ad hoc gallery of East African treasures, from the giant, colorful baskets to adorned coffee pots with double spouts, from wool-spinning devices to cooking utensils.
Lemma stands at a large reception desk, taking phone calls. The highly regarded artist has spent the last 30 years as a composer, lyricist, and artistic director of Ethiopian folkloric ensembles. He has also become a full-time arts administrator and advocate for the proliferation of Ethiopian culture in D.C., which is why there is no comfortable place for him to sit in his own apartment.
“I brought these household materials from Ethiopia two years ago to educate the youngsters here,” Lemma says quietly. “Ethiopia was an isolated country for many years—I want to promote our culture. Our music and dance and art is a new experience for Americans.”
Most important to Lemma is the idea that the children of Ethiopian immigrants here have a chance to know their heritage. There are more than 40,000 Ethiopian immigrants in D.C., according to Lemma, and more than 100,000 in the U.S. Many of them have come in the last several years, during the days of civil war, or more recently, during the uncertain period of setting up a new, transitional government.
The crown jewel of Lemma’s efforts is his impressive folkloric troupe, the Nile Ethiopian Ensemble. The three dancers and three musicians are also his cultural emissaries. Lemma, an introspective 51-year-old artist who defected to the U.S. nine years ago, formed the dance and music group in 1993 with the help of company manager LaDena Schnapper, a D.C. social worker who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia 30 years ago.
The company will be performing with several other companies this weekend in DanceAfrica, the two-day festival of African dance and culture to be held at Dance Place. It is quite significant that Nile Ethiopian Ensemble will perform in the festival, a cultural phenomenon that has grown tremendously in stature over the past several years. The event was never low-key, but it had informal roots when it was founded in the 1970s in Brooklyn by premier West African dancer Chuck Davis. The dance spectacle has become a staple of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and today six cities participate. (Dance Place is a national coordinator for the event.) DanceAfrica has always been heavy on West African dance and culture, and Nile is one of the first East African groups to gain some momentum and recognition, as well as one of the first East African groups to be represented at the festival.
Three years ago, Schnapper went to see DanceAfrica at Dance Place. “I saw all this great dance, and I also saw there were no Ethiopians. I thought, ‘There are 40,000 Ethiopians here, many of them artists. Well, where are they?’” Schnapper then helped Lemma, an artist and organizer well-known to the Ethiopian community, get the Nile Ethiopian Ensemble started.
And the ensemble is a great place for the uninitiated to get some exposure to East African culture—beyond the obvious gesture of eating at one of the many Ethiopian restaurants in Adams Morgan. For those who’ve seen and heard the lyrical, sensual rhythms of West African dance and drumming, the experience of watching Ethiopian dance is quite different. “The typical Ethiopian dance involves vigorous shoulder shaking that is unique to East Africa,” Lemma explains.
There is a contained wildness to the isolation of body parts in Ethiopian dance, from head to shoulders to torso, that seems impossible to achieve gracefully. Yet the dancers (Almaz Getahun, Abebe Belew, and dance master Ashenafi Mitiku) perform the jerky, staccato movements so quickly and assuredly that the dance becomes mellifluous. Like other types of African dance, it is sensual and celebratory. The vocalists and musicians (Asaye Zegeye, Setegne Atenaw, and Selamawit Nega) play the mesinko, which offers up a haunting, wailing sound, and the six-stringed krar, a type of lyre. The instruments underscore their rich signature, high-pitched singing and trilling.
The group performs the dances of many ethnic voices in Ethiopia: the Amhara, Elkeri, Gurage, Kaffa, Oromo, Tigray, and Woleita peoples. Interestingly, the new government in Ethiopia has divided the country along such ethnic lines for the first time, a move that some say is dangerous and divisive. Others say the ethnic boundaries at least acknowledge the differences and allow for self-determination.
In 1969, the young Lemma, then director of Orchestra Ethiopia, first toured the U.S., appearing in 20 cities and on the Ed Sullivan Show with his troupe. (The male/female shoulder dance was performed in a sedate, sanitized version for Sullivan’s show.) But one Peace Corps volunteer who traveled with Orchestra Ethiopia on that tour, Charles Sutton, has said, “I doubt very much that Tesfaye, the orchestra, and I could relive our story in the political and social climate of today.”
Indeed, if Lemma and his master dancers and musicians were now in Ethiopia, they would not be touring the world or appearing with Jay Leno. They might not be singing or dancing much at all, according to Schnapper. Lemma was imprisoned three times for the content of his songs, and even though the new Ethiopian government is trying to introduce democracy, it is still a time of uncertainty and instability.
“There is no war anymore, but there are a lot of human rights violations,” says Schnapper. Schnapper also heads her own small organization called Ethiopian Self-Help International. “The per capita income is still less than $100 a year, and the illiteracy rate is somewhere around 50 percent. Development is still slow in coming.” Schnapper said that most of the artists in the Nile Ethiopian Ensemble have been granted asylum in the U.S.
“Many artists have immigrated here because of the political situation,” Lemma says. “But here,” he adds, “it is also difficult. We don’t live by performance alone.” Each member of the dance troupe keeps a part-time or full-time job; but the company is also getting more and more engagements. The emerging group has already gotten an encouraging response from festivals and universities. A few weeks ago it performed in DanceAfrica at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It has performed at dozens of other venues, including Harvard University and Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors festival. Members of the troupe also teach Ethiopian dance at the Marie Reed Learning Center.
“We still have a long way to go in the future,” Lemma says, a man absorbed in a constant quest for money and 5,000 square feet of space. “This year we got our first grants. I do this part-time, but as it grows it needs my full attention and it needs support from the community.” Next year, the Center for Ethiopian Arts and Culture will open its museum—hopefully somewhere other than Lemma’s apartment. CP