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The D.C. area is already home to the United States’ largest Ethiopian population, but this week brings a surge of Ethiopian culture thanks to the 30th Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America (ESFNA) Tournament that runs through July 6. Take note, Horn of Africa fans: This is going to be one of the year’s best chances to see a lot of Ethiopian musicians who don’t play in town very often.
Tonight: Munit & Jorg
Ethiopian singer Munit Mesfin and German guitarist Jōrg Pfeil began performing what they call Ethiopian acoustic soul in 2007 during the Ethiopian Millennium Celebration—-it was the year 2000 on the Ethiopian calendar. “When we met and had our first jam session, it was clear that we were musically very much in sync, with very similar taste in jazz, soul, rock, and reggae,” Mesfin writes via email. Mesfin traveled between Ethiopia and the U.S., playing music with his partner when she could, but finally moved back to Ethiopia two years ago after 20 years away from home.
Munit has lived all over the world—-India, Namibia, and the United States, always singing in choirs. She lived in the D.C. area for a while, singing as a background vocalist for Ethiopian singer Wayna, among others. Her colleague Jorg, who moved to Ethiopia more than seven years ago, attended music schools in Germany and Holland. Inspired by seeing the Circus Ethiopia in Germany 15 years ago, he organized a project called the Sounds of Saba, which included Ethiopian traditional musicians and singers. He’s now working on a music book which includes the duo’s songs and techniques on how to best perform Ethiopian scales on the guitar. Live, they mix their own material with adaptations of traditional Ethiopian music and covers of Tracey Chapman, Bob Marley, and The Police.
Traditional Ethiopian Azmari music and dance group Fendika returns to the area for a show, this one at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. This six-member troupe includes two dancers, a singer, and a drummer, a one-stringed bowed fiddler, and a lyre player. Founded in 2009, the group borrows its style from history, but it’s far from staid; its athletic dance in particular.
Thursday: Jano Band
Ethiopia isn’t known for its rock bands. But this ensemble (shown above), formed two-and-a-half years ago, has gotten coverage on CNN for its unique take on the genre. The band’s lead guitarist and musical director Michael Hailu says the first rock band he heard was Metallica, and his group’s other members dig the mainstream sounds of Coldplay and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But Jano doesn’t just mimic Western rock; according to Hailu, Jano melds Ethiopian melodic structures with heavy guitar and drum sounds. The combination has attracted criticism from more traditional listeners. But Hailu saye he hopes to win over the naysayers by showing them that “we believe in our music.”
Friday: Haile Roots and Kuku Sebsebe at Howard Theatre; Mahmoud Ahmed and Teddy Afro at Echostage
Ethiopian reggae singer Haile Roots blends roots reggae with Ethiopian synth sounds. Sebsebe, who first established her name in Ethiopia, lived in the United States from the late 1980s until 2003 when she moved back home. While stateside, Sebsebe spent much of her time in D.C., where she was best known for her appearances at Meskerem in Adams Morgan. Her traditional vocals seem to combine Arabic, Asian, and African approaches while utilizing contemporary programmed beats.
Acrobatic vocalist Mahmoud Ahmed, now in his 70s, is known as the king of Ethiopian music. He adds a touch of old-school R&B but his vocals mainly stay true to his traditional Ethiopian roots. Teddy Afro, who shares the bill, has been hailed as Ethiopia’s Bob Marley. But Afro’s sound is much more polished than Marley; his lyrics sometimes veer into the political, but he smooths them out with a loungey, R&B vibe.
Plus: All week, Dukem Restaurant on U Street hosts Ethiopian singers Aregahegn Worash and Abeba Desalegn, who will perform with local musicians on certain nights through the 7th. The restaurant’s Facebook page has more details.
Photo: Jano Band