Three stages, 12 bands, one festival. Hosted at New York’s Webster Hall, and currently in its thirteenth year, globalFEST 2016 boasts a line-up that includes African and Afro-diasporan musicians Fendika (Ethiopia), Lakou Mizik (Haiti), Somi (Rwanda/Uganda) and Colombian AfroChampetua band Tribu Baharú. Ahead of the festival, and following up on our previous post that featured an interview with Lakou Mizik, writer Eden M say down with Ethiopian dancer and cultural entrepreneur Melaku Belay, leader of multi-member collective Fendika. Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Melaku is a self-taught dancer who has taken on many various forms of Ethiopian dance, blending them to create his own unique style and interpretations. Through his talent and ability, and from exposure to different experiences and training styles, Melaku has mastered no less than 30 different dances. In 2008, he embarked on a creative entrepreneurial endeavor to revitalize one of the most famous Azmari places in Addis Abeba, the Fendika:
When Ethiopian dancer Melaku Belay took over the legendary Fendika Music Club in Addis Ababa, it was with a dream that was revolutionary in Ethiopian culture–to provide Ethiopian musicians with a source of fair and reliable pay for their work. Previously these performers were forced to survive only on tips, but now they can develop their music as professionals and inspire a new generation of performers, a very important step for Ethiopian music.
Melaku began his career as a street kid and refugee whom the owners of Fendika allowed to sleep behind the stage at the Fendika Club. He taught himself to dance by watching performers at the club and worked for many years before he eventually became the owner. Melaku is an energizing force in the Ethiopian music scene and beyond. Today, artists from all over the world come to Fendika to play and talk, exchange ideas, and teach young musicians. Melaku and his club have an influence on music that reaches far beyond the walls of Fendika. This amazing clip from Jamming Addis, Dirk van den Berg’s amazing documentary tells the story of Melaku and the club better than any words.
Eden: I want to start right away with your own personal story. You as a child were dancing to survive and you were sleeping on the floors of Fendika as a child. Now, since 2008, you’re the owner of this cafe and your reputation as a dancer allows you to take control of your life. It seems like your relationship to dance has changed so much between your youth and life as an adult. Is this true?
M: Yes, it is true.
E: When did you first learn how to dance?
M: My mother taught me.
E: Who inspires you when you dance? Where do you find inspiration?
M: From my people, the Ethiopian musicians, the road, the village and the religious or holy festivals. We call one festival timket (ጥምቀት, or baptism). Everybody comes out to celebrate together. That moment is a very good opportunity to learn. My people inspire me, and the musicians.
E: When you dance, are you also connecting back to your parents and the experiences you had with your mother?
M: Yes, I’m dancing, but in my family there are musicians. When there are celebrations in my village and in the streets and at weddings people dance. So they inspired me more, and they gave me the space to express myself and learn at the same time. That was the way I developed my talent.
E: Thanks to platforms such as globalFEST, musicians from all over the world are given a base in the Western world on which to broadcast their sounds and cultures to the world. However, are you ever concerned that traditional dance and music in Ethiopia is threatened by Western dance and music in your own country? Do you think Western music, like American music, is becoming more popular than the traditional music and dance?
M: No. It has a strong place in the national identity. There’s a lot of pride with Ethiopian music. At the same time, there’s a free spirited move to cross cultural music through American Jazz. You can see the roots of the music. People are very happy and comfortable: for example, I myself am very happy to perform to rock and I don’t feel the difference. I have a good connection with my culture.
E: I know you’re giving back with your program for young dancers.
M: Yeah, of course. It’s important to give back to society.
E: Do you have any future plans for your dance? Now that you have your club will you open another dance studio?
M: The plan is… Here, now it;s very hard. Because of the development, alot of the traditional is destroyed. That’s why I tried to save it through Fendika. Now that I did it, the next project is to build a cultural center. The cultural center would include dance workshops, residency, a record label and of course to keep it as Fendika on the inside. I don’t know where to build it, but this is my future plan and I know I will do it.
E: That sounds amazing. Well, thank you again for talking to me.
M: Anytime, you’re welcome. Thank you very much.