Melaku Belay, an Ethiopian dancer/choreographer, is the founding director of Fendika Cultural Center. At an early age, he immersed himself in the rich tapestry of regional dances and music. He honed his skills and developed a unique style of performance grounded in Ethiopia’s diverse dance traditions. With his mesmerizing mastery of Eskista, a traditional Ethiopian dance, Melaku has earned nicknames like the “walking earthquake” and the “King of Eskista.”
In 2016, Melaku founded Fendika Cultural Center to create a premier cultural hub that celebrates artists from various disciplines and cultural backgrounds. Fendika has become a sanctuary for Ethiopian indigenous arts, particularly the Azmari music tradition. Melaku revolutionized the Azmari bet custom by being the first to pay Azmari musicians regular salaries, providing them with much-needed support. Melaku’s work at Fendika has brought global attention to Ethiopia’s indigenous arts. The centre has hosted Azmari performances, curated visual art exhibits, and facilitated monthly poetry readings and scholarly presentations. Melaku also leads two traditional performing groups, Fendika and Ethiocolor, showcasing the immense musical heritage of Ethiopia with creativity and innovation. Despite facing challenges, including the threat of government takeover and lack of support for indigenous art forms, Melaku remains dedicated to his vision. He tirelessly works to keep Fendika alive and thriving, believing in the power of arts to promote peace and healing. Eden Teshome sat down with the world-renowned Ethiopian dancer for an EBR exclusive.
How did you start dancing? Tell me how you got the passion.
My journey into the world of dance began with a deep sense of disappointment whenever I sought entertainment outside. I would attend various performances, only to feel something needed to be added, especially regarding our traditional dances. The limitations and absurd requirements for becoming a professional Eskista dancer were disheartening. In fact, I was even rejected by twelve institutes because I didn’t meet their height criteria. These experiences fueled my determination to bring about a change in the dance scene.
Interestingly, I now find myself in the position of being one of the judges who have the final say in these matters. I strive to carefully identify talent and ensure that nobody goes through the same challenges I faced years ago. This personal transformation has been a significant motivator for me. The turning point came when I realized that if I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I had the power to create it myself. I decided to take matters into my own hands and developed my unique dance style. I became a pioneer in delivering captivating performances that showcased our traditional dance freshly and excitingly.
The drive to preserve our cultural heritage and redefine the boundaries of conventional dance pushed me forward. I wanted to breathe new life into the art form and make it accessible to a broader audience. This passion became the fuel that propelled me through the challenges and setbacks I encountered along the way. Today, as I reflect on my journey, I am grateful for the opportunity to be a catalyst for change in the dance industry. I have created a space where talent and creativity can thrive by breaking barriers and embracing innovation. Through my journey, I aim to inspire others to pursue their passions fearlessly, regardless of the obstacles they may encounter. Ultimately, my dissatisfaction with the status quo, the desire to make a difference, and a deep love for our traditional dance ignited my passion and led me on this extraordinary path.
What inspired you to establish the Fendika Cultural Center? Let’s discuss its role in promoting Ethiopian culture.
The inspiration behind founding the Fendika Cultural Center stemmed from a deep-seated fear that our rich cultural dances and indigenous art forms were at risk of fading due to a lack of support and recognition. I couldn’t bear the thought of these invaluable pieces of our heritage being lost to future generations. And so, I made it my mission to bring global attention to Ethiopia’s vibrant indigenous arts and cultures.
The Cultural Center is a vibrant hub for preserving and showcasing our diverse cultural traditions. It goes beyond mere entertainment, acting as a catalyst for promoting Ethiopian culture in multifaceted ways. We aim to create a renaissance of appreciation for our heritage through various initiatives and programs. One of the critical ways the centre contributes to cultural promotion is by providing a platform for artists and performers to showcase their talent. We actively support and nurture indigenous artists, allowing them to express their creativity and share their art forms with the world. This fosters artistic growth and serves as a powerful means of cultural preservation.
Moreover, the centre is an educational resource, offering workshops, classes, and cultural exchange programs. We facilitate a deep understanding and respect for Ethiopian culture by engaging local communities and international visitors. Through these interactions, we can bridge cultural gaps, foster dialogue, and promote cross-cultural appreciation.
We collaborate with international artists, researchers, and organizations. These partnerships enable us to showcase the richness of Ethiopian culture on a global stage, breaking down stereotypes and promoting cultural diversity. Through collaborative projects, exhibitions, and performances, we can create a global dialogue that transcends borders and nurtures a deeper appreciation for our cultural heritage.
What were some of the most significant hurdles you faced, both in the early days of Fendika and more recently, and how did you overcome them?
Fendika Cultural Center has faced its fair share of challenges throughout its history, both in its early days and more recently. During an urban renewal project, one of the most significant hurdles occurred when Fendika, originally a traditional Azmari Bet, became the sole survivor among 17 similar establishments. This victory was not without its struggles, as I had to engage in a lengthy legal battle with the government to acquire ownership of Fendika.
However, in recent events, the government once again challenged Fendika. Despite acquiring the property after a hard-fought legal battle, we again faced adversity from the government. This situation was particularly disheartening, as I had hoped for support and cooperation from the entity responsible for urban renewal. Overcoming this obstacle required a renewed sense of resilience and determination.
Fortunately, through the collective efforts of both domestic and foreign citizens who recognized the cultural significance of Fendika, the situation took a positive turn. The city’s mayor, acknowledging the importance of preserving this cultural landmark, invited me to her office. In a display of support, she granted permission to rebuild the location, marking a significant victory in our ongoing battle. These challenges have reinforced the importance of perseverance and the power of collective action. We secured a favourable outcome by rallying support from various stakeholders and highlighting the cultural value Fendika represents. It is a testament to the unwavering dedication of those who recognize the significance of preserving our cultural heritage. We remain committed to overcoming future challenges that may arise. Fendika Cultural Center serves as a symbol of resilience, a testament to the enduring spirit of Ethiopian culture. With the support of our community and the recognition of the broader global audience, we will continue to navigate obstacles and ensure that Fendika remains a thriving hub for cultural preservation and artistic expression.
Can we discuss how Fendika showcases indigenous arts and music, particularly the ancient Azmari tradition?
The Cultural Center is crucial in promoting Ethiopian culture and arts, both within the local community and globally. One of the centre’s primary focuses is on Azmari music, an indigenous Ethiopian music form with a history spanning over 2000 years. Fendika takes immense pride in preserving and promoting this vibrant tradition. Azmari musicians at Fendika are paid regular salaries, ensuring their livelihoods and enabling them to devote their time and talents to their craft. The centre programmes Azmari performances throughout the year, creating a space where this ancient art form can thrive. Each year, around 18,000 local and international visitors have the opportunity to experience the captivating sounds of Azmari music at Fendika. Beyond its local impact, Fendika’s work has garnered significant global attention and recognition. In 2017, the centre received a grant from UNESCO to organize a national Azmari festival, further amplifying the reach and impact of this traditional music form.
Additionally, Fendika was honoured with the prestigious 2020 Prince Claus Award, which celebrates outstanding achievements in culture and development. This international recognition highlights the centre’s significant contributions to the cultural arts industry. Fendika promotes Azmari music, a 2000-year-old indigenous Ethiopian music form, by paying Azmari musicians regular salaries and programming Azmari performances all year round. About 18,000 local and global visitors experience Azmari music at Fendika each year. Some of our works have brought international attention to the indigenous arts of Ethiopia through a 2017 UNESCO grant for a national Azmari festival, the 2020 Prince Claus Award, and a 2015 French Medal for Arts and Letters. So, it plays a significant role in the cultural art industry.
What motivated you to participate in Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) competition?
Participating in Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) competition was an incredible opportunity that found its roots in the support and encouragement of my non-Ethiopian friends, who sincerely appreciated my work. Their belief in what I do led them to apply on my behalf. With over 27,000 contestants vying for recognition, the competition was undoubtedly fierce. However, I managed to secure a spot among the top 50 participants through determination and passion. This achievement alone was a testament to the impact and significance of my work in preserving and promoting Ethiopian music and dance.
As an ambassador for Ethiopian music and dance, you have received numerous awards and accolades. Could you share some of the significant awards you have received individually or as a group?
I have been fortunate to receive several prestigious awards and recognitions, both at home and abroad. In 2018, I had the privilege of becoming the founding president of the Ethiopian Dance Art Association. Additionally, I was celebrated as a finalist for the 2018 Ye Bego Sew Award, also known as the Ethiopian Person of the Year Award. Internationally, my contributions have also been acknowledged through various esteemed awards. In 2015, I was honoured with the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of Arts and Letters) from the French government. In 2019, I received the Visa for Music Award in Morocco. One of the most notable international honours I received was the 2020 Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands. In subsequent years, I continued to receive recognition for my contributions. In 2021, I was honoured with the Ethiopian Role Model Award. In 2022, I was selected as a TED Fellow, joining a prestigious community of innovative thinkers and change-makers worldwide.
Can you share any exciting future plans or projects that Fendika has?
We have many exciting plans and projects in the works, which aim to further expand its reach and impact both within Ethiopia and internationally. One of the ambitious plans on the horizon is the expansion of Fendika to other cities within Ethiopia. This expansion will enable even more people across the country to experience the vibrant Azmari music and traditional arts that Fendika is renowned for. By establishing new branches in different cities, Fendika will provide a platform for local artists to showcase their talents and contribute to preserving and promoting Ethiopian culture. The centre has plans to establish branches in iconic cultural hubs such as New York and Paris. These international expansions will serve as gateways for Ethiopian arts and culture to reach a broader audience, fostering cross-cultural exchange and appreciation.
11th Year • September 2023 • No. 121 EBR