Noah's Ark of Art

Fendika the Noah’s Ark of Art

Samuel HabtabJune 15, 2021520

In less than half a century, traditional arts which were the core of the fabric of Addis Ababans, shied away as the capital was flooded by Western cultures and negative governmental pressure. However, few like Fendika Cultural Center, surfed against the odds and have managed to become a museum of traditional art in the center of fast-urbanizing Addis Ababa. Fendika is a repository of genuine traditional music, art, poetry, books, and handicrafts. It is also a hub for tourism and enjoyment, for both foreigners and ethnographic enthusiasts.

Melaku Belay is Founder, Owner, and Manager of Fendika. He is also an acclaimed Dancer, Choreographer, and Founding President of the Ethiopian Dance Association. He made traditional art as strong as gravity in attracting audiences. He is planning on expanding his establishment even further. EBR’s Samuel Habtab visited Fendika and chatted with Melaku and traditional art enthusiasts.

The room for the traditional singer particularly known as the Azmari was shrinking, especially in the fast-urbanizing Addis Ababa. With their unique traditional equipment, Azmaris are also narrators livening-up events and occasions. In the broader sense, other traditional music instruments like the washint (flute), kebero (drum), masinqo (single-stringed bowed lute), and krar (lyre) amongst other traditional instruments, have been replaced by keyboards and full modern bands.

Melaku Belay, the renowned and globally acclaimed dancer extraordinaire, decided to put his efforts towards saving traditional music from its path towards extinction. Five years ago, he bought Fendika Azmari Bet and changed it into Fendika Cultural Center. Located in the heart of Addis Ababa in Kazanchis, the spot first opened in the 1990s as a bar.

“I bought it for EUR200,000 (ETB5 million at the time). I took out loans from friends all around the world and am still repaying it,” said Melaku. He was himself a dancer at Fendika for over two decades before buying the place. Fendika was known for its Azmaris but modernized and updated itself to accommodate all types of art. And for perhaps the first time, Azmaris began securing decent salaries and visibility.

Even when closed for seven months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fendika was working online posting over 270 videos, creating job opportunities for 80 artists, and organizing around 18 concerts and six art exhibitions and workshops in Africa, America, Asia, and Europe.

There are currently five local traditional bands based in Fendika: Fendika Azmari, Negarit, Ethio Color, Kinlove, and Awra bands. There are jam sessions when international bands are invited.

Genuine traditional music is explored from various and diverse ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The bands travel throughout Ethiopia to study genuine traditional music and dance practices, especially during traditional occasions and holidays. Original customary dances are copied and improvised at Fendika. They also search for older Ethiopian music published in the 1950s and 1960s on vinyl discs.

“I usually improvise on new choreography because most of the dance routines in Ethiopia have been created some 40 years ago. The genuine dances and story narrations of the Konso, Gondar, and other styles in Ethiopia have been commonplace and need to be improvised for these modern times. For example, traditionally, rural males dance after killing hunted animals. But in my choreography, the hunters are women. So you find in that something about women empowerment and animal rights, also contemporized with the COVID-19 pandemic issue. So, it is a global dance. It is about making indigenous cultures alive globally,” says Melaku.

Popular Ethiopian traditional instrument players such as Teferi Asefa, Henok Temesgen, Abiy Woldemariam, as well as the best drummers and trumpet players in Africa are stars at Fendika and probably compose the best traditional band collection in the whole of Ethiopia. Especially Negarit Band, which studies old Ethiopian compositions blended with modern music and is preparing to publish its first album, is filled with breathtaking traditional songs and dances.

Ethio Color is another revolutionary band, following in the footsteps of the old Orchestra Ethiopia. They have proven their capability of working with any band in the world. Many older established Ethiopian artists are working with this band at Fendika, creating amazing energy. Fantu Mandoye, Tadele Bekele of Police Orchestra, Asnake Gebreyes, Eyayu Manyazewal, Hailu Disasa, Zeritu Enkutatash, Dereje Zemedu, Kidane Kunama, and many more are the icons of this band. Fendika has also collaborated with top singers like Mahmud Ahmed and others. Original arrangements of jazz music are also hosted at Fendika by Ethio Color and other invited bands.

Fendika also has a number of other art venues including an art gallery for painters. With spaces availed to painters for free, exhibitions are organized frequently and attract international visibility for artists and their paintings.

Poetry Saturday is another intriguing event of Fendika. Poets from around the world light up the stage every weekend in numerous languages including Chinese, Oromifa, English, Amharic, and other African languages.

The establishment is also a repository of books of world art history regarding music, paint, theater, and others. “I brought art books from around the world offered to me by an American organization named Art for Africa. We have a complete library open for all. We also have handicraft markets. Azmari performances happen every day. Fendika is closed for only one day in a year. We also provide spaces for youths to rehearse music and dance whenever they have an ongoing project. Fendika is, I think, the only gallery open for 24 hours,” adds Melaku.

Currently, Fendika is among the leading foreign tourist destinations in Ethiopia, almost on equal basis with Lalibela and Axum. Local artists are very happy and proud to participate at Fendika. The special events and regular Azmari events are all very well liked. Most of the audience are foreigners.

“We have 43 permanent employees and around 80 artists. The bands love Fendika for its energy and vibe, lacking in other houses in Addis Ababa. Addis Ababa night clubs usually only stage renowned singers. They have no place for traditional artists. Clubs and hotels also do not give the freedom to artists. They take advantage of the art and do not work for its advancement. At Fendika, artists are provisioned opportunities to publish their album, organize exhibitions, and get international visibility. An artist that passes through Fendika can be successful anywhere,” claims Melaku.

Fendika has given Melaku the opportunity to tour around the world with various bands, representing Ethiopia and Africa in global events and festivals. He even got the chance to dance with Usher, during a G7 event in Munich, Germany. Melaku, who passionately says, “I started dancing in my mother’s womb,” developed his skills at holiday events, mini-media groups, cultural carnivals, and at theater houses. Mercato, his clip choreographed based on the daily beats of the vast market, is one of his masterpieces. Now a father of three and 45 years old, the artist was born and raised in Addis Ababa. He collaborates with all types of musical bands from rock, jazz, heavy metal and others, both individually and also by representing Fendika.

One struggles to believe, however, that Fendika Cultural Center was on the verge of demolition several times as the government wanted to take over the piece of land on which it sat. “Fendika was saved with the help of its fans around the globe. We must keep the original Fendika as it is, including its existing compound and internal design. We expect the government to support our expansion plans. The freedom is critical to keep Fendika wedged into its philosophies and remain influential. Then, Fendika can generate income as a big tourist destination,” says Melaku.

Fendika is currently planning to develop a recording studio, modern gallery, museum, residence for in-house artists, restaurant, and guest house for invited international guest artists. It is also planning for branches in regional cities. Even further, the center is forecasting the Fendika brand to be present in global cities like Paris in collaboration with international bands.

Apart from promoting itself on social media, Fendika relies heavily on its fans and enthusiasts abroad. “There are many foreigners who love the Fendika dance. They back me. There is a particular professor, a dance sociology teacher, based in Minnesota who supports me a lot. Together, we are writing a book on Ethiopian dance with most of our expenses covered by her. There is also an American doctor teaching in Ethiopia helping us immensely with other doctors’ groups in America,” said Melaku.

Another foreign fan is Hui Wilcox, a professor of sociology teaching in universities in the USA with a special focus on ethnography. First traveling to Ethiopia in 2015 with a dance group for a festival, she recalls: “I visited Fendika and the rest is history.”

“We had amazing energy performing at Fendika. It was a small place packed with people from all over the world as well as local and diaspora Ethiopians. You instantly forget where you are from and become one with the atmosphere and exchange ideas and energy. It is quite different now. The place is much smaller and packed. But I am very intrigued by the Azmari music as ever. I have never experienced anything like it. The interaction is amazing. I learned Amharic and am currently taking eskista lessons. The energy here is totally different and amazing,” she said.

Currently, Hui is collaborating with Fendika in grant writing aimed towards international funding sources like UNESCO. “It is not much but I connect Fendika with international funding sources. The first project I did with the center is the UNESCO Azmari Festival.”

UNESCO once awarded Melaku USD50,000 for his project on Azmaris. “I gathered Azmaris from the regions, brought them to Fendika, and offered them a working space. After many Azmari houses were closed, their numbers plummeted in Ethiopia. I have also recently been awarded USD100,000 for the Ethiopian Dancers Benefit Association from UNESCO. We will use the funds to build infrastructure and for data collection. UNESCO remains a big supporter of us.” EBR


9th Year • May 16 – Jun 15 2021 • No. 98

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