Guest Post by: Casey Erixon
There’s an argument to be made that you should go to the Social Club at around 6:30pm on September 12 to watch the Ethiopian dance troupe Fendika performing a diverse array of traditional songs and dances from the country’s 80 different ethnic groups because while there you would be exposed to authentic musical expressions by people whose lives are so far removed from your own, both geographically and culturally, and, presumably, that exposure would broaden your mind.
There’s an argument to be made that personally witnessing the spirited and complex rhythms they create and the intricate and expressive dances they perform will give you a deeper and more intimate understanding of the ways in which ancient African customs still influence the cultural output of the African diaspora here in America, particularly with regard to hip-hop music and b-boy culture.
There’s an argument to be made that by simply going to see these traveling bards from Addis Ababa that you will be transported to a magical, exotic world that is brighter and more colorful and more interesting and more lively than the drab, gray corner of the world you currently inhabit and that that would be a positive and healthy change for you to experience.
I want to try to avoid that. I want you to go see Fendika, not because they are some unfamiliar fruit that will liven up your palate for a few hours, I want you to go see Fendika because in all of the really important ways, they are very much like us.
Fendika is a group centered around one man, Melaku Belay, an apparently towering figure in the cultural and musical scene of Addis Abada who, along with founding and leading the Fendika dance troupe, runs a vital music venue in the city called Fendika Azmari Bet. Belay considers himself a free spirit whose mission is to find creative ways to blend traditional styles of Ethiopian song and dance with modern elements of jazz and rock and hip-hop. But above all, he seems to be something of cultural steward for his community, facilitating collaboration between traditionalists and innovators at his club, and striving to strike a balance between creative expression and historical identity through his performances.
As exciting as these superlatives all are, I haven’t really found anything about him that really sets him apart from people like Jeff Eaton or Max Wellman or Lindsay Keast, important cultural stewards within our own little community. Belay also considers himself to be an azmari, which is an Ethiopian term for roving poets or bards who have traditionally held the role of truth teller and cultural outsider, capable of speaking out on important social and political issues through their music without seeing the kind of backlash that ordinary members of society might experience. Here again I don’t see much about these ideals that couldn’t also apply to figures like Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg or Patti Smith or Kanye West.
Now maybe this approach seems reductionist, and I’m sure there are those who may argue that ignoring or disregarding cultural differences perpetuates racial inequality and stifles post-colonial progress. I’m not unsympathetic to this viewpoint, however I don’t believe that focusing on our similarities amounts to ignorance of our differences. I just think there’s more than enough bloody history that serves to separate my experiences from those of Mr. Belay and his troupe that the very least I can do is meet him and them half-way.
Sure you can, if you’re so inclined, head over to the social club on a Monday night to enmesh yourself in the foreign and the unfamiliar, because, at least superficially, that is what Fendika’s performance will look and sound like. But all I know is that when I go there I’ll be looking for a sense of kinship, brotherhood, community. I’ll be looking for a place where I can stand next to strangers and not feel alienated, somewhere where I can be by myself and not be alone. I’ll be looking to forge an emotional connection with someone I’ve never met before and will likely never see again. I’ll be searching for a little piece of whatever home is supposed to feel like. And I’m pretty sure I’ll find what I’m looking for.