“Music is also important to Ethiopians’ freedom, because it lets them express themselves without limits.” Melaku Belay, Dancer Extraordinaire
As Orthodox Ethiopians celebrate Genna, Ethiopian Christmas, I am always in awe at the glorious festivities that take place in Lalibella, home of the 12th century rock hewn churches, attracting thousands of local and international visitors. The UNESCO world heritage site attracts close to quarter million devotees and tourists alike, flocking to participate in or observe in the religious holiday, which doubles as a cultural festival for some. Countless numbers of priest, robed in white traditional clothes and turbans conduct chanting, drumming and synchronized steps with long crosses atop long wooden sticks (mekwemea). Forming a circle at the top and bottom of the churches, ecclesiastics celebrate the holy day of Christ’s birth, the same day reportedly that King Lalibella was born, January 7th. The devout King built the world wonder during his reign in the Zagwe Dynasty, which is known as the New Jerusalem and considered the second holy city of Christianity following Jerusalem. This designation is based on the 11 monolithic churches miraculously built by hand by the faithful, with even the angels said to help in this unfathomable construction. But then Ethiopia is known as the Land of Miracles, where all things are indeed possible.
Fast forward from the 12th to 21st century. We are grateful that the legacy and traditions of Ethiopia are retained and survive parallel to contemporary Ethiopian culture through artists committed to preserving and promoting traditions. Fendika Cultural Center director, dancer and choreographer Melaku Belay is one example. He is best known for both his busy Kazanches azmari bet and worldwide performances with his troupe, both named Fendika. Melaku is passionate about promoting his culture and changing the image of Ethiopia through music and movement. He uses traditional Ethiopian dances from various regions, with his own contemporary twist to tell Ethiopian stories. Recently he performed in Tel Aviv at the Sigd Festival, exclusively for Ethiopian Jews previously, where he granted an interview to Aya Chajut of haaretz.com. “It’s (music) still very alive in Ethiopia. It’s a way of life for people there. It’s with them when they’re working and eating, and they express everything through music and dance. Music is also important to Ethiopians’ freedom, because it lets them express themselves without limits.” He goes on to declare that Africa has lots to give to the world and people have yet to know about the continent’s greatness.
“I had always danced, including at festivals, and when I did, I was always at the center. Dancing helped me feel less alone and gave me energy and strength,” says Melaku. In this land of miracles, where faith and hope abide, Melaku’s story didn’t begin so rosy. But vision, determination and the talents of the incredible dancer would be his blessing and saving grace. Melaku had a rough childhood, no parents, only a cousin to help raise him until early teens then basically he was homeless until he began dancing at Fendika bar. It was there he earned his first tip and would eventually find abode for the next several years, thanks to the manager of the wellknown azmari bet. Melaku recalled in his interview, “I shared my first tips with the street kids.” His generosity continues. Fendika also has an art gallery on the rare of the popular Kazanches club, where unknown and emerging artists can exhibit in the city bursting with art and not enough walls. We all know the art scene is steadily rising but for a club owner to sacrifice space from customers ordering drinks every minute for a possible sale or two of art works over several weeks, well that spells commitment to me.
Melaku’s bio states that he “is a virtuoso interpreter of eskista, a traditional Ethiopian trance dance of athletic shoulder movements that presage hip hop movements of breaking and popping. Now a renowned cultural ambassador and the founding president of the Ethiopian Dance Association (est. 2018), Melaku grew up as a street kid, learning many regional dances of Ethiopia through participation in religious festivals such as Timqat, folk ceremonies, and everyday activities in Addis Ababa and the countryside where music and dance are a vital part of cultural and spiritual expression. Melaku has traveled throughout Ethiopia to learn the dance traditions of the country’s 80 tribal groups. He has also brought dancers and musicians from remote rural areas to Addis Ababa to showcase their work. Melaku won the 2011 Alliance Ethio-Francaise (Addis Ababa) award for dance excellence and was named as a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, in 2015 by the French Ministry of Culture and Communications. In 2016, Melaku was nominated, along Mulatu Astatke and Samuel Yirga, for the nationwide DireTube Award for introducing Ethiopian music to the world. Finally, he received a globally competitive grant from UNESCO’s International Fund for the Promotion of Culture, to produce an azmari music festival in Addis Ababa, nominated as one of Ethiopia’s Person of the Year Award, in the category of Bringing Global Recognition for Ethiopia.” Hope springs eternal and when visions are fulfilled and we can still find time and space to share, then we know the true spirit of Ethiopia.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.