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Historic Ethiopian cabaret club saved from demolition

Members of Ethiocolor band play traditional music at Fendika Cultural Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on June 23, 2023.   -  
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The last of 17 historic venues known as Azmari Bets, the Ethiopian cabaret club Fendika has been saved from demolition in Addis Ababa.

Situated in the Kazanchis district of Ethiopia's capital, the Azmari Bet, or House of Azmari in Amharic, originally hosted performances by Ethiopia's Azmari musicians.

The Azmari, itinerant poet-musicians from rural Ethiopia, improvise to the sound of the masinqo, a single-string fiddle whose leather body resonates with horsehair stretched over a wooden neck and rubbed by a bow.

While they have they adapted their art for today's modern urban world, the Azmari continue to play with words, using humour to make fun of their audiences, society and even power, in a rare display of freedom of expression in Ethiopia.

Today, Fendika is home to a mix of musicians from all traditions, in addition to the Azmari, hosting performances of Ethio-jazz and traditional Ethiopian music. 

A cultural centre

The cabaret club was bought by Melaku Belay, who took over its running in 2008. Over the years, he has transformed the house into a "cultural centre", boasting a stage, a library and a gallery showcasing young Ethiopian painters. 

Fendika is "a truly unique place to discover Ethiopian culture," says Luana DeBorst, a regular audience member. 

"Ethiopia is kind of in crisis concerning its ethnic borders and Fendika brings together people, no matter their region of origin, and that is something really important in a divided country," says DeBorst.

The soul of Fendika

The main attraction remains Ethiocolor, a band founded by Melaku in 2009. With dancers and musicians from different generations and regions, it is a bridge between tradition and modernity, and between the cultures of Ethiopia's 80-plus communities.

To the sounds of amplified krars - a kind of lyre - Melaku Belay displays his virtuosity in choreographies mixing 'eskista' from the north - based on jerky shoulder and head movements - and dances from other regions of Ethiopia.

Charismatic and always smiling, he is the soul of Fendika, which he joined 25 years ago out of "passion and love of dance". At the time, the teenager lived on the streets and took to the stage for a few tips, the only income artists could earn at the time.

A new chapter

In June, when the local council announced demolition plans for the Azmari Bet and the construction of a luxury hotel in its place, musicians, artists and regulars were shocked. 

"It's an essential place" for Ethiopian artists, explained Eden Mulu, a 30-year-old painter and designer who has exhibited at Fendika. 

The cultural hub has been the birthplace of numerous artists, like Melaku, who continues to encourage his employees to perform on stage.

In an about-turn, the council allowed the cultural hub a reprieve, offering Melaku a chance to begin a new chapter on Fendika's story.

The owner has grand ambitions, only limited by funding needs, and hopes to add a modern building with a concert hall, recording studios and artists' residences.

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