September 11th or 12th is the Ethiopian New Year. This year was the beginning of the year 2002 for us. I went back home to the DC,MD, VA area where there is a very high population of Ethiopians and other West and East Africans who tend to celebrate with us. I went out with my siblings to a club called Republic Gardens in Washington DC. It wasn’t the only place to celebrate, but it was the most diverse. There was a live Dj for part of the night and towards the end there was a live Ethiopian Band.
Ethiopian dance music is generally loud and upbeat. As the band was playing Ethiopians from different tribes were dancing their traditional dances. However, even if one is not from that particular tribe, he/she could try and do the dances with them. I am half “Amara” and half “Oromo” so those dances come easy to me as well as “Guragegna” and “Tigrigna” Which are the main tribes of the country, Since Ethiopia has over 82 tribes and languages it is impossible to know all of them since some live in seclusion and isolation. Recently a small tribe called “Hamur” emerged in the media. They were foreign to the rest of us but were welcomed.
The band was comprised of six people playing popular, or well known, instruments such as the electric guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums. As well as traditional Ethiopian instruments such as the “Masinko”, a one-string bowed lute; and the “Kirar”, a six-string lyre. The band began playing Hamur music and their dancers demonstrated their cultural dance. They wore thick, heavy bracelets on each wrist and rubbed them together while circling their hips and jumping from side to side. There were two vocalists, one male and one female, with the male singing the verses and the female joining him for the chorus.
Ethiopian songs are very long; they can last up to seven minutes per song, giving the band time to play the melody without vocals on top of it. This also gives people more time to enjoy all elements of the song while dancing and singing along. There was a lot of call and response as the artists usually call out lyrics, make jokes, and even jump of stage to dance with the crowd as the band plays, Similar to the artist-audience interaction of “Black Music” in the early 20th century. Also, like “Black Music”, the reggae songs speak about: the hate for the current government in the country, the love for the country and culture, an end to famine & poverty, and also the relationships between family members and significant others. They bring social issues into the music so that the audience can feel a personal connection with them and also have a form of release for their frustrations on issues.
The reggae songs, sung in Amharic the national language of Ethiopia, were musically based on a rhythmic style that has accents on the “off-beat” accenting the second and fourth beat in each bar. This gives the songs a bounce and a steady flow which allows slow and relaxed dancing, alone or with other people, by moving side to side. In this relaxed state we were able to zone into the lyrics of the song and really feel the power of the message. Some people were hopping around and screaming the lyrics, I guess they were really feeling it, because the environment allowed us to freely use our bodies in expression. They served traditional bread and coffee for the club goers to take breaks, sit down and have conversations in the back. At the end of the night everyone walked out of the club drenched in sweat and with their hearts racing.
Overall it was a very peaceful night because sometimes certain disputing tribes tend to get into arguments fueled by their pride. The ending with uppity dance music put everyone in a good mood. That night just reminded all of us that no matter what tribe we are in, we are all Ethiopians. After all, we were sharing one New Year.