I think I have mentioned Biruk, the student neighbour of Anchu, my landlady (and so my neighbour too, I guess.) He took me to the big supermarket soon after I arrived, and I arranged with him then for him to take me on an informal tour of Addis. That did indeed come about yesterday (and I shall doubtless write about this at some point) but I want to focus on a suggestion he made more or less at the end. We had spoken a little about music, and he wondered if I might like to go out to a restaurant in the evening, where they also had traditional music and dancing. As I am sure you can imagine, I didn’t need asking twice.
This was my first venture outside after dark, and I have to say it was quite a blast. Addis is fond of neon displays, and they certainly have the effect of making an impact. In particular, for most of our route, every lamp-post has an LED rope-light spiralling all the way up. Naturally, as a good environmentalist, I have some concerns about the wasteful use of power (let alone the additional light pollution) but it does have to be admitted, it did look somewhat magical. Our route also took us through downtown Addis, a part of town I had not yet visited, and the contrast was remarkable. On both my visits here, I have stayed in relatively run-down areas. But this gave me a glimpse of the other Addis, a modern city like any other (though sharing the same disregard for traffic rules as everywhere else here.)
When we entered Yod Abyssinia, our destination for the evening, I was immediately bowled away by the place. It was very crowded, but we were shown to our seats, in a good position to see the major focus of the place, a stage half-way along one of the longer sides, with a band playing local instruments, the only one I recognised being a drum kit (though even that was clearly an African version.)
The rest of the large hall was packed with low stools grouped around low tables, so as not to restrict the view. And the whole place was decorated in an amazingly elaborate way, walls and ceilings covered in paintings, native objects, mirrors, lamps… There is a particular Ethiopian style of art which has a cartoon feel, with the people all sporting large eyes. My description makes it sound like Woolworth’s art, but it is more stylised and interesting than that – it’s also used on the label of Ethiopia’s best beer.
There was a huge range of people there. Obviously this is something of a tourist destination, so there were a lot of foreigners (the first time on either trip I have seen other white people); there were groups of young Ethiopian women, dressed up to the nines in tight, fashionable clothes; and there were family groups – one particular procession started with great-granny at the front, ancient but pressing determinedly ahead, fully decked-out in her best white clothing, followed by the entire rest of the family, right down to infants. Oh yes, there were loads and loads of children.
But it was the performances that really made the evening special, in particular the dancers. There was a core of about eight, who were constantly arriving in new costumes, with a different style of dance, mostly from different regions and tribes of Ethiopia. Though these were also supplemented by different people for specific dances. Many involved a spectacular solo, from both the men and the women, with its own special technique, which were utterly astonishing.
There was also a good deal of audience participation, both on stage and throughout the hall, as the dancers would descend from the stage and come amongst us. There was a pair of rather fat, jolly and drunken Chinese men, who annoyed me at first by seeming to hi-jack a particular dance, but as more and more people joined in, I soon discovered that this was an integral part of the evening. Our Chinaman was invited on stage alone towards the end of the evening, to participate in a dance-off with one of the professionals. And I have to admit that he more than held his own; he may have been tubby, but he could certainly move.
It was a fantastic evening.