Melaku, a performing artist, is a member of the Fendika taditional-dance group. A man with humble origins, he’d been through a lot — from being raised by a foster mother to experiencing homelessness, to gaining global stardom as a speaker on TedTalk.
He’d also be sharing the limelight later this year along with other artists when they stage a show in the presence of the queen of Norway. The Reporter’s Yosthena Aynalem sat down with Melaku as he celebrates his TedTalk success at Fendika Art & Cultural Center, which he founded and is leading as a director. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You have been a great inspiration to the youth in the arts and culture; how did your journey begin as a young kid?
Melaku: My journey really started from a place of love. Love for the art, for my country and in wanting to raise the voice of my country and promoting it far and wide. That was what inspired me to get into the craft, the love for it.
I developed the love for dancing from my formative years. I then grew up and started dancing around neighborhoods and Timket (Ethiopian Epiphany) celebrations. The truest form of jazz I’ve experienced was at the annual Timket festivals, I called them free Jazz.
Did you get support from family and friends when you started out?
Oh, not really, but I believe that their not supporting me truly did inspire me; it gave me the push I needed to strive for something better. Had they been supportive, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today. Their being against my dreams made me pursue my dreams with added passion, which in turn solidified the vision I had for myself. It was like being pushed into a pond, where you will do whatever it takes to survive, that too helped me survive. People looked down on the profession, not only my line of work but other forms of creative pursuits as well, calling them names like ‘azmari, ketkatch, and ante eregna [pejorative terms for those engaged in the arts or other trades] and so on. The society we’re in, especially then, did not give due recognition the arts deserved. My line of work wasn’t even considered a work or art. People just assumed it was something done by people who didn’t have anything better to do. They would often ask me, belittling my performance, “Why are you jumping around?”
Do you think that not having support is what’s driving you to help emerging artists now?
I don’t think so. I do it because my love for art goes deep. There is so much untapped potential within the country that we haven’t even scraped through the surface, and I just feel sorry for the people, the country and even the artists themselves for not being able to utilize this great treasure and opportunity. But even then, I’m a living proof that adversity can push you to be even more creative, challenges are just opportunities wrapped in a different form.
I believe that there is no need to cry over spilled milk, if a person tells me a mishap, they have faced I usually tell them “Oh, you are lucky” for they have been presented with the opportunity of growth. It is a chance to test one’s potential. I think that’s why even during COVID when everyone was on lockdown and businesses were facing difficulties, I took it as an opportunity to lighten up everyone’s mood by live-streaming performances for free. It was an opportunity to lift people up with what I had, and the live streams could be accessed by people from all around the world. It kept going for seven months every Friday, with performances of all kind. Sometimes it was jazz other times it was azmaris (traditional singers); it was just a bonanza of the performing arts. I also took it as an opportunity to try out new things.
You were first known as a dancer but now you’ve taken on the role of a cultural ambassador of sorts. Can you trace the course this has taken?
That is a tough question. I think I am just getting started, it still feels like I am working on the floor plans of something bigger and I am only in the planning and preparing stage. I am yet to prepare all the things I would need to bring my vision to fruition. I think I am stepping into unchartered territory here, since I am looking to introduce and approach Ethiopian art and culture from a new perspective.
The dream has always been to be myself through it all. We live in a country with so much history and diversity and I was lucky enough to witness a fraction of it early on; I believe my happiness originates from being able to perceive and enjoy that. I think that kept me going even in those days when I was experiencing homelessness.
I got the good fortune of performing in western countries some 25 years ago and that was a time when people would seek asylum at the earliest opportunity, even artists from well-to-do families. I came back because I believe in my country and can’t imagine myself living in a foreign land. I did not want to lose my sense of self, I remember asking myself, “If I were to fall for money, would I be able to buy back my sense of self with that money?” or “Should I pass on the money and keep on retaining my true self?” I was asking myself such questions and eventually I think I made the right choice for myself.
You claim to have a very deep-rooted love for your country. Yet, it is not that common to meet such patriotic folks in this day and age. What do you feel is so unique about you?
I think it’s to do with my wonderful foster mother, the woman who raised me in lieu of my birth mother who had fled to Sudan. She was a philosopher of sorts and she would always tell me, “Melaku, your blessings are so abundant but I won’t be there to see you reap the fruits.” The way she used to say it was with more than mere words. There was some kind of aura in the way she uttered the words. I think those powerful words were always my guidance; even when I was starving on the streets I would just remember her words and tell myself, “If I must, then I’d accept my fate, since I have no power to change that. If I am starving, then He will find a way to feed me, just like he found a way to create me”. Her words made me fearless and it made me stay true to my values. I never compared myself to others. I find happiness making others happy, people look at you as a fool when you do that but okay, it’s not my fault they see me that way. All I know, I love without bounds, and the sooner I knew that the less negativities would affect me, and, as such, I started expecting less from others. I understood that people are essentially good, they just do things that aren’t good for some moments but you forgive them either way. I truly believe my greatest gift is the ability to forgive and move on.
You’ve mentioned that you love reading books. Toni Morrison put it best when she said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, and then you must write it yourself.” Are you planning to write a book?
How do I put this, books are great and they give you momentary escape and they are very useful but I believe in just living, books are fractions of ideas as great as they are they are nothing like experiencing something, whether it is bad or good people need to discover their own path in their own way so we can have a free-spirited society.
Isn’t some form of guidance needed?
No way!, Guidance is what ruined a lot of things. If you want knowledge, look at children, but sadly they too will grow up. As they grow up, instead of letting them be whoever they are, we try to put undue influence on them. I believe we should let them navigate things in their own way.
Moving on, you recently gave a TedTalk and became a Ted fellow. Can you walk us through that experience? How it feels being the first Ethiopian citizen to be honored this way?
I’ve seen other Ethiopians who have given TedTalks but I guess they were also Ethio-Americans, which made me the first Ethiopian to be selected as a Ted fellow. Only 20 people were selected from thousands of applicants from around the world so it really was an honor. I first heard about TedTalk from their affiliates in Tanzania. From that to being given the opportunity to address a global audience felt unreal. I got to wear beautiful traditional attire and give a talk in front of all those people labeled as influential people. I got to give the talk in Amharic dressed in beautiful Habesha clothing. It was a beautiful experience.
Budget constraints meant that they couldn’t fly out my band. But they had a jazz band there and they told me to send them my music notes. On the day I gave the TedTalk, a band performed and I danced to their tunes. It somehow became the highlight of the event.
It was a surreal experience, imagine I am just a guy from a small neighborhood; I was rejected from all the major theaters in Addis because they said I was too short. And it was just amazing for me to be chosen as one of the top 20 most influential people in the world and get to perform in front of people like Bill Gates. It was a wonderful experience where I freely expressed myself. It was so beautiful how the people reacted to my performance even though I was speaking in a language they knew. My blessings have really taken me places; who knows where I’d end up next.
The welcome I got from the Fendika (a local cultural troupe) crew, members of the media as well as family and friends was incredible. They brought an entire performance to the airport and it was beautiful. They then brought me here to Fendika and staged a musical performance by Gungun band in front of an audience that included noted personalities from the arts world. I honestly believe that I could have worked in collaboration with the tourism industry with a view to promoting our culture and inspiring the younger generation. It now gives me pride knowing how far traditional dancing could take you. I’ve also received a lot of awards from around the world for something I do with love and that is a blessing. I use my body as a paint brush and canvas, as a musical instrument, and as my own tool of expression.
Who would you say have been your biggest influences? In Art and your line of work?
When we were kids, there was a story on the radio of a young guy named Yeneneu Worku who was awarded a gold medal for his achievements in art. And that just made us so proud and it inspired us to reach for greater heights. We used to walk with him with our heads held high; he truly was an incredible artist.
As for musical influences, the artists from the golden era of Ethiopian music heavily influenced me. I loved Tilahun Gessesse, Mahamud Ahmed, Hirut Bekele and many more. Any time I would listen to them, I would get the urge to dance to their tunes. And then artists like Gigi came around and they inspired me even more. It takes a single beat for me to move and having those angelic melodies to dance was incredible. I always loved moving and dancing, and I think I was a bit of a show off because I would go around performing and noticing how people reacted to my performance.
Even as a kid, I was a cute kid and we lived around the British Embassy; people would take me around the neighborhood and I would dance for them every chance that I got. I am not talented or anything. I just let my body be a vessel of channeling. To the untrained eye, my performance on the stage might appear sheer chaos, but there is beauty in it.
Fendika usually hosts special programs during the holidays. What’s planned for Ethiopian Easter?
I have a program titled ‘Felega’ only for timket, and I have a reason for doing that. As for other holidays, whether they are faith-based or not, there isn’t anything especially that’s done at Fendika. . But it is a place for art lovers so anyone is welcome anytime.
I hold regular programs on weekdays because I want an audience who would show up for the love of the craft and not just as time filler for the weekend.
How do you spend your holiday?
I love the holidays and the whole vibe of a family get-together. In the past, I used to spend my holiday at my mother’s. Ever since the time I had my own children, I would sometimes allow the kids to spend the holiday with my mom. But then I realized that just as much as I crave my mom for the holiday, my children probably crave me too, so I told my mom that my children need me to be around. So now I spend my holiday with my family. If I am in the country, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to spend a holiday with them.
I am a person who works 21 hours a day so I will find something to do even if I am alone.
What is next in your plans?
Well, my ultimate plan is to help people. People who used to be janitors and cooks here at Fendika are now performers, musicians, cameraman and dancers that tour with me. I try to create an environment where people could realize their potentials. Even customers and audiences, I want them to enjoy themselves. I really do support any form of creativity, I am really proud of the new generation like Rophnan, Kasmasse; they are doing their own thing in their own lane and I respect that. This place stands for art. We’re always open except for Good Friday.
Like I said before, there is nothing I can do by myself, i.e., capitalizing the new publicity and recognition I’ve gotten. Both public and private stakeholders need to come together to work with us so us to promote out culture far and wide. Working alone, it would be a lot harder to reach our full potential.