The Addis Jazz Festival, organized by the Swedish Embassy, Selam Ethiopia, and Muzikawi, a music publishing, production record label, and artist management company founded just over a year ago, drew in jazz fans from all over Addis last weekend. A long list of artists performed at the festival, which took place within the Swedish Embassy compound.
In 2019, Selam Ethiopia and the Swedish Embassy launched the first annual Addis Jazz Festival. The festival, however, had to be postponed when the coronavirus pandemic struck due to restrictions imposed to combat the spread of the virus. Muzikawi’s newly signed artists, such as renowned saxophonist and jazz musician Jorga Mesfin and acclaimed pianist Dawit Yifru, helped the festival make a comeback this year, which ran for two days.
“I believe that Ethio jazz is the epicenter of Ethiopian culture. Ethiopia has a lot of fantastic jazz artists like Mulatu Astatke and Jorga Mesfin, and I think that Ethio Jazz has been spread to the whole world, is very popular, and is still evolving,” Hans Henric Lundquist (Amb.), Swedish ambassador to Ethiopia and Djibouti, said.
The Ambassador envisions future festivals featuring musicians from all over Africa. “I believe that through jazz music, which is a language that people from all over the world can understand, we can express ourselves and unify people in a way that makes it a very powerful instrument,” he explained.
The executive director of Muzikawi and Selam Ethiopia, Teshome Wondimu, says that one of the main reasons they started the Addis Jazz Festival was because they think Ethio Jazz can help give the country a name.
“I believe that coffee and jazz are major tools to spread the Ethiopian name. I don’t think we have utilized the potential of jazz as much as we should, and one of my hopes is that this festival can start to pave the way,” Teshome says.
The festival was a great opportunity for jazz musicians and artists from all over Addis Ababa to meet and perform for their fans. Azmach, a hip-hop group featuring three rappers (Senay, Lij Teddy, and MC Nani), took advantage of the opportunity to weave jazz elements into their usual sound.
Senay, the group’s leader and songwriter/producer, claims that hip-hop is the primary genre the group works in. He argues that Azmach’s use of traditional Ethiopian rhythms and melodies gives them a more authentic Ethiopian sound, despite the genre’s heavy reliance on electronic production.
“When preparing for this festival, we came up with the idea of playing our musical style accompanied by a full jazz band, and that is how we interlaced our art with this festival,” he explained.
Senay claims that it is possible to blend jazz and hip-hop despite the two styles’ distinctive sound textures because they are both free-form genres that have been performed around the world in various languages. They were able to try something new, unite two industry heavyweights, and showcase the results at this festival.
The Azmach crew thinks that festivals like these are important, especially for up-and-coming musicians. Senay believes it’s fantastic that there’s a place for up-and-coming artists to show their artistic talents to an appreciative public. “Being able to collaborate with other artists and learn new things from each other and perform music curated with chemistry and give that to the audience live is such a great experience for us and the audience as well.”
The festival featured the works of many different artists, not just Azmach, with many musicians who specialize in jazz and others who play a variety of other styles performing at the event. Artists such as Hailu Megia, Alemayehu Eshete, Samuel Yirga, Kibrom Birhane, and dozens more also took the stage.
For the audience, however, the performance was not complete until the legendary Girma Beyene made a surprise appearance during Dawit Yifru’s set. The enthusiastic cheers of the crowd as he walked onstage were proof of the acclaim he received.
“I came here to enjoy the jazz music, which I am a huge fan of, and each performance had its own quality that I loved. I never imagined Girma Beyene would sing tonight, and I am still in shock that I was able to experience him live. It was a dream for me,” Hebron Mesfin, a 28-year-old jazz and music enthusiast who frequently enjoys going to such events, said.
“It’s a great place for people like me who enjoy jazz music to attend. I truly hope that they carry on the festival at a frequent rate and maybe prepare it at a venue large enough to accommodate all the fans.
At least once per year, Teshome and Ambassador Lundquist intend to revive the festival with the participation of additional musicians from Ethiopia, Africa, and Sweden.