Kaÿn Lab is a jazz fusion band that focuses on Ethiopian rhythms with the desire to create innovative music. According to the members of the band, Kaÿn Lab was formed out of a desire to have an outlet of creativity not normally found in other musical situations and nowadays plays at the iconic Fendika, writes Senait Feseha.
It is Monday, 9:30PM – Kazanchis. Soulful music played into the night, calling out to music lovers passing the road leading to Arat Kilo. A woman with perfectly shaped afro hair stood under glistening lights, welcoming visitors into a shabby looking compound.
Inside the compound gathered a group of badly dressed tourists and shivering locals. They circled a campfire, swaying to music and drinking from bottles of tej. Another group spilled from an overcrowded room. It seems an air of mystique and flair envelops its very surrounding. For it was packed, they peered through its large window to witness a very experimental kind of performance.
Kaÿn Lab, a jazz fusion band was playing at the Fendika Cultural Center. This band, comprising of four composers, Jonovan Cooper, Henock Temesgen, Abiy Woldemariam and Teferi Aseffa is known for playing jazz music that emphasizes on Ethiopian rhythms and modes.
Fendika hosts this distinctive band every Monday night. But each Monday is unlike the one before it. That particular Monday, Kaÿn Lab joined forces with Nur M. Adam, a trumpeter for a night of impromptu performances.
The show was engaging and interactive, band members paused throughout the show to make sure the crowd was comfortable, Jonovan Cooper, the band’s Saxophonist pauses to ask, “is there anyone, any artist tonight who would like to join us?” although no one was brave enough to take the stage that night, the crowd was taken aback by the humility and charisma the band members displayed.
And while the fans were more than thrilled to see the five piece act, there was an unexpected performance that simply stole the show. Midway through the show, HaddinQo (Haddis Alemayehu) a new age mesenqo player was invited on to the stage for a jamming session.
The first couple of minutes on the stage, it was clear HaddinQo was having a hard time harmonizing; because the band had an already established chemistry he was not part of. After a few minutes of pausing and listening however, HaddinQo got lost in trance, as he played the mesenqo in an out-of –this-world manner.
HaddinQo has been playing the mesenqo for almost ten years. Over those years, he experimented on creating basic sounds that appear on other instruments such as the piano and guitar. “It took me a little time to be in tune with the band, but then we clicked; music is a universal language.”
The crowd was overwhelmed. “I have listened to fused jazz before, I also know what mesenqo sounds like, but this is unlike anything I have experienced before. If I didn’t witness this first hand, I would have thought the sound came from a digital synthesizer,” exclaimed one Irish individual.
Fendika offers such types of eclectic music throughout the week. With thousands of live shows and alcohol serving establishments spread throughout Addis Ababa, the city is regularly in the state of merriment. Still, many of these settings may be just a bit too predictable for the typical bar hopper.
Fendika is for those who prefer to stay away from the mainstream, high-end clubbing experience. It is said that Fendika attracts a down-to-earth crowd, “an open platform that has no room for judgment,” according to loyal customers.
It is by no means ‘fancy’. In fact it is an easy place to walk by without noticing. But the real lure is its authentic setting and historic ambience. This legendary cultural center has a pretty interesting backstory and because it is a kind of place that only seems to exist in Addis, it is very popular with non-Ethiopians; it attracts an enormous percentage of expats, international tourists, as well as artsy Ethiopians. Melaku Belay, manager and owner of Fendika takes pride in having enough loyal customers to come and participate. Fridays and Saturdays usually host up to 500 people per night. “It’s common to host 5-6 foreign ambassadors during those nights,” an employee at the Fendika stated.
Although formerly famed for being a one of a kind ‘Azmari Bet’, Melaku said that Fendika is home to special events based on art and concept. “In addition to the Azmari nights held every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 9:00PM – 3:00AM, We have special shows Mondays and Fridays, monthly art exhibitions at our gallery, poetic Saturdays and panel exhibitions,” Melaku said.
Unlike other establishments, which bring in professional musicians to play live every time, Fendika is known for the frequent jam sessions it throws, which includes amateurs as well as professionals. Although the place hosts artistes from around the world, it also features unknown musicians who are still trying to make an imprint on the local music scene.
“Mondays at 9:00PM, Kaÿn Lab alternates playing their original arrangements with open jamming sessions. If they play original arrangement one Monday, the next is going to be a jamming session.”
Fridays alternate each week, if Negarit Band plays their original arrangements (rearrangements of traditional and modern instruments from all around the world, with Teferi Assefa) one Friday, then the next Friday features EthioColor Cultural Band, (a band consisting musicians and dancers from three generations) at 10:00pm, the same Friday from 9:00pm- 10:00pm a DJ plays Ethio-Jazz vinyl from Melaku’s Collections.
“Fendika holds private panel discussions (with limited audience to avoid overcrowding), we invite scholars with architectural, historical and social backgrounds to discuss prevailing issues in our city,” Melaku said.
At Fendika, there is also an opportunity for amateur poets and performers to showcase their talents: Poetic Saturday. “Poetic Saturday is an accommodating stage; it is open for any one, you can express yourself in English or Chinese, Oromifa or Amharic, every medium is welcome,” Melaku explained. The event is hosted on the first Saturday of every month 2:30 – 5:00PM, and has no cover charge.
The performances can get pretty emotional, it is common to see people weeping from melancholy or laughing with excitement. People mingle and network before and after the show. Izzat Amanuel, an artist and a regular at the Fendika Cultural Center said that it is very common to get to know someone fascinating you did not know when you walked in. “This is also one of the rarest ‘off-the-beaten-path’ venues in Addis where the vibes are chill and the music spot-on.”
The poetry project kicked off several months ago and has become a popular outlet for emerging and seasoned poets alike. It has over 80 – 100 audience members and limited to 20 performers each month. It was designed with a vision of creating an open space for armature poets and performers. Now, it has a plan of expanding to Hawassa, Ethiopia and Nairobi, Kenya.
With its spontaneous décor, part retro part traditional look, it makes an impressive use of its modest two-room space. Traditional fabrics are used as a visual backdrop of the stage. Its low ceiling creates an intense atmosphere. Since space is extremely limited, it is common for people to stand outside and peer through the window. Small chairs are closely arranged facing the stage. Everyone then crams into the tiny space, making it impossible to escape the performance or get chatty. Because once people congregate at Fendika, it is all about the show.