Beloved Ethiopian cabaret Fendika escapes demolition, preserving cultural legacy

Fendika, an iconic nightclub steeped in Ethiopia’s traditional cabaret culture, narrowly avoided its impending demolition, giving a sigh of relief to its devoted patrons.

Fendika, once among the 17 “azmari bet” venues in the Kazanchis district, holds significant historical value as a reminder of Addis Ababa’s jazz-infused era. Today, it stands as the sole survivor, safeguarding Ethiopia’s cultural heritage, as noted by Melaku Belay, the 43-year-old owner and director of Fendika.

Azmari musicians, akin to medieval troubadours, are traveling poet-musicians from rural Ethiopia. They captivate audiences with impromptu songs played on the masenqo, a unique single-string bowed lute crafted from wood, horsehair, and raw hide. Their lyrical masterpieces, brimming with metaphors and satirical commentary, fearlessly jest at their listeners, civil society, and even the ruling elites, embodying a rare freedom of expression in Ethiopia.

Under the watchful guidance of Melaku, a globally acclaimed dancer and choreographer who assumed control in 2008, Fendika blossomed into a thriving cultural hub. Concealed behind an unassuming entrance and faded posters adorning dilapidated walls, the club boasts a vibrant atmosphere within. Visitors can explore its library, witness awe-inspiring performances, and admire a gallery showcasing the artwork of young Ethiopian painters.

In addition to hosting azmari musicians, Fendika welcomes Ethio-jazz performers and bands that rejuvenate the nation’s musical traditions. The club is usually packed with both Ethiopians and foreigners, enjoying the rhythmic melodies while savoring a glass of beer or tej, the renowned Ethiopian honey mead.

Luana DeBorst, an American researcher based in Addis Ababa, describes Fendika as “a very unique place” for experiencing Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic traditions. In a nation grappling with defining its ethnic boundaries, Fendika serves as a powerful force, bringing together people from various regions and fostering unity, according to the 27-year-old, speaking to AFP.

The star attraction at Fendika is Ethiocolor, a resident band founded by Melaku in 2009, renowned for their performances in Europe and the United States. Consisting of dancers and musicians representing different generations and regions, Ethiocolor serves as a bridge between tradition and modernity while celebrating the cultural richness of over 80 communities in Ethiopia.

As the resonating sound of krars, traditional Ethiopian lyres, reverberates throughout the stage, Melaku captivates audiences with his virtuosity, blending elements of the Amharic eskista dance tradition with steps inspired by other regions. The charismatic performer stands as the embodiment of Fendika, a place he discovered 25 years ago, fueled by his unwavering “passion and love for dancing.”

Melaku’s journey to ownership began as a homeless school dropout surviving on tips earned while performing at Fendika. Eventually, the club’s owners allowed him to sleep indoors, on the floor, propelling him to complete high school by balancing his night performances with daytime studies, as he shared with AFP. “That’s how I started,” he added.

Now as the owner, Melaku frequently encourages his employees to take the stage and pursue their artistic aspirations. Meselu Abebayew, a drummer with Ethiocolor, began waiting tables at Fendika 16 years ago, but over time, he learned to dance, play the drums, and eventually became a sound engineer. The 32-year-old, who also established his own group called Gungun, credits Fendika for enabling him to travel the world.

Emabet Woldetsadik, another member of Ethiocolor, started as a cleaner and worked her way up to become a cashier and waitress. Today, she shines as a dancer and singer, expressing her gratitude to Fendika for transforming her life. Speaking to AFP, the 30-year-old emphasized her responsibility as an Ethiopian dancer to preserve and showcase her culture.

However, both performers and patrons of Fendika were jolted by a recent announcement from the municipal government, revealing plans to demolish the club and replace it with a luxury hotel. This move served as a stark reminder of the rampant development reshaping Addis Ababa since 2008, where old structures are consistently giving way to modern constructions.

“Fendika is a vital place” for Ethiopian artists, remarked painter and designer Eden Mulu, who previously exhibited her work at the club. She continued, explaining that Fendika acts as a hub where ideas flow and artists support each other. Mulu, a 30-year-old artist, stressed the importance of preserving Ethiopia’s history and culture, emphasizing that destroying such landmarks would lead to cultural homogeneity, devoid of individual identity.

Following a wave of opposition, the municipality granted Fendika an unexpected reprieve, requesting Melaku to propose a development plan for the land. Undeterred by the challenges, his ambitious vision includes constructing a multi-floor structure adjacent to Fendika, comprising a performance hall, recording studios, and an artists’ residency. Although securing financing may take time, after 25 years of unwavering dedication to Fendika, Melaku is willing to wait, ensuring his promise that “Fendika will never be demolished” remains unbroken, as he smilingly declared.

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