Once Homeless in Addis Ababa, Now Headlining Tel Aviv’s Sigd Festival

Melaku Belay grew up in Addis Ababa without parents and living from hand to mouth. Now he is returning to Israel to perform with one of the best traditional Ethiopian music and dance troupes in the world

The Fendika troupe. Belay is second from left

The Sigd holiday has in recent years ceased to be solely for Jews of Ethiopian origin. Alongside the traditional prayers and the purification rituals, the days surrounding the holiday – which falls this year on November 27 – have become a real festival.

From Thursday through Saturday, the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv will be hosting its eighth Sigdiada festival. One of the featured performers will be the Fendika troupe, considered one of the best traditional Ethiopian music and dance troupes in the world.

Founded by dancer Melaku Belay, the troupe creates music based on a traditional Ethiopian form known as Azmari. It also performs traditional dances.

“The music is based on traditional forms, but Fendika reorganizes and reworks it,” Belay said in an interview with Haaretz.

A performance at Adis Abbaba's Fendika Azmari Bet nightclub.

Ethiopia has more than 60 languages, but Amharic is the main one, he said, so the troupe uses that to create a form of music that isn’t based solely on the past, but also creates something new. He added that traditional forms can be seen everywhere in Ethiopia, in every type of artwork and music.

Belay was born in 1980 in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. He never knew his father, and his mother was forced to abandon him when he was just three years old. Until age 15, he was raised by a cousin. But after the cousin died, he was on his own, dependent on food and assistance from neighbors and distant relatives.

Twenty-two years ago, however, he discovered the Fendika Azmari Bet nightclub in Addis Ababa. He asked to perform there, and the managers agreed on condition that he perform in traditional dance costume.

“I had always danced, including at festivals, and when I did, I was always at the center. Dancing helped me feel less alone and gave me energy and strength,” he said.

He recalled that the first time he earned a tip at Fendika, he shared it with street kids. He eventually asked the managers’ permission to sleep at the club, and spent the next seven years sleeping under Fendika’s bar.

After 12 years of performing there, he started renting and managing the club himself. “I was the first person to provide wages to Azmari musicians in Addis Ababa,” he said.

Belay founded two troupes, Fendika and Ethiocolor, and both still perform frequently at the club. The government recently tried to close the club, but Belay fought the decision and won. Today, the club is one of the few places in Addis Ababa dedicated to Azmari music.

Asked whether traditional Ethiopian music is relegated to festivals or played on a regular basis, he replied, “It’s still very alive in Ethiopia. It’s a way of life for people there. It’s with them when they’re working and eating, and they express everything through music and dance.

Music is also important to Ethiopians’ freedom, because it lets them express themselves without limits,” he said.

Fendika has performed in Europe, the United States, Canada and Africa, and its last performance in Israel was at Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum.

“Israel is a beautiful place, a blessing. I was proud to represent my country here, to learn about other cultures and to see where Jesus was born,” said Belay, a believing Christian.

Asked if he was afraid about performing in Israel, he replied that Israel as seen from the outside is different than it is seen from the inside. “From the outside, you hear mainly about war. But from the inside, it’s full of peace,” he said. “I felt blessed to be able to perform here and I didn’t pay much attention to the I’d heard. I prefer to try things for myself rather than listen to what other people say about them.”

Moreover, he noted, when people think about Africa and Ethiopia, they immediately think of hunger and war – but while those problems do exist, Africa also has a lot to give to the world that people don’t know about. Consequently, he said, he knows how Israelis feel.

Before performing in Germany, he added, his troupe thought about the Nazis. But then they arrived and realized that it was a different generation.

Growing up in Ethiopia, with little access to the internet or other sources of information, Belay said he and other members of his troupe didn’t know much about the world. “But when you’ve been touring, then you can really understand,” he said.

The first Sigdiada festival took place in 2012. Its founder and artistic director was actor Shay Pardo. This year, in addition to its run in Tel Aviv, the festival will also take place in the Hevel Yavneh Regional Council (November 13 and 14) and in Kiryat Ekron (November 24 and 25).

Another featured performer at the Tel Aviv event will be singer Avi Wassa, who will host musician Mark Eliyahu. The festival will also include dance performances, comedy workshops, films and exhibits.