At Tel Aviv Club, Ethiopian Music Rocks the House

Well, only on Fridays. But the tunes are so energetic you don’t need to be a veteran African dancer to get the beat.

It was 1:45 A.M. when singer and pianist Yossi Mersha and saxophonist Nadav Haber walked onto the small stage of Tel Aviv’s Menelik Club to get ready for their performance.

The club, near Hamasger Street, features Ethiopian music Friday nights. The DJ was playing contemporary Ethiopian pop, very rhythmic and intense, and the dozens of young people on the large dance floor, virtually all of them from Ethiopian families, danced to its strains.

The music was so dense and energetic that anyone unfamiliar with an Ethiopian dance club might think the two musicians who were about to play had no chance of competing. But unlike most clubs, where the DJ rules the floor, at Ethiopian clubs the DJ and live performers take turns.

In any case, Mersha and Haber have been playing for years - also at Ethiopian weddings, which, though shared by a DJ and musicians, can last 10 hours. Mersha and Haber have put in thousands of hours of playing for Ethiopians. They know how to rock the house.

At the beginning of the performance Friday night, Mersha and Haber accompanied several guest singers. First came Tesfaye Negatu, followed by Mahlet Demere, a female warbler with a reedy voice. Then came Asmamaw Endalew.

At about 2:45 A.M., the microphone passed to Mersha. The irresistible beat that he had recorded in advance was reminiscent of techno music, and its power scattered the audience, who had previously nestled close to the stage.

When Mersha and Haber performed this week at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem as part of Ethiopia night of Oleh Week, which celebrates immigration to Israel, the situation was less intense. The groove was more moderate and the skirts of the women in the audience were longer.

But in many ways the music was similar to what they played in the middle of the night in Tel Aviv. “We know more or less what to play, but we might make changes when we see the audience,” Mersha says. “If there are a lot of older people in the crowd wearing traditional clothes, we add more traditional songs.”

The two met when they were studying with the same teacher, an Ethiopian Christian musician who came to Israel with an Ethiopian band and decided to stay. Unlike Mersha, who was born into Ethiopian music, Haber came from the jazz world and discovered Ethiopian music in the late ‘80s when he was teaching children at an absorption center in Jerusalem.

Memories of Mengistu

“Ethiopian rhythms are an entire world,” Haber says. “They have very clear requirements of what’s right and wrong. For example, there are stresses directed at the dancers’ shoulders, and if you don’t play the rhythm exactly as it should be, the dancers won’t be able to dance.”

Among the songs they played in Jerusalem was “Tizita.” “It’s a patriotic song from the 1980s, from the period of the dictator Mengistu. Mengistu forced all singers to write songs to encourage the soldiers fighting the rebels, and to remind them of home,” says Mersha.

“But when you hear the song today, you don’t think about the war and Mengistu. For the people who live here it’s simply a song of longing for Ethiopia. It reminds them of where they came from.”

Of course, non-Ethiopian Israelis won’t understand the deeper meaning of these songs, not that this matters. “We’d be happy if a non-Ethiopian audience would come too, but that’s not the situation at the moment,” says Haber. “The music we play is part of world Ethiopian music. It can be played equally in Washington, D.C., or wherever there’s an Ethiopian community. There are additions of our own, but they’re small and delicate.”

So is there an Israeli component to the music?

Haber thinks for a few seconds and then asks Mersha: “What do you think? Is there anything Israeli about it?” Mersha shrugs his shoulders. “No,” says Haber. “If there are outside influences, they’re influences of reggae and maybe blues. Other black music.”

They’d be happy to use more elements from outside Ethiopian music, but only if there were more non-Ethiopian Israelis in the crowd. “It’s happening in France,” says Mersha. “There’s a big Ethiopian music scene there, and since many non-Ethiopians come, the music can be more mixed. In Israel that’s not the case. Here everything is closed.”

“Unlike the Israeli audience, the Ethiopian audience knows what it wants and isn’t looking for surprises,” adds Haber. “Sometimes people wait all night to hear a specific song. Once a woman said to me at one of the parties: ‘I’m starting a shift tomorrow at 7 A.M., but I’m waiting for you to sing the song I love. Yossi said he’d sing it at about 5 A.M.; then I’ll be able to go home and rest a little - and go to work.’”

Ilya Melnikov