Home Is Where the Harmony Is

The Ras Deshen jazz concert in Addis Ababa enabled the Israeli embassy to present a perfect musical harmony of Israeli and Ethiopian cultures.

ADDIS ABABA - The Polish ambassador in Ethiopia was full of enthusiasm. Two weeks ago, five minutes after the end of the Israeli ensemble Ras Deshen's concert at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa, Marius Vijzniek stood next to a makeshift counter where the ensemble's CDs were being sold, held a CD by the hand and looked in vain for a salesperson. "It was a wonderful concert," he said. "The saxophones reminded me very much of John Coltrane. I would really like to know if they were indeed influenced by him." In the end, he gave up waiting, gave one of the Israeli security personnel the required sum and left with the CD.

The concert, arranged by the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia in honor of Israel Independence Day, was attended by many diplomats who naturally would not have uttered a word of criticism even had they suffered greatly during the performance. But, like the Polish ambassador, other audience members spoke of the concert with enthusiasm that registered genuine enjoyment. "I don't understand too much about jazz, but it was great, very original," said the Vatican's ambassador in Addis Ababa, Archbishop Ramiro Moliner Ingles. "They took two cultures and combined them perfectly," enthused the first secretary of the embassy of Equatorial Guinea. "I didn't know that it was possible to add such interesting spices to Ethiopian music. If it were up to me, they would already now receive an invitation to return here next year," declared a senior official in the Ethiopian government's accident prevention agency.

Only one group may have been less enamored with the performance: the Israeli residents of Addis. They expected a pop dance performance like that of Idan Raichel, who performed with dizzying success in the same place four months ago, and instead got an ensemble that welded Ethiopian and improvised music, and which drew inspiration from jazz and even from modern classical music.

Everyone's 'best friend'

The Ras Deshen concert enabled the Israeli embassy to present both an optimistic story of aliyah (immigration) and a perfect musical harmony of Israeli and Ethiopian cultures. The saxophonist and star of the ensemble, Abate Barihon, immigrated to Israel from Addis Ababa about seven years ago. The director of the absorption center to which he was sent was surprised at first to hear that Ethiopians are familiar with jazz, but after hearing him play, she left no stone unturned to get a saxophone for him. During his first years in Israel he had difficulty finding work, and made a living by cleaning and as a security guard. A meeting with Jerusalem pianist Yitzhak Yedid gave rise to one of the best Israeli ensembles of recent years, which recently won the admiration of major jazz magazines the world over.

Barihon, 35, returned to Addis two weeks ago for the first time since immigrating to Israel. The local musicians had not forgotten him, as it turned out. In every club he entered during Ras Deshen's visit to the city, and sometimes even in the middle of the street, he met drummers, bassists, guitarists and saxophonists, who had played with him 10 and 15 years ago, and now embraced him warmly and told the person standing next to him: "He was my best friend. Have you heard him play? A great saxophonist."

At one of the clubs this scenario was repeated six or seven times in less than an hour, and at the Hilton Hotel, where Barihon played daily for several years with the pick of the crop of Ethiopian singers, he couldn't walk more than 10 meters without a doorman, cook, waiter or clerk shouting "Abate!" and falling on him and embracing him warmly.

Musically speaking, Barihon returned to Addis as a winner. He is a better musician than he was when he left the city. "I identify tremendous development in his playing, as well as in technique, but mainly in the color of the sound he produces," said a saxophonist who played with Barihon in various bands and today runs the school of music at the University of Addis Ababa. "He was always very musical, but his playing has become more profound, and I am sure that it happened because he was exposed to things that he couldn't have been exposed to in Ethiopia. I met him after the performance, and I said to him: 'Abate, it's a good thing you left.' Had he remained here, he would have played only what he was told to play. In order to create the music that he played here in the performance, you need freedom first of all. In Ethiopia there is no artistic freedom, and I'm happy for Abate that he has found this freedom in Israel."

Barihon actually looked disappointed at the end of the performance, for reasons unrelated to music. When he arrived in Addis, a few hours before the concert, he found out that his son, Nahum, whom he hasn't seen since immigrating to Israel, was in the city with his mother, Barihon's ex-wife. Barihon managed to find his son's grandparents to beg them to bring Nahum to the performance. At the end of the concert he discovered that they hadn't done so, and even the presence of his mother and his sister, whom he also hasn't seen since he left, couldn't alleviate his disappointment. After the other members of the ensemble returned to Israel, Barihon remained in the city for another week and finally succeeded in meeting Nahum. "I went to the home of the grandfather and grandmother, I called to him from downstairs, and I asked if he wanted to see me. He said: 'Great.' I went upstairs and I was in shock, he's grown so much." Nahum is now 11 years old, and when Barihon last saw him, he was not yet five years old.

"I asked him, 'Do you remember me?'" continued Barihon. "He said that he had forgotten, but he told me that two weeks ago they showed a performance by Mahmoud Ahmed [one of the great Ethiopian singers, whom Barihon accompanied for several years, B.S.] on television, and someone said to him: 'Look, your father is playing.'"

An outstanding performance

At 10 P.M., an hour and a half after the end of the performance in the Hilton, the members of Ras Deshen - Barihon, Yitzhak Yedid and the contrabassist Ora Boazson-Horev - got onstage at the Harlem Jazz Club, which is a 10-minute drive from the Hilton. In spite of its impressive name, the Harlem is not exactly a jazz club. A day before the performance by Ras Deshen, an American singer had performed there, singing a medley of soul hits ("Sexual Healing" by Marvin Gaye, "Sex Machine" by James Brown, and other similar songs) before a very meager audience. When Yedid saw, that same evening, the pathetic organ on which he was supposed to play the next day, he was filled with anxiety. Everything seemed to indicate that the performance by Ras Deshen in the club, which was organized in the first place so that the ensemble could also perform in a less official place than the Hilton, before a less formal crowd, was doomed to failure.

As it turned out, it was an outstanding performance, much better than that at the Hilton. The club was full, mainly with young people, and not a single suit was in sight. Yedid stopped worrying and began to love the pathetic organ. Boazson-Horev attacked the string of the contrabass with atypical aggressiveness." You can hear that she comes from a classical background, but as opposed to most classical musicians, she knows how to loosen up," said Andreas Koenig, a German who runs an AIDS assistance foundation, and who sat on the bar during the performance.

Barihon played with electrifying power, and seemed to be shedding the frustration that had accumulated earlier in the evening. He sang, too, with the depth and emotion of an old blues singer - as he does regularly at Ras Deshen performances in Israel, but had never done on a stage in Ethiopia. "What, Abate knows how to sing?" asked an older local singer (dubbed "The Voice") who knows Barihon well. "I had no idea. He has a wonderful voice." Afterwards he called out to the stage in Hebrew: "Abate, very good!"

The next morning, the members of the ensemble went to the University of Addis Ababa school of music to teach master classes. Barihon, who grew up nearby, told us on the way that the sounds of classical music reached his ears from the school every day, "but didn't grab them." As a child, he fell in love with the sounds that came from the army base on the other side of the house: trumpets, saxophones and trombones that played only in marches - the preferred style of the Communist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

At the age of 16, he enlisted in the army to study music and spent six years there, during which he played all over Ethiopia as well as in many countries of the Communist bloc. He left the army only after the bus in which he was traveling with the orchestra was ambushed by rebel forces. For four hours, the rebels fired at orchestra members, who were unarmed. Most of the players were killed, and Barihon was wounded by two bullets.

At the masters class, several dozen students were in attendance. Barihon, Yedid and Boazson-Horev demonstrated their basic philosophy of their music: Start with a simple melody from an Ethiopian scale, and slowly add sounds from other places - jazz, modern music or Israeli music. "The trick is that one of the three of us always sticks with the scale, even when the other two go wild," explained Yedid.

One of the first things that interested the students was how a woman managed to play the contrabass. "Isn't it hard for you? Don't you need strength for it?" asked a third-year student. "This school has been in existence for 30 years, and there has never been a female contrabassist."

"You mean not yet," replied Boazson-Horev with a smile.

What awaits music students in a country without an orchestra that plays classical music, without regular jazz ensembles? Balate, 25, dreams of traveling abroad, doing a master's degree in ethnomusicology and researching the musical traditions of the peripheral areas of Ethiopia. "In West Africa there has been a great deal of research, but the east has hardly been studied," he says. "Officially, Ethiopian music has four to five scales, but when you start to get around and open your ears, you discover that there are actually many more."

After the questions were over and most of the students had left, several students went up onto the stage and asked the members of the ensemble for tips. The Polish ambassador would certainly have been interested to see Barihon explaining to one of them how he combines two scales in improvisation - something he says he learned from John Coltrane. And Yedid, who was asked by a piano student how to improve his improvisation skills, said: "First of all know the rules, then try to break them."

"The level here is very low, they don't know basic things," said Yedid when the members of the ensemble had to leave the school, in order to make it to dinner with the Israeli ambassador. "If only I could stay here a little longer. Give me another hour with them, and their playing would improve amazingly." Barihon nodded in agreement. "If nothing works in Ethiopia, why should music be different? I would never come back here."