Fendika, a six-member collective of Ethiopian musicians and dancers, who’ll play at Hartford’s Charter Oak Cultural Center on Oct. 5, produce a full-bodied sound out of few elements.
Misale Legesse, a young drummer, taps out rhythms on four moderately sized drums assembled on a stand in front of him. Endris Hassen bows a masenqo, a violin-like instrument with a single horsehair string that he fingers with his left hand. Seleshe Damessae, the group’s oldest and most distinguished member, plays krar, a mid-ranged six-stringed lyre, which he works by placing the fingers of his left hand on the strings halfway down the instrument’s length and plucking with his right. (That’s four drums, seven strings and the voices of all six members, if you're keeping track at home.)
It’s a big, happy sound, capable of stirring 300 people, or perhaps even 3,000. The group gathered these elements early Monday morning, a day before kicking off their first U.S. tour, to perform for a single person — me — in the lower lobby of Hartford’s Residence Inn, their home base for the next week or so. Damessae, the veteran of the group, sat on a round, marble table in front of a set of elevators. Dancer Melaku Belay, a wild-haired young man capable of indescribably kinetic dance moves, stood to the side as the instrumentalists prepared themselves. Belay owns a club in Addis Ababa called Fendika Azmari Bet, where 30 musicians (including those assembled for Fendika) play all day, nearly every day, and where Western musicians — Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, for example — occasionally drop by to jam. Belay said although these six performers are performing in the U.S. for the first time, they’ve worked together for years. Demassae, he said, is the group’s “librarian” of the music, all of which comes from traditional Ethiopian roots.
“We put our talent on it,” Belay said, “from our generation. We learn it from my father’s generation, but we use our talent.” In Ethiopia, he said, music is like a daily newspaper. Singers improvise lyrics to reflect the day’s events and their interpretation of them. They inform and entertain. Italy, Belay said, who occupied Ethiopia during the Second World War, targeted musicians in an attempt to stop the flow of information. “In one day,” Belay said, “they kill many azmari [Ethiopian singer-musicians] because they send the message by music to many people... We are fighters at the same time we are musicians.”
Singer Nardos Tesfaw and dancer Zenash Tsegaye, two stunning young women dressed in snug winter coats, stood to the side, manning video cameras and awaiting a chance to jump in. Damessae, Hassen and Legesse tuned and settled into a triple-meter groove, and Hassen sawed away on his instrument’s only string, playing glissandi and melodic runs. Although they had just arrived from Addis Ababa the previous day, they looked rested and happy. Tesfaw sang a soft, high note, which she held before allowing it to slowly descend. The song died away.
Another sprang up just as quickly. Belay and Tsegaye, who was dressed in white from head to toe, got into the act, dancing in mirror-image steps and clapping on the downbeats, while behind them large pictures of the Capitol Building and the Old State House hung on the lobby wall. A businesswoman, confused, wandered in, looking for the hotel lobby. “I don’t know if I’m in the right place,” she said. (“You’re definitely in the right place,” was my response.) The two dancers then alternated solo spots, taking turns, spinning and shuffling. Tesfaw sang lead and the whole group chanted a refrain. Afterward, everyone in the group clapped, as though surprised to be locking in so well on such short notice.
Damessae and Belay then talked briefly about the music’s traditional roots. “This is one half of a song from Ethiopia,” Damessae said. “We’ve known this song for many years. We’ve been playing this song. This is one of the Ethiopian traditional guragigna dance, with a traditional guragigna song. The man and woman have their own solo performances.”
The tour was organized by Lynne Williamson, director of the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program at the Institute for Community Research, in conjunction with the Charter Oak Cultural Center and Artists Collective, where Fendika will give dance and percussion workshops on Oct. 17. All but two members of the group have previously performed in the United States.
Audiences won’t be able to sit still. “These guys,” Damessae said, pointing to Belay and Tsegaye, “after they dance, they go around and get people involved, to sing and dance with you. We intentionally involve the audience. They play with us and they sing along with us.” Belay’s and Tsegaye’s moves are traditional, inspired by Ethiopian Carnival. “We don’t speak the same language, but we all understand the music and dance together,” Belay said.
“There is a saying,” Damessae continued, “which means, ‘If you eat together, if you drink together, if you live together, you have to sing and dance together.’” The rest of the group applauded.
Fendika, Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m., $10, Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Ave., Hartford, (860) 249-1207, charteroakcenter.org.