The traditional drum "kebero" is played by Asrat Ayalew, while Kaethe Hostetter's five-string acoustic violin evokes the Ethiopian "masinqo," a one-string bowed instrument. Selamnesh Zemene, the vocalist, sings in a variety of traditional Ethiopian styles. Her mother and grandmother both having been azmari singers, she is steeped in this tradition, which often incorporates humor and improvising during its performance. The azmari are traditionally wandering musicians from the countryside, who sing, play, and dance for money. With witty lyrics rich in innuendo and double entendre, Azmari musical traditions have been documented in a few volumes of Ethiopiques, the renowned CD series out of France.
Zena Bel Band plays familiar folk songs that most Ethiopians vehemently cherish. The trio's repertoire includes the beloved "Tizita" and "Ambassel," songs by Bezunesh Bekele, Birtukan Dubale, and Maritu Legesse, and some regionally specific songs that display the rich variety of Ethiopian traditions. They also play some original songs by Selamnesh and her husband, who is also an azmari
The music is by turns dreamily mesmerizing, circular, heavy, exhilarating, compelling and whimsical. Selamnesh's sure and powerful voice reaches across political borders and musical backgrounds. Kaethe's masinqo-like 5-string violin playing presents an innovative, modern ambiance. Asrat's kebero provides the project's strong backbone, as he highlights the contour of the songs while offering propulsive verve.
Joining Zena Bel Band on some numbers are Melaku Belay, Ethiopia's top dancer, and his dance partner, Zinash Tsgegaye, both members of Fendika who, along with Zena Bel's members, are on tour with Debo Band in September of 2010. The physical home and performance venue of the Fendika group is "Fendika Azmari Bet," artist-owned and operated by Melaku. In Ethiopian culture, an "azmari bet," literally meaning the "House of the Azmari," is a place where people come to listen and enjoy traditional Ethiopian music. Under Melaku's direction, Fendika completely revolutionizes the artistic world of Addis Ababa by creating a home for music that presents a symbiosis between tradition and modernity. In special projects and collaborations, Fendika's traditional azmari music has continually shifted and reinvented, while being enriched by Ethiopian-influenced jazz and rock bands from abroad, including Imperial Tiger Orchestra (Switzerland), The Ex (the Netherlands), le Tigre des Platanes (France), Debo Band and Ukandanz (France), among others.
Zena Bel Band is exemplary of the vibrancy of the Fendika scene in Addis Ababa, where cross cultural exchange has encouraged the development of new groups and projects. This is Zena Bel's first North American tour and they are thrilled to bring their music to new friends, and introduce a new take on the tradition of which they are so proud.
Friday, August 20, 2010
Zena Bel Band is a three piece group, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The group is the result of the continuing collaborations of two Ethiopian azmari musicians, and one violin player from Boston's Debo Band, a ten-member collective influenced by 1970s-era Ethiopian funk. Zena Bel Band's members first came together when Debo Band collaborated with some traditional musicians while on tour in Ethiopia in May 2009.