By any standard Mercato is a chaotic affair. Its pavements are crumbling, its roads disintegrating; its ramshackle buildings slapped together with wood and corrugated iron. Not one corner of this giant, labyrinthine market could be considered pretty. It is the raw, unvarnished face of Ethiopian survival.
To walk through the early stages of Mercato’s streets is an intoxicating experience – a kaleidoscope of merchants, hawkers, pickpockets, beggars, the destitute and the crippled. They glide, stumble, crawl or steal their way through a teeming mass of humanity.
Buried somewhere deep within this enormous sprawl – perched to the northwest of Addis Ababa’s Piazza – is an old man selling records, although the chances of us finding him are slim. Only one of us has a vague idea of where we are, we don’t have a guide, and the police have spotted us.
Most record collectors don’t give Addis Ababa a second glance, let alone Mercato. It is so far off the beaten track it might as well not exist. There are no vinyl record stores, no stalls selling old 45s, no collectors’ fairs. What records there are lie in private collections, in forgotten garages, or in the occasional second hand store selling everything from Italian fascist documents to pith helmets.
Yet a handful of collectors have tried their luck over the course of the past two decades, buoyed by the increasing popularity of Ethio-jazz and a deepening appreciation of traditional Ethiopian music. Amongst them is musician, DJ and record producer Quantic, who travelled to Addis Ababa in 2004 with Miles Cleret, the founder of record label Soundway, and LA-based photographer B+, ostensibly to interview Mulatu Astatke, the legendary father of Ethio-jazz, and to search for records. The resulting interview was published in Wax Poetics the following year, whilst an hour-long DJ set composed of records discovered by Quantic on the trip was released in 2010 under the name Addis to Axum. A further mix of Ethiopian folkloric and outer-regional music was released by Quantic on Soundcloud earlier this year.
Now feted across the world, Astatke released the bulk of his work on Amha Records, combining his love of jazz and latin with traditional Ethiopian music to create the defining moments of Ethiopia’s musical golden age, which spanned the late 60s and early 70s, creating stars out of artists such as Alemayehu Eshete, Girma Beyene, Mahmoud Ahmed and Tilahun Gessesse.
Somewhere within the morass that is Mercato sits a man with the records of Astatke, Beyene and Ahmed tucked away in a dusty box, but the chances of us finding him are receding. The police are shadowing us and, with good intentions, are advising us to leave.
As we head back to the Piazza empty-handed, Addis Ababa’s commercial centre glides past in a haze of exhaust fumes. This is not an attractive city. It is potholed, frequently filthy, and often heartbreakingly poor. What remains of the city’s Italian architecture – constructed during the short-lived occupation of the 1930s – is falling into disrepair, although the modernist style of Electricity House and the Ethiopian Airlines building retains shades of its former glory. In essence, Piazza is less an area and more an intersection, with roads pinging off in various directions. A few streets are devoted to smart shop fronts displaying locally made jewellery, while the smaller lanes focus on fashion, mobile phone covers and plastic tat. A nearby old workers’ area is a maze of cobblers, leather makers and other such stalls, but we head away from the side streets towards a coffee shop not far from the Piazza’s main roundabout.
The coffee shop’s clientele are predominantly middle-aged men watching the world go by, although a handful of couples can be seen huddled together in quiet conversation. Families of beggars come and go, as do men bent low by heavy loads, while on the opposite side of the street young women flit in and out of the crowd, their occasionally tattooed faces highlighted by the early afternoon sun.
Just up from the coffee shop is a small bookstall. Scattered here and there are old guidebooks and magazines featuring Haile Selassie, the last Emperor of Ethiopia and the central figure of worship in Rastafarianism. A couple of works by English suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, who lived and worked in Ethiopia during her later years and died there in 1960, also line the shelves. There is also a solitary old gramophone record minus its sleeve. I ask the stall’s owner if he has any Ethiopian records. He doesn’t, but a man nearby says he does. We finish our coffee and follow him along a couple of side streets before eventually heading, literally, up a garden path.
The shed at the end of the path is small, barely two metres wide with a glass cabinet at the far end. Books are stacked high in one corner, old maps cover a tiny table, and on top of a wardrobe lay a stack of LPs. Most are from other African countries, although there’s a scattering of 70s disco and pop. The man crouches, rising again only when he was found what he is looking for, eventually handing me a stack of Ethiopian 7in singles from the late 60s and early 70s. Many are deeply scratched and beyond playable, but a few make the day’s search worthwhile. The Amin, Mahmoud and Kaifa record labels are there, as are Tilahun Gessesse and Mahmoud Ahmed, both of whom were brought back to international attention by music curator and producer Francis Falceto, who has re-released a sizeable chunk of Ethiopia’s musical heritage via the Éthiopiques series. Each 45 is about 200 birr ($10), but we negotiate a bulk deal. Astatke is conspicuous by his absence, as are Girma Beyene and the Walias Band, but we make plans to return before eventually heading back across town to the Sheraton.
Two of our taxi’s doors don’t work and the front seatbelt has disappeared, but we’re satisfied. As author and journalist Tom Cox once wrote: “Before civilisation, so the legend goes, man hunted antelope, wildebeest and woolly mammoth. Subsequently, Island Records began to release gatefold vinyl with pink inserts, and he began to hunt that instead. Unlike meat, rare records did not help feed his family or improve his standing with womenfolk, but who was complaining?”
The Sheraton stands in stark contrast to the city that surrounds it. A five-star extravaganza located 7km from the airport, its own promotional blurb describes the property as “a sanctuary of Ethiopian grandeur, where a landscape of vibrant greens and colourful wildflowers meets the African sky”. In truth, you’ll not appreciate the Sheraton fully until you leave Addis and head into Ethiopia’s wild and staggeringly beautiful countryside.
Later that evening we hurtle towards the centre of town in a taxi missing most of the basic requirements of comfortable travel. A crucifix swings frantically from the rear-view mirror and on arrival at the Piazza we are forced to exit the rear passenger seats via a single workable door. Although the occasional street pedlar can still be seen plying his trade, several bars and clubs have sprung to life, while in the roads and alleys surrounding the Taitu Hotel a smattering of Rastas occasionally slip in and out of the darkness.
The Jazzamba Lounge is packed when we arrive. There are no seats available near the front and the rhythmic, frequently trance-like qualities of Ethio-jazz are being pumped through the club’s sound system before a young, beautiful female singer takes centre stage. She sings in lilting Amharic to a long, mid-tempo number that, as with many traditional Ethiopian songs, gives little respite to the singer. After two songs she is done. The beguiling smile and wavy hair of our waitress pops in and out of focus, before disappearing altogether as bottles of Harar, Meta and St George appear with increasing frequency.
Ethiopia is a country that flies in the face of much of its international reputation. It is not in the midst of a perpetual famine. It is not barren. It is not beset by rebels and bandits, although travel to the Eritrean border, the Danakil Desert (where a number of tourists were killed last year), and within 100km of the border with Somalia and Kenya are strongly discouraged, as is travel to the border with Sudan.
As we drive north from Addis Ababa towards Bahir Dar, through villages and towns such as Fiche, Debre Markos and Finote Selam, the simultaneously beautiful and squalid reality of rural Ethiopia unfolds before us. The lush, fertile and stunning landscape of the Ethiopian Highlands is often implausibly green, punctuated only by giant geographic obstacles such as the Blue Nile Gorge. As we head further and further north the rural industry of every village floods the single-lane road masquerading as one of the country’s main arteries. Groups of laughing children run to market, donkeys carrying huge bundles of wood are harried by smiling women, and here and there boys sling rudimentary ploughs over their shoulders. Every so often men urinate at will in the street.
Everyone walks. Everyone is lean. There are few cars and when we stop for coffee we admire a rural way of life that, despite its apparent inefficiency, appears to give everybody something to do. At one of the next villages much of the local population has been employed building a new bridge, amongst them young women and teenagers carrying heavy loads up and down precarious, mud-covered walkways. Some shout encouragement, others simply look on.
When we finally reach Bahir Dar the curtain of night has been drawn and the Tana Hotel is all but closed. The darkness embraces us and July’s rain has kicked in – powerful, torrential rain the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Alistair, the slightly eccentric Scottish founder of Lovethiopia and the organiser of our trip, insists the hotel is perched on the edge of Lake Tana, but we can’t see a thing. All we can see are mosquitos circling the occasional light.
Morning, however, reveals the full extent of Lake Tana. At 2,156sq km, it is vast. Small isolated island monasteries punctuate the horizon and wildlife peppers the shoreline. It is from here that the Blue Nile begins its journey towards the confluence of the White and Blue Niles in Khartoum, stuttering only to drop an estimated 45 metres en route at the Blue Nile Falls, which lie roughly 30km away.
The evening downpours of the previous few days have lent the falls an extra sense of urgency and a misty spray engulfs much of the immediate area when we arrive. A gaggle of youngsters shadow us, selling everything from scarves to tiny wooden whistles, and as we clamber down to the base of the falls the roar of Mother Nature becomes deafening.
As the light begins to fade we are ferried across the Blue Nile to the sound of a young man playing the masenqo, a single-stringed bowed lute that will re-emerge during the course of the coming evening. The river is not blue at all, but the colour of mud, the rainy season having swept much of the countryside into the Nile’s rising flow.
Later that evening, following an arduous return through driving rain, we head out into the night. Checheho, one of Bahir Dar’s cultural clubs, is not dissimilar to an old Scandinavian mead hall. Its high walls and peaked roof are made of wood, while its interior is filled with low-lying tables and chairs. A four-piece band sits on a tiny stage in the far right-hand corner of the room, and as the venue gradually fills to capacity it begins to play to a backdrop of high-energy dance.
Immediately in front of us two girls begin to sway hypnotically from side to side, their shoulders moving seductively to the music, while just beyond them a young woman’s graceful, wavelike body motion matches the band note for note.
Fuelled by the potency of Ethiopian mead, we clap and periodically shout encouragement, carried along by the raw energy of Ethiopian music and the beauty of its women. Outside it is raining once more, but a blurry crescendo is being reached inside. All but a few are dancing, and by the time we’ve won the tuk-tuk race back to our hotel we’ve already made plans to return. Not only to track down the elusive old man in Mercato, but to embrace the wonder of Ethiopian music once more.
* Published in Open Skies, September 2013