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Ethiopia to host Addis Jazz Festival and Africa Day celebration from May 24 - 26th

By Lucy Ilado

While jazz already has a long and storied history, that doesn’t mean it ever stopped evolving. Innovators reshape the genre regularly, introducing the world to unique sounds and astonishing skills, unlike anything that’s been witnessed before.

American jazz has received a lot of credit as having its roots in Africa, not only because the first musicians of the genre were African Americans, but also because they were influenced by their ancestors from across the Atlantic Ocean. When segregation and Western ideals were being imposed on black Americans at the beginning of the 20th century, jazz was a crucial part of helping them find their own voice. In an act of defiance, they broke all conventional rules and invented a genre that is now regarded as an absolute masterpiece all over the world.

At the moment, there is an ongoing evolution of American jazz in Africa, with musicians fusing it with various traditional musical styles. Ethiopia was one of the countries to embrace this evolution through Ethio-jazz, a genre created by Mulatu Astakte.

Astakte blended pentatonic scale-based Ethiopian traditional music with 12-note Western jazz and instrumentation, resulting in the creation of a new musical genre known as Ethio-jazz. Apart from Astakte, other Ethiopian musicians such as Hailu Mergia and the late Alemayehu Eshete have also contributed to the genre’s international popularity. 

“You can’t talk about Ethiopian music without acknowledging Mulatu,” said Muzikawi founder Teshome Wondimu. As the pioneer of Ethio-jazz, his work has resonated with so many of his peers and audience across the world, placing Ethiopia on the jazz music map.”

The jazz audience and artists interested in the genre are expanding at an admirable rate, indicating a promising future. “We saw an opportunity created by the vacuum in the jazz space,” Wondimu explained. “There have been promoters organizing jazz festivals but the challenge has been consistency. So we came up with a concept that we felt would fill that vacuum but also because we wish to see more local and international jazz musicians perform in Addis Ababa, enjoying a cross-cultural exchange that will influence the growth and development of jazz music.”

The AJF is the country’s first homegrown and immersive jazz festival. This year’s edition will take place from May 24 -26th at African Jazz Village in Addis Ababa. The event is being organized by Muzikawi, a new music company launched in April 2022.

The festival’s music curation features the venerable Afrigo from Uganda, the soul-stirring Selmor Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe, and the captivating Mathew Tembo from Zambia, the iconic Dawit Yifru, Roha Band, the legendary Girma Beyene and musicians like Jorga Mesfin, Yaho Ethiopian Traditional Music Band, the Mehari Brothers, and Yohana Sahele. A special highlight of this year’s event is the album release of the talented Jorga Mesfin and the celebration of Africa Day which will be celebrated in partnership with the Connect for Culture Africa (CfCA) initiative, one of selam’s and African Union’s initiative, and the African Union Commission (AUC) whose objectives include increased lobbying to African states to allocate at least 1% of their national budget to the arts, culture and heritage sectors by 2030.

“This platform that we have created will provide an international jazz music experience for the audience while also supporting local jazz musicians by providing a platform to showcase their talents to bigger crowds and share the stage with internationally acclaimed musicians, resulting in networking and collaboration opportunities,” Wondimu said. “We have a good number of really talented jazz musicians but many of them only get to play to relatively small crowds at bars, restaurants and corporate events.”

Wondimu hopes that this sort of exposure will help local musicians grow, as well as expand the market for live jazz music in Ethiopia, making it a profession that more talented musicians can pursue. The festival’s long-term goal is to be one of the largest live jazz music festivals in Africa, attracting music lovers from all over the world and positioning Addis Ababa city as an African jazz music hub, growing the local tourism and hospitality sector through job creation. “We’d like to see more local and international jazz musicians perform at the festival, enjoying a cross-cultural exchange that will influence the growth and development of jazz music in Ethiopia,” he said. 

“Like reggae or hip-hop, jazz is one of the few musical genres with a truly global reach; however, as mentioned earlier, this genre is often overlooked. We believe that paying homage to those who have embraced the endless possibilities of jazz and created their own definitive styles will contribute to its continuity especially with the younger musicians.”

Aside from organizing the festival, Muzikawi also focuses on music recording, production and publishing, as well as artist management. According to Wondimu, the biggest challenge for Ethiopian artists is in music publishing, which is a key revenue generator for authors and rights holders in the continent. Publishing is largely an untapped resource in the music industry because of the knowledge gap about copyright, its value, and the business side of the music industry.  

“Publishing is the area we are most interested in to ensure maximum and meaningful exposure and optimization of Ethiopian music and writers to the world,” Wondimu explained. “At the moment, there is no reporting of publishing rights and royalties collection. As stakeholders who are familiar with the best international practices in the sector, we are taking on the responsibility of ensuring that artists’ music is properly coded at the metadata level.”

Another challenge that Muzikawi is looking to resolve is the lack of technical skills in music and video production to ensure high-quality releases for public consumption, especially for the international markets. “Our vision is to establish a music training program for all music stakeholders, providing them with professional training and mentoring as they further develop their craft and businesses,” Wondimu said. 

Wondimu says the issue of funding is a challenge for almost all festivals on the continent, and in order to program more international artists, a sustainable funding network must be established. There is also a need to strengthen relationships with current state and private sector stakeholders willing to invest in the festival. “Finding sponsors has been a major struggle,” Wondimu explained. “It’s often hard to get sponsorship for niche acts, yet these relatively unknown acts can often be the highlight of a festival. Funding is critical to us, so currently, we can only afford to program local acts and a few international acts. But we are hoping that future editions will be well supported so that we can program more acts, especially from the continent. 

The Addis jazz festival is being organized in partnership with CfCA, African Union, Embassy of Sweden, Muzikawi, Selam Ethiopia, British Council and African Jazz Village. For more information visit www.addisjazzfestival.com

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