Across town, the Ethiocolor Band, dressed in leopard-print costumes and clutching wooden spears, was launching into an expressive hunting dance from the small town of Konso, in Ethiopia’s southwest. Every other Friday, the music and dance troupe performs something of a cultural variety show for a rapt local audience at Fendika Azmari Bet, a cozy bar where colorful fabrics cover the walls and braided palm leaves decorate the ceiling.
Ethiopia has been home to azmari bets — taverns featuring sung comedy
accompanied by a lyre — for centuries, but what the Ethiocolor Band does at Fendika is quite different. Led by the charismatic Addis-born dancer Melaku Belay, the 13-member group has reimagined traditional Ethiopian culture for the 21st century, combining tribal dances and indigenous instruments with jazz, rock, theater and lots of costume changes. On a recent late night, the crowd that gathered around the dancers — wearing spiky wigs made from the hair of gelada baboons — was invited to show off their skills at the eskista, a shoulder-shaking jig.