I just got back from a surprise guest spot at one of the “Concerts for Change.” Did my heart good. My friend Bill, who books Sin-
I am in love with Bahar Dar. But I have to go; I have to see the historical sites up north. Before I split, I head to the Ethiopian Airlines office and change my ticket so I come back to Bahar Dar after I visit Axum.
I fly to Gondar, just 20 minutes, over Lake Tana to its northern shore. At the airport, a nice 24 year old kid named Nege approaches me, says he’s a guide. “I’m in the book,” he says. The book? He motions to my Lonely Planet. “Page 151,” he says.
And there he is. I hire him.
He takes me to the Royal Enclosure, where there are castles built by King Fasildas and his descendants. They look more Moorish than Ethiopian. Fascinating. And Nege is great, smart and informative.
We go to the baths that one of the kings built to re-baptize his subjects, who had been converted to Catholicism by his predecesor. Every year, for the festival of Timkat, hundreds of Gondarians leap joyfully into the waters to cleanse themselves.
Nege and I sit on the edge of the big, now-empty pools, and talk about his schooling, his ambitions, New York, what it is to be a musician, Azmaris. This is just as interesting to me as any of the historic sites. Truly, the sightseeing is just something to do in between meeting Ethiopians and having conversations.
I go back to the hotel, the Goha, which is the most expensive hotel in town, at $37.50 a night. It looks out commandingly from a hilltop over the town of Gondar. A spectacular view, well worth the big-bucks room rate. There are two high school girls shivering in the cold mountain air. Whores? Nope. Whew. Just high school girls in Adidas shirts who climbed up the hill to admire the view and gossip.
They pester me with questions about my girlfriend–“Can we see her picture?”–and Dallas. Dallas? Yeah, one of them has a relative there. She dreams of winning the visa lottery, so she can go live in Dallas. I tell them that Dallas is the plastic-surgery capital of America. They don’t quite understand.
Night falls, and I’m looking out over the lights of Gondar. There’s the sound of Amharic pop music in the distance, and dogs. Seems like dozens of dogs, barking in the darkness.
The next day Nege takes me to the foothills of the Simien mountains to see baboons and monkeys. We are accompanied by a bunch of shepherd boys–none older than maybe nine–as we walk to the edge of a magnificent precipice.
Sirage made me buy a box of 100 pens when I was in Bahar Dar. I was completely confused. “You need them to give to children,” he said. Huh?
Nege asks me: “Do you have some pens?” Yes. I hand him a bunch. He hands them out to the frantic, grasping shepherd boys.
On the way back to town, we stop at the Falasha village. The Falashas are the Ethiopian Jews, who were airlifted to Israel in 1991. “There is nothing to see here,” says Nege. “We only come here because it’s in the book.”
At breakfast I am approached by these beautiful yellow birds with black faces. The bird scene in Bahar Dar is just amazing, in general. I am tickled to be hanging out with these four or five birds.
One of them hops right between my coffee cup and my eggs, and starts munching furiously at the sugar bowl. Whoa, aggressive bird. So I tear off some toast fragments and put them on the edge of the table. Instantly there’s twenty birds battling furiously for a little bread, right there on the same table. Unnerving.
I shoo them away and put the bread on the ground. Suddenly more birds swoop down–maybe fifty birds!–and fight like devils for a bite of the bread.
I spend the day bicycling around the town.
That night, in the restaurant, two college-girls are hanging out at the restaurant on the verandah, looking out at the dark lake. They say hello and beckon me to sit with them. We have a fifteen minute, very stilted conversation, mostly about their school and injera. Always injera.
Could these be whores? Naw. They were dressed conservatively, arms and knees covered, as the proper Ethiopian woman’s always are. Then one of them asks, “Mike, when do you sleep?” Hm.
Lul, waiting tables that night, comes by. “Mike! Are you fine?” Yes, Lul, just fine.
Sirage takes me out to see another Azmari, a local celebrity named Wainyo. Again: great dancers and singing, and clapping along that is a master class in subverting and shaping rhythm. Wainyo sings a few very sad songs (seemingly), and then gets out a krar and hands it to be. Oh, boy. I pick at it, tentatively–though it sounds like an electric guitar, in practice it’s like playing a cross between a diddley bow, a lute, and a Chapman stick. As I pick out a cautious rhythm, EVERYBODY IN THE BAR STOPS AND STARES AT ME. Ulp.
We walk through the dark, romantic, puddled streets of the Ethiopian town, Amharic pop blasting from the doors of the bars. We go to a place called the John Bar, down the street. A couple guys from the hotel, another guide, Mulgeta (a sardonic, very lovable guy), and a driver named Daniel, are dancing. Daniel is a very sweet MANIAC. He dances a dance that’s like a boxer’s version of the cabbage patch. He keeps reaching out to me, dancing with me, shaking my hand, grabbing my arms. Ethiopian men are extremely affectionate, physically, with one another. You see guys walking down the street, hand in hand, or draped around each other like only lovers do in the West.
They have a friend with them, the only woman in the bar who’s not a whore. Whoring is par for the course in Ethiopia. The Lonely Planet says, “It’s not exactly a respectable profession, but it’s considered a viable way for a student to make ends meet.”
We dance to Aster Aweke, Soweto pop, and “Show Me Love.” There are posters of Jay-Z and P. Diddy on the wall.
A big fat whore with blonde extensions and a missing tooth keeps vying for my attention. Raising her eyes and smiling and touching her mouth to signal that she wants to me to buy her a drink. When I head to the bathroom, she follows and corners me. “What your name is?” Mike. “I, Hanna.” she says shaking my hand in a very businesswomany manner. “It’s nice to meet you, Hanna,” I say, and hightail it back into the bar to dance with my friends.
I feel so unselfconscious, dancing in the John Bar. It’s wonderful. A balm for a loneliness I barely knew I was suffering.
I return to the Ghion, and go to my room. Undress and get in bed, lower the mosquito netting around the mattress. There is a knock. I get up, in my glasses and boxer shorts, and open the door to find one of the college girls from the verandah, smiling at me expectantly.
“Do you sleep now?”
Yes, I was just about to. She looks at me with a clearly implied question.
OK, I’m going to bed now. Goodnight. I say pleasantly.
“Give me 20 birr for a taxi?” she says.
Suddenly I turn into a suave rat-packer. Sorry, baby, I say, I can’t do that. And I give her a peck on the cheek and shut the door.
That night, I pull a chair down by the lakefront, and play guitar to the darkness. All these waiters came down and surrounded me, very freaked out and enthused by my music.
One sang me a song he wrote for a girl he’s infatuated with that isn’t reciprocating his affections. He then proceeded to ask me advice for the lovelorn. “Mike, I love her! Tell me what do I do?”
So then it was about ten pm, and I was just hanging out outside the gate of the Ghion, looking down the empty streets. One of the waiters, this guy Lul, came out, on his way home. “Mike, what are you doing? Do you not enjoy? Come with me!”
Wow. So he took me through the streets of Bahar Dar to a club where an Azmari was playing–an Azmari is a guy who sings and plays a masinko, the one-stringed fiddle, improvising verses about the patrons hanging out drinking. It was FANTASTIC. It sounds like an Islamic James Brown playing square dance music.
Everybody was laughing their ass off, and of course I didn’t know what he was singing; Lul did some interpreting. “He sings: I am Azmari. But when my girlfriend ask what I do, I say: I am pilot.”
Lul keeps asking me, with this look of supreme concern, “Mike! Are you fine?” Yes, Lul, I’m doing great. A few more minutes. “Mike! Are you fine?” Yes, yes.
It reminded me of my friend Skip Gill, from the seventh grade, circa 1983, who tried to sell me on a foolproof pickup line. Ask a girl: How are you? She says: I’m fine. You say: I know you’re FINE, but how are you? Needless to say, Skip Gill had a really, really unbelievable amount of hot sex in middle school.
I won the hearts of the bar patrons because one of the dancers came up and started wiggling in an incredibly acrobatic way. “Mike, he wants you to dance with him. Will you do it?” Um, OK. So I stood up and did a rough imitation of his wiggling, which was quite extraordinary, better than in Addis, I didn’t know human beings had muscles in the places he was moving. But everybody laughed.
“Mike!” said Lul. “You are WONDERFUL!”
And then the Azmari came over and asked Lul, in Amharic, what my name was. He then started singing verses about me.
Lul translated. “He sings: America is nice! Germany is nice! I like Mike! He will live here in Bahar Dar forever!” And: “He sings: driver, be safe when you drive Mike back to Addis! Pilot, be safe when you fly Mike back to New York!” And: “This one drinks beer! This one drinks whiskey! Why does Mike drink only water?”
There were lots of references to Washington, D.C., where apparently there’s a huge Ethiopian immigrant community. To one girl, the Azmari sang, “Your teeth are white like the snow in Washington, D.C.!”
Washington, D.C. was a point of constant reference everywhere in Ethiopia. Sometimes I’d say, I’m from New York, and a guy would say, “So, where do you live in Washington, D.C.?”
The next day I was taken around Bahar Dar by this guy Sirage. Very cool; I called him the Mayor because every five feet he was saying hello to somebody.
I went to an Orthodox service–Sirage was utterly baffled that this was what I wanted to see–which they let me actually take part in–they gave me a prayer stick and a ceremonial shaker, and I followed roughly along. The singing was beautiful–and the environment was positively Medieval, all these guys in robes. This 12 year old kid in the service showed me this amazing prayer ritual where you count the segments on your fingers and name the apostles.
I’m fascinated with spirituality, and the power of prayer–whatever the source of the power is. Here, the spiritual energy was like WHAM! Huge.
He took me to his village outside Bahar Dar, and his neighbor, a singer who gave me her cassette, did a coffee ceremony for me; the beans are roasted in a pan over coal, crushed in something resembling a mortar and pestle, the smoke is fanned over our noses, incense is lit, popcorn is popped and served, boiling water is boiled, and the coffee is added. We then have to drink three cups. Of course, this being Ethiopia, the coffee everywhere is just incredible.
Sirage took me to buy CD’s of Ethiopian music, which again was completely perplexing to him. The shopkeeper would disappear into the back, bring out a few pirated CD’s, and I’d listen to them on a CD walkman. A bunch of Ethiopian guys crowded around me. I bought an armload. “Sure, if nine is good, ten is better,” said Sirage, completely confused at the weird white guy with the accumulating stack of music.
There was a Jeff Buckley CD there in the shop, sitting on a shelf behind the counter. Wow. So I told Sirage; that’s my friend. He died several years ago. And I explained to him how he died. Sirage then actually bought the copy of “Grace.” There was a very surreal moment when Sirage was describing Jeff’s death to his neighbor during the coffee ceremony. She clucked, dismayed, as Sirage described the boat’s trail that submerged him, and the drowning, and the finding of his body a few days later. “She says she is sorry about your friend,” Sirage said.
I played him some of my music, later, on my iPod. I am relieved to tell you he was not scared off by my voice (I’m scared to sing for Africans, though all the waiters begged me to when I played by the lakeside); he loved it. He was amazed, in fact. (the new mixes for my upcoming record are pretty damn good, thank you, Dan Wilson) Not to mention astonished by the iPod.
The next morning at breakfast they were playing a Charlie Rich CD over the speakers. Do you like this? I asked Sirage. “Oh, I like country music for all my life,” he said.
The next morning I fly from Addis to Bahar Dar. En route to the airport I pass an Ethiopian cinema with hand painted signs for BRITNEY SPEARS CROSSROADS and ROB SCHNEIDER THE HOT CHICK. And guys in Eminem t-shirts herding donkeys laden with firewood.
Fifty minutes’ flight, and I land in a lush, green, chilled-out place. Whew. I am relieved to be in a small city. At the airport, there’s a desk for the Ghion Hotel. A guy named Billy offers to transport me there. He looks exactly like Nate Dogg.
I go the Ghion. It’s great. It’s right on the shores of Lake Tana; boats are putt-putting along, pelicans are strafing the water. My room costs 105 birr–that’s about $12.75.
I rent a bicycle and pedal around the town. So pretty. Wide boulevards, magnificent trees hanging over the roads. It’s just about dusk, the light is amazing. Donkey carts clip clop along, jostling with taxis and other bicyclists. The same astonishing mix of guys in ersatz hip hop gear walking next to guys in traditional shawls with staffs, herding goats.
Children keep yelling out to me. “Faranji! Faranji!” I shout back, Habesha! And they laugh. Some of them shout out, “You! You! You! You!” It’s the colloquial way of getting somebody’s attention. Charming and unnerving simultaneously. Abraham–that pleasant, informative guy who tried to con the hell out of me–told me in Addis, “Children have only seen white people in movies.”
My favorite thing in Ethiopia, and in the small towns outside Addis especially, is the smiling. Everybody with these huge toothy grins. I smile at old men, and goatherds, donkey cart drivers, taxi drivers, groups of teenage girls that convulse with giggling. It makes my heart feel so good to be here, smiling at everybody, and them smiling at me. Worth the trip on its own.
The next day I wake up and get on a boat, going out to see the monasteries on Lake Tana. My guide is a chilled out guy named Yohannes. He brings a big pot of injera and shiro to eat on the journey. It’s 3 hours to the middle of the lake to see the first place, Narga Selassie.
We creep up on an island isolated in the water. A crumbling stone gate stands on the edge of the very old dock. We climb up a hill. It’s like walking into the 17th century. Old priests in robes are standing around the circular church, staring at me, friendly and perplexed.
Inside there are spectacular paintings around the holy of holies–Moses drowning the Egyptian armies in the Red Sea, their helmets and rifles (?!) poking out of the drink. Afroed Saints Gabriel and Mikael at the doors shielding the replica Ark. African Mary and baby Jesus. Belai the cannibal, consuming his relatives.
OK, says Yohannes. Now we go to the museum.
The “museum” is a mud and straw hut behind the church. The priests go in, and come out with ceremonial crosses, which they hold out for display. “This was made in the 17th century…” !!!!
And hand-painted books with Biblical scenes and ancient Ge’ez script. And a crown from a 17th century bishop. This will be repeated over and over again in Ethiopia; priceless artifacts kept in the most casual manner. Priests hold them openly in direct sunlight, beckon me to touch the ancient pages. Again: astonishing.
We go back to the boat. We’re being approached by two men in papyrus canoes, paddling slowly towards us. They too look to have been transported from centuries ago. They’re saying something, over and over again, smiling. I can’t quite hear them.
They come closer. They’re repeating, “Money. Money. Money. Money. Money.”
We travel another couple of hours and come to another monastery. There are images of the damned, blue-skinned, in Hell. Yohannes points out that good people in the paintings are depicted in full face, evil people–Romans, Pagans, Egyptians–in profile. Though the devils tormenting them are in profile, the sinners themselves are full-face. A curious empathy for the damned.
There is a guard, an old guy in robes with a rifle that seems to be vintage 1940’s, watching the church’s grounds. He says: “I am the guard. Give me money.”
I give him a few notes. He says again: “I am the guard. Give me money. I am the guard. Give me money.”
I saw an Ethiopian band and dancers at the hotel; a drummer, a guy playing a one-stringed fiddle called a masinko, and two guys playing these lute-looking, guitar-sounding instruments called krar. The guy playing the bass krar sounded for all the world like the bass on the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Sonically, I mean.
They were extremely out of tune; after every song there would be a long tuning pause, that was never particularly successful. Then they’d start playing, these great African grooves, sometimes in three, sometimes in four. Fantastic. Though it was effectively an Ethiopian version of a Ramada Inn lounge, they would go into these great, fevered jams. The energy just got more and more intense.
As Canadian tourists picked tentatively at their shiro and injera, at traditional basket-tables. Served by stoic waitresses in bowties, and nameplates that read “TRAINEE No. 35″ or “TRAINEE No. 8.”
The dancers came out and jacked their necks and chests in astonishing ways. I could barely comprehend how a human being could move their muscles like that. Occasionally they’d fade back and just clap along to the music. What was fascinating was that they would switch the beat they were accenting with their claps–the two and the four, and then all four, and then the one and the three–though the band jammed ever onward in the same rhythm, the clapping made the accent of the beat switch, sometimes fluidly, sometimes abruptly. Just great.
I finish dinner, the band finishes up, and I want to hear more. I get into a taxi and tell the guy that I’m looking to hear some Ethiopian music. He takes me to a dim bar where a guy in a suit is crooning into a wireless mic in front of a guy playing a Yamaha keyboard, with drum machine and automated bass line.
Uh, perhaps a more traditional kind of music? He takes me to a place called the Concorde Hotel. I walk into the bar–the uniformed security guards salute me quite formally, as uniformed guards do, disconcertingly, everywhere in Addis–and there’s a band like the one at my hotel, and dancers, finishing up a tune to much applause.
I go to the bathroom. When I return, the band is gone, the dancers are gone, R. Kelly’s “Step In The Name Of Love” is playing, and the bar is filling up with whores.
One of the whores corners me on a bar stool and asks me to buy her a drink. Yeah, OK, why not. Big mistake. She essentially stands guard over me for the next half an hour, giving nasty looks to the other whores that pass by.
OK–here’s the odd part–I think I was drugged.
I was drinking a bottled water. My heart started to beat kind of fast. I started to feel a little shaky. Oh FUCK. I recognized the feeling. This was the Donald.
The Donald is the feeling one gets when one takes Ecstasy, just when the drug is coming on, but before the euphoric effects. An anxious, panicky feeling. The origin of the notion of the Donald was this one time when I was playing a Dutch Summer festival. My guitar tech, Heinz (an English guy nicknamed for love of the beans) had these E’s with imprints of Donald Duck’s face on them. I downed a pill, waited a while, started feeling nervous and agitated. My girlfriend called, and I described my state of being. She said, “Is it the Donald?” YES! The DONALD! That describes this feeling EXACTLY. But she just meant, was it Heinz’s E’s with the Donald Duck on them.
So I was freaking out. I haven’t been on any drug since the year 2000. I didn’t know what to do. I kept looking at the red-lit Red Bull sign in search of psychedlic effects. How was I going to sit this out?
As it turned out, I wasn’t on E. I don’t know what it was. Maybe chat, the local speed-like leaf. I briefly considered hiring a whore to give me a backrub and wait out the drug with me. Then I just jumped into a cab and split, and whatever the feeling was wore off within the hour.
All night there was singing through a loudspeaker at a church by the hotel; it’s the end of a fasting period (during which they don’t actually fast, but abstain from meat other than fish, as well as dairy). So tinny, ululating melodies unspool as I lay there trying to sleep. I get out of bed and turn on Ethiopian national television, which is broadcasting the Brendan Fraser vehicle, Blast From The Past. It cuts inexplicably to Olympic footage, and then cuts back to the Brendan Fraser movie as if nothing happened.
The next day, the religious loudspeaker singing is still going. And there’s different rhythmic chants going on in the hotel’s gardens. I go out to my balcony. There are no less than five wedding parties in the gardens; a bride in a Western style white dress, bridesmaids in matching pastel prom dresses, and well dressed relatives singing and chanting, stepping in circles. In the parking lot, one wedding party is circling a white limosine, clapping and singing.
I go out to watch. It’s raining.
A guy sidles up to me. “You like this?” Yeah. Isn’t it a bad omen to have rain on your wedding day. “No, no. It’s very lucky. That’s why so many weddings in rainy season, like today.” Oh.
His name is Abraham. Nice guy. He invites me for a cup of coffee in the garden’s caf
I go to the St. George cathedral, an octagonal building in a part of Addis they call the Piazza. It’s closed. Men keep walking up to the doors of the church, pressing their heads against the doorframe, kissing it, and mouthing words.
A deacon, a dignified, graying man in a blue blazer, offers to let me in, and gives me a primer on Ethiopian Orthodox Churches; there are separate doors for men, women, and priests; there’s a part for praying, a part for chanting, and a central holy-of-holies in which a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept.
He shows me the ceremonial instruments. There’s a big drum, a kind of shaker–a metal tamborine on a Y-shaped stick–called a sistrum, and prayer sticks with arm rests, meant to lean on during marathon 12 and 20 hour praying sessions.
He sings me a couple songs, banging on the drum very slowly, and singing, “Gyorgis…Alleluia…Alleluia…” He does this with the sistrum and the prayer stick as well, waving the latter in the air, as a kind of conducting to no one, as he sings. The rhythms are hypnotically slow, and switch time signature. As he sings and plays, he walks backwards in a methodic circle.
I ask him to sing them again, and he’s a little perplexed, but he does.
He shows me the little museum, and then says, OK, now you must tip me. At this point I have no perspective on the value of the Ethiopian birr, so I pull out 50 birr (roughly six bucks) and hold it up, and he kind of sighs. So I pull out 100 birr and he nods. OK.
This is an experience I’ll have repeatedly in Ethiopia: a fascinating experience followed by a craven request for dough. Not always in that order.
I go to the National Museum. The crowns of Menelik, Zewditu, and Haile Selassie are kept behind flimsy plexiglass, secured with a hardware-store lock of the type they used to use on the cassette cases at Sounds on St. Mark’s place.
I go to the Selassie Cathedral. (The Selassie is the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, represented with an image of three absolutely identical bearded men in a row) The throne of Haile Selassie is strewn with plastic coffee cups.
I return to the hotel. I sit in the restaurant, drinking coffee with milk, which the Ethiopians call “Macchiato.” The coffee is absolutely incredible, almost across the board in the entire country.
There’s a ferocious hailstorm. The restaurant sounds as if it’s being riddled with gunfire for an hour.
It’s the rainy season in the Horn of Africa, which I kind of dreaded (a man I sat next to on the plane told me–“Now, two months of rain. But after that, beautiful!”). But, in fact, there was gorgeous blue sky most of the day, as there will be every day I was there. The sun is intensely bright, but it rarely got above 65 degrees, and down to 50 at night. That, despite the stereotype of Africa, is pretty much the temperature in Ethiopia year-round.
I saw an Olsen twin deplaning as I sat in the departure lounge. She wore chic, frayed clothes, and big sunglasses, and she was flanked by big, matronly handlers. The airport newstand was blanketed with an issue of In Touch magazine. An Olsen twin on the cover–“Is She Out Of Control?”–something like that. People in the lounge with me were reading it. And yet I think I was the only one who saw her.
I flew to London, and then connected to Frankfurt, and in Frankfurt flew to Addis Ababa. We flew over Athens (and the Olympic Stadium). I looked out the window at the Mediterranean, waiting for Africa to show up.
We land in Addis. Addis is sprawling, dusty, and chaotic; donkeys and goats jostle with taxis on the streets. There are big neighborhoods of tin and mud shanties beneath high rise buildings; sophisticated urbanites in Western dress walking by guys in Gandhi-like shawls, with head wraps and walking staffs. Everywhere there’s the sound of Amharic music, a warped-sounding, cheesily orchestrated, careening, fascinating sound, mostly in 3. Also everywhere: the gorgeous, alien Amharic alphabet.
There’s an Ethiopian Airlines billboard over Meskel Square, a vast intersection of multilane roads, nearly without traffic lights, in which minibuses, taxis, and SUVs battle for lane changes and turns–“STOCKHOLM: Savour the Old World charm.” This, in Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity.
I arrive at the hotel after dark. In the lobby, people are hunched around TVs, watching the Olympics. I go up to my room and watch the American weather forecast on Al-Jazeera.