ETHIOPIA 6: the Azmari, Lul, Sirage

September 8, 2004

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.