Amanu Teriessa

Photo Credit: Haymanot Honelgne

Time, as merciless as ever, barreling past us, and before we know it, having already passed the three-month mark since the quarantine was established, it comes as no surprise that many of us have gotten used to the new ways of conducting day-to-day dealings. Attending our favorite events through screens from our own homes (probably dressed as minimally as possible) is quickly becoming the norm. Like many, the beloved Fendika Cultural Center has not laid idle during this testing time. Starting in May, they have been gracing their fans launching live stream events on their social media channels. In collaboration with Ethiocolor, Melaku Belay has been hosting performances that included the appearance of renowned artists, musicians, and dancers on the main stage of Fendika.

In an age where globalization’s full ramifications are yet to be witnessed, numerous traditional institutions are trying to resist destruction by surrendering the cultural antiquity for a mutated version of a tradition that has emerged out of an attempt to mingle it with westernized customs. It is for this that Fendika is known; it is one of the few centers where uncompromising decisions have led it to have an almost unique sense of being immersed in an age-old tradition. Vast numbers of both foreigners and locals have been attending it in search of the unfiltered cultural experience of being in an azmari bet. Every other Friday, Fendika used to hold a musical event Ethiocolor, and Ethiopian traditional bands, perform music to which the day’s azmari playing a musical/poetic game with the attendants. Not long after the pandemic, Fendika has switched to streaming these highly sought-after events.

“The one thing that sets Melaku Belay apart is his blinding passion for his profession… It was him that changed Fendika from a little-above-average azmari bet amid Kazanchis’s block thick with traditional places to a globally prominent cultural center.”

The live stream held on 03 May 2020 began with Melaku sitting behind an electronic record player, singing along to Ethiopian hit songs of the ’60s. He then proceeds to leaf through old records, pick one out, dust it off to put it below the needle and let it play. He plays classic wedding songs – songs that are so integral to the culture that even the most uncultured Ethiopian is instantly taken over by memories of family weddings – and offers his congratulations to those who are just married (seeing that Easter just passed and it was the wedding season) while he sings along enthusiastically. The night goes on with a performance from the band Ethiocolor and many jazz songs to commemorate jazz week.

The one thing that sets Melaku Belay apart is his blinding passion for his profession. Before he started running Fendika, he went from being homeless to working as a professional dancer who lives off of the tips of pleased costumers and to a distinguished professional who travels around the world popularizing Ethiopian culture. It was him that changed Fendika from a little-above-average azmari bet amid Kazanchis’s block thick with traditional places to a globally prominent cultural center.

On the next live stream, held on the following Friday, Melaku introduces the artist Tamrat Gezahegn. Tamrat makes a speech and with a helping hand from Melaku. Together, they uncover a piece of painting made on one of the walls inside the hall. Infusing musical notes designed by the ancient Saint Yared and classical European notes that are commonly known, Tamrat had created a beautiful juxtaposition of timelessness, varied cultures, and unity.

What is noteworthy is that the people tuning in to watch these streams are not only from Ethiopia. Lucy Molla, watching the live stream from Lyon, France commented, “This is an amazing, educational and philosophical event. Thank you Melaku and Fendika for keeping us entertained.” It seemed that the crew involved had learned a lot from their first stream because the second one was much better organized, as noted by few who took to the comment section to give their thoughts.

The third stream began with Melaku saying a few words about the cultural diversity in the country and that although it would be difficult to include all of is, he will attempt to include a few. And as promised the event began with a mellow Tigrigna song, then went to an energetic Oromiffa performance. What makes the experience even more entertaining is that Melaku himself dances to almost every song. Fantu Mandoye, a legendary Ethiopian singer and actor joined the performance to showcase a couple of comic songs. On the next streams, other famous people who seem to have dropped from the contemporary mainstream field like Eyayu Manyazewal were featured.

Photo Courtesy: images.squarespace-cdn.com

Because of the global pandemic, Fendika was forced to forestall much of this year’s planned worldwide events aimed at publicizing Ethiopian culture. Institutions being forced to close down is a tedious challenge to overcome; Fendika is no different. Melaku is not deterred by this, as he told LinkUp Addis. “Creativity has always been a defining perk of Fendika,” he says, “And that this is our latest attempt at reaching our ever-growing number of fans.” The feedback has been overwhelmingly excellent – anyone can conclud by themselves without the need of assurance from Melaku. He also told me that perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the live streaming is that it has a wider international reach than originally anticipated, even garnering the attention of prominent people like the current director of New York University.

Melaku Belay wanted to make clear that his motivations are almost entirely as a service to his country in a time where such inspiring deeds are highly demanded. That being said, this venture is not without its problems – the most fundamental one being financial issues. Melaku told me that Fendika has not stopped paying the salaries of thirty-two of its employees and that all the artists featured on the streams held each Friday get payment, as well as their transportation costs, covered. A GoFundMe page under the name ‘Keep Fendika Grooving’ has been opened for those who are willing to pitch in.

The Go Fund Me link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/keep-fendika-grooving/donate

The live streams: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJc3N9Lk-0hxZMDIw1_fqqw/videos

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