If you’re a fan of Addis Ababa’s art and music scene, Azmari Bets, traditional dances or even unusual genre fusions then surely you’ve heard of Melaku Belay. His inspirational rags-to-riches story (he went from homeless to owning one of the most popular spots in the city), his fervent, almost possessed-like dancing style, and his fusion of Ethiopian dances with a range of styles (from jazz to heavy metal to flamenco) have made Melaku one of the most famous contemporary artists. And outside of dancing, he’s also a businessman, philanthropist, cultural representative of Ethiopia and all-round patron of the arts.
I met up with Melaku at his azmari bet, Fendika, for an interview. As I got there, I noticed the place is designed to look and feel like a genuine Azmari Bet of olden times, unlike the other polished, tourist-friendly traditional places seen around town. We take our seats, Melaku offered me some Tej (which I accept), and we started our interview*. The faint sounds of drums and masinqo accompany our conversation as the azmaris warm up for the night in the next room.
When did you know dancing was your passion? Or how old were you when you started dancing?
Like most people, I just wanted to do what I loved, which was dancing and music. And I’ve always been persistent and committed to doing those things. I don’t give up easily. I just face the challenges that come to me one at a time, and that’s what makes me grow. I’ve always been very competitive and dedicated as a kid. Wherever there was dancing, weddings or whatever, you’d always find me right in the middle of the dance floor. So it was never about some big master plan, it was just about doing what I loved. It was always a priority over other things in my life, over school, work, whatever.
Was there ever a big life changing event in your life? Something that made you the Melaku we know today?
Well, I’ve always been this Melaku to me. I’ve always known as long as I kept at it, I would be successful in my field. But no, I wouldn’t say I’ve had one momentous event that changed my life, but rather many, many challenges that I went through that shaped who I am today. It’s every little detail and moment that contributed to my strength and identity. The fact that I grew up without a family, homeless, looking for work as a kid just to survive forced me to grow up very fast. But I was lucky to have something I was passionate about. Dancing and music became my salvation.
You have travelled all over Ethiopia to learn all types of dances. In the end, do you aim to preserve the traditional forms or do you want to fuse and develop them in your own way?
I’m not a big fan of constrictive forms or rules. I just let the music lead and I go where it takes me. Most times, I can’t even repeat what I did because I am not aware of myself when I’m on stage. That being said, my source of inspiration is always Ethiopian traditions. I start from what my parents gave me, my Ethiopian identity. I want to take what we already have, our traditions and cultures, and add to it. I want to contribute something to my field and take it a step further rather than just keep it as it is. But I don’t want to fuse or colonize our culture with western or other popular influences; I want our own lives and culture to be the inspiration. You could say we’re all like electric wires; none of us is the end of the journey, we’re just passing what we’ve been given onto the next generation. But we also have to give the current a little push, a little extra energy, rather than be passive conduits. I try to make honest art, not perfect art. I end up making mistakes lots of times because of it, but I think the mistakes are also part of the beauty. It shows that I’m still learning. And as long as I keep it honest, I will be happy and guilt free doing what I love. I’m a proud, patriotic Ethiopian and I’ve drank deeply from the well of my culture and that’s all I need to inspire me.
There are a lot of conservative Ethiopians that believe traditions shouldn’t be changed or altered in anyway. Have people complained to you that you’re straying from tradition too much?
Oh yeah. These kinds of things are a bit tough in Ethiopia. Some people will admire and applaud you just because you’re popular, even if you’re not any good. And some people will just criticize and complain no matter what you do. As long as I keep making honest art that I’m proud of, I will stay true to myself. Also some people aren’t aware there are different types of dancers. I’m not a formal, theater dancer. I’m trying to do something new and innovative. And people don’t know the difference. Some other people complain that we’re making the dances too “modern”. For me, modern is not bad. As long as it’s inspired by Ethiopian lifestyles and civilization and not western influences, it’s not a bad thing at all. I think most Ethiopians just need a better education on art, both local and foreign. For instance, most Ethiopians call any instrumental music “classical” music. I’ve seen that most places in the world, art is seen with such high regard and most people have a good knowledge of it. But I think we’re digressing. That’s another topic for another time. But all in all, I know what I’m doing as an artist. That doesn’t mean I’m always right but I’ll always put my passion first. That’s my priority. That’s why even when I was homeless and sleeping in the streets, I didn’t feel the cold of the night. And that’s why I don’t feel superior or arrogant now that I’m successful. I don’t feel special in anyway, it’s just the people that see you that way and put you on that pedestal. But I think this is a wide topic with too many factors to just condense into a short answer.
You’ve performed on many stages across the world. Do you find there’s a difference in reception in local and foreign audiences?
Yeah. I guess the main difference is that in Ethiopia, audience reaction varies depending on your popularity, wealth or even color. It’s not about what you’re doing; it’s about who you are. Elsewhere in the world, I’ve found they don’t really care much about who I am as much as how good I am. For example, when I performed in France for the first time, the audience’s reaction and appreciation assured me that I chose the right path for my life and that this was what I was born to do. I went there to give a workshop with artists from 11 other countries, Tibetans, Australian aborigines, Senegalese, so on and when I saw how unique and diverse our culture is, I was so proud and happy to be an artist and I realized I have so much to learn and so much to give back to my country. When I saw how much they appreciate and applaud even the smallest achievements in other countries, I was thinking we’re really squandering all the wealth and beauty of our culture in Ethiopia. Growing up, people used to constantly tell me to give up on dancing because I could only do it when I’m young or I’ll never make much money of it. And I couldn’t even get a job at the theater because they said I was too short. So I just worked for tips for 12 years. But the irony is that the theater that said I was too short to dance asked me to judge their dancers after I got famous. Another thing is how some people used to ask me why I don’t just stay in the US or Europe when I went there, they’d say “You don’t have parents or a house, why the hell would you come back?” and some people even think that my patriotism and love of Ethiopia is just a con to get famous. I don’t even know how to respond to this type of people. So in short, I’ve found that when foreigners admire you, they don’t care what tribe, country or whatever you’re from, they just care about your work. And when they admire, they admire openly and fully. They applaud or ask for your autograph. In Ethiopia, we’re not really big on adulation. I think we need to start appreciating our artists a little better.
I’ve heard that Fendika also runs a charity program. What can you tell me about that?
Um…I’d prefer not to discuss that. The charity helps out people in need and I don’t want to use their pain and struggle as a way to boost my status.
OK. You’ve collaborated with extremely diverse types of musicians over the years. But have you ever said no to an offer to collaborate because the music didn’t fit your style or identity?
Yeah but not because the music didn’t fit me, it’s usually because the musicians don’t. I can’t work with people who try to take advantage or are overly business minded. That’s their right but we can’t work together. Nothing good could come out of it. But in terms of the music, I’d dance to anything. I’ve even danced to really slow baroque music on stage.
What are your future plans?
I have many plans. But mostly it’s just want to expand and improve on what I’m doing now. I believe art can educate, enlighten and bring people together. I hope that the government or culture ministry will recognize this fact and give art a bigger priority and encouragement, especially for traditional Ethiopian art forms. For instance, we have many big, lavish hotels in Addis now, but they still can’t create that Azmari or traditional vibe we have at Fendika. If you passed by Fendika during the day, you wouldn’t even look twice. You wouldn’t think anything of it. But it’s been featured on BBC and CNN as a must see destination in Ethiopia, over all these other places. So we need to learn the value of our traditions and culture. I believe I’ve created a community that encourages and nurtures upcoming artists of all sorts; the aim is to expand it. I also want to create an international network to facilitate collaborations between Ethiopians and foreigners. And I hope to open more places like Fendika across Ethiopia. But there is still a long way to go. For example, I’ve had to create the Ethiopian dance association, paying for rent, lawyers, all of that and I’m trying to make it so that it runs on its own. I have to lay the foundations of a project and make sure it can stand on its own before I can move on to the next one. So ultimately, I want to create a community, both local and international, that inspires, connects and encourages artists of different backgrounds to create and collaborate.
How is your touring schedule year-round? Do you travel often?
Sometimes we tour for the whole year. Well, since I don’t have a manager there is no actual schedule in the first place. Usually I get an invitation to go to another place while on tour. So I’ve even toured for 3 years straight without coming back home. There are even times I’ve transited here; my plane lands in Ethiopia but I go straight to another one and go back out. So yeah it can get quite hectic.
How do you balance running Fendika and your other duties with your passion for dancing? Do you find that it distracts you from what you want to do?
(Ironically, as he’s about to answer, an employee of Fendika comes over and asks him for something) That’s a great question. Yeah running this place is a full time job. There’s little time left to work on the things I want to do. It’s not that I haven’t considered hiring a manager for Fendika. But they just wouldn’t run it the way I envisioned. And I wouldn’t be able to focus on my dancing while Fendika gets ruined by some manager either. So it has to be me and I have to learn to manage my time and energy wisely.
So would you say the manager side takes most of the time of day or the artist?
I try to handle both. The artist side is a big part of the manager side. We’ve created a family here. It’s not employer-employee. A lot of our musicians, even in the Fendika band, started as waiters here and they slowly taught themselves and each other. That’s the reason why I have to manage it myself. It has a certain spirit we’ve created that we have to keep alive.
You’ve recently been given the “Bego Sew” award for your contributions to dance and culture. Could you tell me more about that?
The ceremony was held at the intercontinental hotel, it is organized by Daniel Kibret, Sertse and others. I love the idea of the “bego sew” award. I think it’s the best accolade one could be honored with in this country. Artists, philanthropists, politicians, so on have been given that award and I think it inspires and recognizes people of all kinds. A while back I was given an award in France, and even though it was a great award and I was honored immensely, I still felt so sad. The whole time I was thinking this would have meant so much more if my own people recognized and honored my work. I even said so during my speech, that I wished our government would to do more to encourage artists. So as you can imagine, I was very happy to be awarded and recognized in my own country. Well obviously, I didn’t become a dancer for the fame or awards. But it’s always good to see your efforts being rewarded. In this country, we usually award people a little too late, when they retire or die. I think it’s important to encourage people while they’re still working.
Is there anything that you want to add? Anything else we didn’t cover in this interview?
Well, em…..If there’s anything I’d like to say to people, I’d advise everybody to travel. Just travel as much as you can. It doesn’t have to be far, just enough to meet new people with new ideas. I think that’s the best teacher. We’re constantly fighting over the smallest differences and we need to learn that we’re not that different after all. I’ve met some evil people that came from the same place as me and I’ve met some truly kind, benevolent people from somewhere completely different. In the end, we’re all just human.