Monday, February 07, 2005

Getting Down in Addis Ababa

The New York Times has a story on the mixed reaction of local Ethiopians to the influx of foreign Rastafarians on the occasion of Bob Marley's 60th birthday (can you believe he would just be 60?).

Rastafarianism originated in Jamaica in the 1930s. As most readers probably know, Rastafarians worship Ethiopia's King/Emperor Haile Selassie (known as Ras Tafari before he became Emperor). Selassie seems to have been singled out in this way because Ethiopia was Africa's only un-colonized state, and was led by a ruler who (with help) managed to defeat European armies. Selassie was emperor between 1930-1936, and then for a very long period, 1941-1974. He was a controversial leader, to say the least. And he didn't understand the thousands of Jamaicans who had turned him into a figure of reverence. He was a little freaked when he first visited Jamaica, and saw thousands of followers waiting there for him: "There is a problem in Jamaica.... Please, help these people. They are misunderstanding, they do not understand our culture.... They need a church to be established and you are chosen to go."

I like Bob Marley's music, and I respect the Rastafarians. A religion is a religion, after all; it's power is measured in what it does for its followers, and it doesn't need to justify itself to anyone. There are supposedly a million Rastafarians worldwide.

That said, I find this whole spectacle kind of crazy. Here are thousands of followers, some from places like Japan, coming into a poor country, whose ruler's deification became, in some sense, obsolete when the rest of Africa became independent around 1960 (and he was never all that great a leader to begin with). They've come to the place that is theologically defined for them as the "promised land," though only a few hundred of them have ever actually tried to live there (this is a promised land that is desperately short of resources). Meanwhile, the local Ethiopians, many of whom are devout Protestant Christians, are complaining about the pot-smoking foreigners, and walking through the crowd with flyers for their Church.

It's a little like something out of a book by Caryl Phillips (especially The Atlantic Sound), or a V.S. Naipaul travelogue.

* * *
Somewhat unrelatedly, Ethiopia has its own amazing music fusion scene, which was especially active in the 1970s (though it may be still going on, for all I know). You can hear some really interesting jazz/fusion music on a series of CDs called Ethiopiques. One can hear a (very short) sample of the sound here. If anyone can find longer samples or streams of Ethiopian jazz on the web, let me know.

There's something about this music that I find really compelling. It's at once swinging and experimental. It's at once distinctively African, and cosmopolitan and progressive...


Urmea said...

Hi Amardeep,
Thanks for dropping by and your kind words. (I am not very sure on the etiquette for replying to comments from bloggers - commentee's blog or commenter's??)
Thanks again,

3:32 AM  
Anonymous said...

Ethiopians are not devout protestants. They are devout Orthodox christians. And there church is The Ethiopoian Orthodox Church.

1:33 PM  
Desi Downunder said...

--- If anyone can find longer samples or streams of Ethiopian jazz on the web, let me know ---

I came across Ethiopian jazz or Ethiojazz in the Jim Jarmusch film, 'Broken Flowers' with Bill Murray. The songs in the soundtrack were just superb and that made me go haring about to find out more about the music and the artist behind it: Mulatu Astatke (or Astatqe). You can hear samples at Amazon:

5:54 AM  

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