by Andrew Forbes
Saxophonist Metche Hufu and his band are the talk of Addis Ababa, filling nightclubs and packing dance floors. But the precarious existence of this golden age of culture depends on an emperor’s benevolence - and when his power begins to wane, Metche Hufu's music threatens to be silenced by the sounds of a country torn apart.
“How do you give voice to a sax player silenced by the politics of his country? If you’re a jazz singer like Kurt Elling, you take Dexter Gordon’s solo on ‘Body and Soul’ from his Homecoming album and you turn it into vocalese. If your name is Andrew Forbes and your tenor sax player is Ethiopian and it is Addis Ababa 1973 and his musical idol is King Curtis, you write The Expansiveness of My Sound and what you write is wider, more straight-ahead, stronger with political fervour, sadder than Elling but every bit as smart. Forbes is doing it solo and you have to imagine the quartet behind him. Read it with your fingers tapping and you’ll catch the beat. Read it with your ears open and you’ll hear Metche Hufu’s body and soul. Dig it!”
— T. F. Rigelhof, author of Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984
SOMETHING GLORIOUS IS ABOUT to happen. The nightclubs of Addis Ababa are full. There are finely dressed patrons, the men in their crisp slacks, the pretty women in the latest things. There are even Americans in denim jeans. By his inaction, the Emperor endorses it all.
We are backstage at the Black Rose drinking beer, sitting in a circle of chairs beneath a bare light bulb. Hirut is here. He plays trumpet alongside my tenor saxophone. I have known him since we were both young men in the regimental band, scared and dumb. That is where we began to truly make music. When we left the army we were allowed to keep our instruments. It was very important to us. Hirut is my dearest friend.
Also here is Eshetu, the organist. He is a quiet man. I do not know him well, but I like him. Mekonnen is our guitar player. He is always laughing. I tell him I hope he does not drink too much beer tonight and begin telling jokes from the stage. Ato, our bass guitar, is terribly thin, though his fingers are fat as the fattest sausages. Finally Kessa, our drummer, eats a plate of wat and sneers at the rest of us. I do not care for Kessa.
Some bands without vocalists play polite background music. We do not have a vocalist, but we are not background music. We play something you have never heard. If you know rhythm and blues, that is some of it. But we are Ethiopian, without question.
Together we are a good band, perhaps great. The sign atop the Black Rose’s door reads METCHE HUFU AND HIS RHYTHM BAND. Tonight we are for the first time performing together on stage. Tonight we take flight.
My family are Shewan, from near Addis Ababa. We kept animals. But my father, when he was still young—younger than I am today—came to the capital and became involved in business. He has sold everything in his lifetime: guns, livestock, furniture. Now he sells coffee to a Dutch company. He is very comfortable. He gave his blessing to my music when I was a boy singing songs to my mother and my siblings. He was proud when I played lead saxophone in the band of the Emperor’s Guard. He does not come to nightclubs, but if he did, he would be here tonight.
Finally, we are on stage.
We are very good this night. Our music floats out the door, up through the roof, and people hear and are drawn in. They come in off the wide boulevard to see who is playing this sweet, grooving music. Eshetu weaves an atmosphere of mystery about my horn. Hirut’s trumpet punches the air. Mekonnen’s fingers are sure. Ato lopes. Even Kessa is locked into the good feeling. I glance back to him and on his face I see the calmness that rests past concentration. I am moved to smile at him, but he does not see me.
It is lovely. It is 1971. My wife Sidama and my young sons wait for me in our home. My horn sounds clear and sweet. My tongue is light and quick, my breath is bottomless.
IT IS AS THOUGH a thousand years of men speak through me. Warriors, shepherds, and mystic men send their voices to me. I play a shellela, solo. It is the frenzied calling and incantation that the fighting men would use to excite themselves for battle. Since Aksumite times these calls have rung across these highlands. All of that comes to bear in me. The band is still, as are the patrons.
It is 1973, and we are the talk of Addis Ababa, as I knew we would be. We make records for the Amha recording company, and the discs hang in the window of every radio shop in the city.
Tonight the Black Rose is full, as it is every night we play. The great Getatchew Mekurya sits in the front row. He watches me carefully, and I believe he is impressed. I have impressed the great saxophonist, and I am happy.
On every corner of this capital city, nightclubs with open doors invite Ethiopians inside. There have never been days like this. There is music everywhere; it is as if floodgates have been let open. I tell Hirut that I think we will one day tour the United States and London. “Anything is possible,” he says.
Recently I have met an American, Tom McChesney. “I have been in Marrakech,” he tells me. “I kept hearing of the music in Addis Ababa. I had to hear it for myself.” The American Tom McChesney is a great lover of music who has studied at Berklee school in Boston, United States. After our set, I ask him what he thinks of our music.
“Amazing,” he says, and he smiles. I am pleased. “Like King Curtis, like Booker T. and the MGs, but with an African twist.”
He must know these are among our heroes. We listen to the records in the shops, sometimes we buy them and share them with one another. “Thank you, Tom,” I say. Tom does not speak Amharic, though he does have some Arabic and much French. I have some English. In this cobbled-together way can we speak to one another. Tom will become my great friend. He will be glad he came to Addis Ababa.
about the author
ANDREW FORBES was born in Ottawa, Ontario and attended Carleton University. He has written film and music criticism, liner notes, sports columns, and short fiction. His work has been nominated for the Journey Prize, and has appeared in publications including VICE Sports, The Classical, The New Quarterly, and This Magazine. What You Need, his debut collection of fiction, was published by Invisible Publishing in 2015 and was nominated for the 2015 Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the 2016 Trillium Book Award. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario. www.andrewgforbes.com
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In a suburb that is nowhere and everywhere, Jorgen deals with the feelings of alienation and frustration from his collapsing relationship by getting into his car, putting on Patti Smith, and searching for meaning and belonging anywhere he can — regardless of whether he is welcome or wanted.
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