Fearless song and dance troupe Fendika headlines Ethiopia Fest Chicago 2018 | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Fearless song and dance troupe Fendika headlines Ethiopia Fest Chicago 2018

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Melaku Belay is a master of Eskista, a shoulder-popping Ethiopian dance style thought to have been inspired by the movement of snakes, as well as a student of the dance traditions of the approximately 80 tribal groups within his country. In 2009 he founded the performance ensemble Fendika, which is based in a similarly named nightclub in Addis Ababa, Fendika Azmari Bet. The group showcases variations that have developed in both rural and urban settings, combining energetic dance routines with azmari vocal numbers on which singers work oblique commentaries upon current events into lyrics. On their album Birabiro (Terp) a trio of musicians playing massenko (one-string spike fiddle), krar (a lyre), and kebero (hide-covered hand drum) supply raw acoustic frameworks for singer Nardos Tesfaw as she switches fluidly between celebratory chants and exquisitely ornamented renditions of classic tunes like “Anbessa” and “Tezeta.” Despite their mission as cultural preservationists, Fendika have forged strong connections with contemporary-minded Western musical groups such as Boston-based Ethiopian music ensemble Debo Band, Dutch experimental punk group the Ex, and Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit, the drummer’s pan-Scandinavian free-jazz big band. This past July I saw the Large Unit and Fendika join forces in Molde, Norway, where they whipped a crowd of festival-weary jazz fans and curious local youths into a sweaty frenzy. For this concert—the first of a U.S. tour—Belay leads a seven-piece edition of Fendika with two singers, two dancers, and three musicians for a headlining set at the fifth annual Ethiopia Fest. With an audience that includes people who can understand the words to their songs and know the steps to the dances, the effect of their performance is bound to be even more electrifying than the first time I caught them.   v

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