Jeremy Elliott in Africa: Ethiopia, Uganda, and Zambia
by Jeremy Ellliott
Part 2 of 2
Ethiopia, March 12-21
Thirty years ago you wouldn’t have traveled from Eritrea to Ethiopia. You simply would have just been in Ethiopia. So, even the straightforward move over the border was exciting for us, as it is something not many people have experienced since Eritrea became an independent entity. We loved our time in Eritrea and leaving was bittersweet. However, our time in Ethiopia proved to be truly inspiring and life changing on a very personal level.
The capitol city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa immediately proved to be a far more bustling environment than Asmara. We arrived at the Jupiter hotel feeling a bit overwhelmed, but also very excited to be in a city that seemed to have a lot going on. After a scheduled rest day, we dove right into our programmed schedule. We were vey excited to work with students at The Yared Music School, the oldest public music school in Ethiopia. Again, the introduction to American Bluegrass was met with much enthusiasm and our time with the students there was incredibly inspiring. The news that all of our public performances in Addis were cancelled due to civil unrest came to us with much disappointment as we were scheduled to play a beautiful national theater.
However, this change in our schedule freed us up to have some very unique experiences. One of these experiences was touring the National Museum which holds the remains of Lucy, the world’s most well known complete female hominin species fossil commonly believed by the scientific world to date back 3.2 million years. She was discovered 40 years ago in Ethiopia. After touring the museum we met some local jazz musicians at Lucy’s Restaurant for lunch. Little did we know that within that group was Ayele Mamo. Ayele is Ethiopia’s most famous, and only mandolin player. Until this moment, we had barely met anybody that even knew what a mandolin was. Needless to say, we had plenty to talk about and our time with Ayele and the other musicians proved very educational and enlightening.
We were immediately scheduled to depart Addis on our third day to fly to the northwestern region of Gondar for our next three days of programming. Unfortunately, our mandolin player Ben was battling illness so we would make this section of the trip our first 4-piece endeavor. Upon arriving in Gondar, my suspicion and anticipation of it resembling Gondor from JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” was confirmed. Gondar is a beautiful mountainous region replete with castle ruins and stone villages poised for exploration. We were met with palpable excitement at the University of Gondar where we taught our workshop and continued to be amazed at the intricasies of northeastern African music. Our travel and teaching left us ravenously hungry. Lunch at one of Ethiopia’s premier traditional restaurants, Three Sisters, satisfied our hunger completely. We had an undeniably perfect meal of traditional tibs (meat with local bur bur spices) and ingira (a millet based flat bread).
Though we had many amazing cultural experiences while in Ethiopia, collectively the highlight of our time came in the meeting of an absolute legend in the jazz music world. On a personal note, my approach to music was forever altered after I was introduced to the music of the brilliant Mulatu Astatke. An Ethiopian Vibraphone player, Mulatu combines the fusion of funk and jazz commonly heard in the 70s with traditional Ethiopian melodies. This melding makes for an unparalleled sound that is truly unique and is revered by those steeped in jazz music. On a whim, I mentioned that I would love to try to connect with him while in Ethiopia. Our Embassy liazon, Bahar, showed much excitement at my interest. Informing me that, not only was he back in town from a 5-week European tour, but also privy to our visit and excited to meet us, Bahar told me that Mulatu had extended a personal invitation to his jazz club African Jazz Village to meet and perform. The following night we found ourselves casually hanging out with Mulatu Astatke in his club watching him perform music that we have listened to for years, and performing our modern bluegrass for him and his audience in his beautiful and legendary club. Personally, this was the musical highlight of my entire time in Africa.
Uganda, March 21-27
Leaving the late winter weather of the Pacific Northwest to be set down in the summer heat of the desert for 20 days had us yearning for a milder climate. As we flew over Lake Victoria approaching the lush, forested region of Kampala, Uganda, I breathed a sigh of relief and immediately felt every pore of my body infused with the humid climate of the congo like rainforest. Here we would spend our time in the capitol city of Kampala and the small northern region of Arua. Both Kampala and Arua provided us the best musical collaborations and workshops that we experienced in our 40-day stint in Africa. The diversity of the instruments, yet the familiarity of certain ones like the Akogo (thumb piano) allowed for some very inspired jamming and collaborations. Makerere University was by far the most organized and advanced music school that we visited in our trip.
When we first arrived in Africa, we learned very quickly that our idea of what it means to be a university level music student is very different from what it means there. A graduating college student in Africa might simply mean that he or she picked up an instrument or started vocal training at the beginning of their college career. So, a 4th year graduating student may only have 4 years experience. Makerere University proved otherwise however. These students were well steeped in their instruments and were incredibly technically proficient. We were met with an unmatched excitement and fervor for theoretical conversation and curiosity that led to a highly educational and practical experience for us and them. The traditional music and instrumentation of Uganda is very similar to what you might here from West Africa. As a student of this style of West African “high life” guitar playing far before I stepped foot in Africa, I was able to understand and learn due to my familiarity with the sounds and approach of these musicians and this tradition. Uganda provided us with an unmatched excitement for and practical experience in traditional African music due to the expertise of the teaching staff and the proficiency of the students at Makerere University.
On a personal note, and I believe I can speak for all 5 members of Crow and the Canyon here, the cultural highlight of our time in Uganda came in Arua. March 24 we were invited to take part in a cultural celebration simply dubbed “Cultural Day.” The prime minister as well as the mayor invited us as guests of honor to take part in a celebration including: food, drink, dance, music, art and song. The purpose of this gathering would be to celebrate the specific visit of our band to Uganda and the meshing of our two cultures. Representatives from every tribe of every region of the northern part of the country came and entertained and educated us on their culture though song, dance and speech. The prime minster told us that they will celebrate our visit every year on March 24 from this point forward. It would become a part of their cultural tradition and history. What an honor! I can’t wait to go back and celebrate with them again.
Zambia, March 27-April 4
Ten days left on this amazing journey. Though our expectations had been far exceeded at this point in regards to the immersing of cultural diplomacy and the integration of musical styles, our childlike fascinations of the outdoor African experience was left a bit unsatisfied. The programming though the organization had been incredibly efficient up to this point and enabled us to fully realize and fulfill the purpose of cultural ambassadorship and diplomacy through music. We worked hard and soaked it all in and were now acclimated and changed as musicians and humans. But, we wanted to see some animals! We wanted to run around with monkeys and take selfies with giraffes. Well, Zambia heard our inner voices and provided us the most satisfying immersion into African landscape and wildlife. We arrived at Victoria Falls Resort at about 4 p.m. March 27. On the drive down the way to the hotel lobby to check in, there they were. Giraffes, hippos, baboons, impala, wart hogs, zebra, they were all just hanging out on the hotel grounds!
We found out that Victoria Falls resort was built directly around the animals’ passageways to the falls to water daily. it was a sort of wildlife preserve that allowed visitors to have a completely immersive experience with African wildlife while relaxing in a beautiful resort setting. Since it was leading up to Easter holiday, many of the local people take time off to be with their families and shut their businesses down. Because of this our programming days were minimal. This allowed us to really take in the landscape and culture in a very personal way and explore the wild and fascinating African land. We spent our last days in Africa walking the trails to the Zambezi River with baboons to shower in the mist of the awesome Victoria Falls. We played music with and for the locals and visitors from all over the world at the hotel. Our late night walks home from the hotel bar were accompanied by herds of zebra. We had to make our egg hunt quick on Easter so that we found the items before the baboons did. Leigh (Crow and the Canyon lead singer) and myself satisfied a life long desire to bungee jump. We never imagined it would be off of the walking bridge that connects Zamiba and Zimbabwe 400 feet over Boiling Point pool at the base of Victoria Falls in the middle of the Zambezi River.
This was a life changing trip in so many ways. I could write about it forever and never articulate the full breadth in which it impacted me. So, I’ve decided to incorporate some of the musicians that I met while there on an upcoming album that I will hopefully release next year. Those of you who are still intrigued and wanr to hear the sounds I have described here, keep an eye out!