Ethiopian Jazz Supergroup Feedel Band Is Keeping Traditional Sounds Alive In The District

By Selam Berhea | DCist

Cutting through the chatter of passersby on 18th Street deciding where to eat or waiting in line at Songbyrd, the sound of a saxophone floats from Bossa Bistro + Lounge. It is the first Thursday of the month, and that means Feedel Band is playing. Inside, about 20 people are gathered to see them, some of whom have been coming to Feedel’s shows since the band’s residency first started six years ago.

“It took two years to convince [the band members to do the residency], they were not used to playing Ethiopian jazz,” says Araya Woldemichael, Feedel’s founder. “We were just backing up popular singers for so many years.” Things changed after Feedel played its first show at the African Jazz Festival in 2011. “We got a very amazing response from the audience.”

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Feedel Band is something of an Ethiopian jazz supergroup, made up of seven musicians with unique track records. Some have played for diplomats, for heads of state, and in music venues around the world. And for the past six or seven years at Bossa, their residency has been a chance to see top musicians of Ethiopian jazz and funk right in D.C.

Saxophonist Moges Habte, for example, was a former member of the popular Walias Band, whose 1977 album with vibraphonist Hailu Mergia, Tche Belew, remains one of the most well-known Ethiopian jazz records. Walias Band was also the first Ethiopian band to tour the United States in 1981. After the band split in 1983, Habte was one of the four members who chose to stay in the U.S. He spends his time with his six grandchildren, drives for Uber, and plays shows with Feedel.

Woldemichael, Feedel Band’s pianist and organist, has performed with the Black Eyed Peas, and was part of the band that backed up Beyonce when she performed in Ethiopia for the country’s millennium celebrations. He got his start playing music in church, and in the ’80s he studied music theory and composition in Moscow. He came to the U.S. in 1989, and has played music in D.C. ever since.

Feedel formed in 2010, and is named after the Ethiopian alphabet. The seven musicians had known each other for years from playing backup for the same singers in D.C. and around the world, including Mahmoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke, and Tilahun Gessesse, as well as pop artists. After years of backing up singers, Woldemichael decided to form an instrumental act.

“We just thought, ‘Why are we waiting until they call us? Why don’t we do something ourselves?’” Habte says.

In 2015, Feedel played at the Global Beat Festival in New York receiving a shout out from the New York Times for their “dense, gnarled funk.”

Their live performance is certainly energetic. At their Bossa shows, the crowd sways to the familiar sounds, and mesmerized patrons leave their seats to move closer to the stage while recording video.

Woldemichael’s fingers whirl up and down the keyboard, his feet tapping, and head flying up with them. He finishes off his solo and bassist Alemseged Kebede—Alem to his friends—jumps in. His shoulders start to shake as if he will break out into a traditional dance known as the eskista. His band members look on, amused. Ben Hall performs a searing trombone solo that receives a resounding applause.

Feedel’s Thursday shows certainly aren’t the only way to hear Ethiopian jazz in the District. Ethiopians have been grooving in D.C. for as long as they have been in the region. After a military takeover in 1974, Ethiopians flooded into the U.S., many specifically relocating to the D.C. area. Now the region has a population of more than 30,000 Ethiopians. Musicians who specialize in Ethio-jazz have frequented the now-closed Ibex Club, Dukem, and other Ethiopian restaurants across U Street and 14th Street. The music is playing in your Uber to the airport, in Ethiopian restaurants, and in the streets of Adams Morgan.

“Everyone’s gateway to Ethiopian culture is generally through the food and cuisine,” says Jim Thomson, the live music programmer at Bossa Bistro and owner of Multiflora Productions. He also books concerts for Feedel. “[But] if you have your ears open in D.C., you’re gonna hear Ethiopian music.”

Thomson was first introduced to Ethiopian music back in the ’90s with Ethiopiques, a well-known compilation disc set of 60s-70s jazz, rock, and funk music from the country.

“One of the musicians I was playing with, who was staying at the same apartment I was staying at, put on Ethiopiques … on his iPod,” Thomson recalls. “I said ‘Oh my gosh, this sounds so familiar! What is this?’” He became a fan immediately, and bought the Ethiopiques CDs.

Years later, he heard the familiar sound of Ethiopian jazz when Feedel played at Atlas Performing Arts Center. After that, Thomson became Feedel’s booking agent, arranging concerts for them in cities like New York, Pittsburgh, and recently Cape May, N.J., for the Exit Zero Jazz Festival.

Some nights at Bossa, Feedel brings other Ethiopian musicians to the stage. A vocalist might hop on stage to sing a popular song or another instrumentalist might bring their sound to the mix. When a vocalist joins them for a show at Bossa or elsewhere, Habte says, fans are especially excited.

“If we perform with one singer, they have a hundred or even a thousand people in the audience,” says Habte. “When we play this instrumental music, maybe forty or fifty people [show up].”

A lot of the band’s music is infused with the sounds of traditional Ethiopian music—that is what makes it so unique. On one night, an instrument you may see is the masinqo, a small violin with one string made from horse hair. Other times you may hear a washint, a bamboo flute; or a kebero, a slender, dual sided drum typically used in Orthodox Church services.

The whine of the masinqo cues “Ethiopian Ocean,” the title track of Feedel’s 2016 album. A vocalist follows, holding a trembling note above the melody. This is all an introduction for the horns, guitars, drums, and keyboard to bring the jazz sound.

When Feedel’s song “Amest Bet Gurage” comes on, the Ethiopians in the room shake their shoulders and push their pressed palms in front of their bodies, in a dance associated with the Gurage tribe of Ethiopia. The fast-paced rhythm is an instant signal to Ethiopians: Most will recognize Gurage music. The familiar melodies are a nostalgic sound.

“Guragigna was the original rock. In Guragigna, there is no slow music.” says Abebe Tegegne, a longtime friend of the band and self-proclaimed superfan sitting in the crowd at Bossa on a recent night.

Feedel Band plays a monthly residency at Bossa Bistro + Lounge.Selam Berhea / DCist

In addition to playing their hits at Bossa, Woldemichael is currently writing a new song.

“At the moment I’m working on my instrumental Ethiopian wedding song, which is a classical style for a string quartet project,” he says.” And I’m so excited about this project because the arrangement is a bit different than the usual Ethio-jazz style of music.”

Despite all their years in the industry, Feedel Band is still reaching musical milestones. The band played at Blues Alley in October, a cornerstone to D.C.’s jazz community. Blues Alley has featured acts like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughn, to name a few. Playing at Blues Alley was a big deal for Feedel, its members say, because many of the jazz greats they listened to in their youth had played there.

The band was also delighted at the turnout.

“The room was full of people,” says Habte. “I was so happy to play there.”

Feedel Band plays at Bossa Bistro + Lounge on the first Thursday of each month at 9:30 p.m. Doors open at 8 p.m.

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This article was posted in December, 2019