Known to many as “Little Ethiopia,” Washington, D.C., is the second largest Ethiopian city in the world. A number of master Ethiopian musicians live in the metro area, including several major stars from the golden age of Ethiojazz, one of Ethiopia’s defining musical sounds in the 20th century. Having played with these legends for years, the founding members of Feedel Band have stepped to the forefront of the District’s Ethiopian music scene, bringing the sounds of classic Ethiojazz to one of the most prominent immigrant communities in the nation’s capital and beyond. New York Times music critic Jon Pareles describes their sound as “hypnotic” and “timeless” with “distinctive minor modes and diminished harmonies, long zigzagging melodies and a brooding, smoldering groove.”
In the 1960s and ’70s Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, had a thriving music scene, and its soundtrack was the distinct, moody grooves of Ethiojazz, a marriage of traditional Ethiopian music with jazz, funk, soul, and Latin rhythms. Born in the city’s clubs and restaurants, the musicians combined the American funk sounds of artists like King Carter, Junior Walker, and Maceo Parker with Ethiopian rhythms, often moving in six-beat patterns rather than the 4/4 of funk, and traditional Ethiopian pentatonic modal melodies. In the genre’s heyday, the Walias Band was one of the most popular groups in Addis, and the first Ethiojazz ensemble to tour the U.S. when they came in the early 1980s. Several band members stayed in the States rather than return to Ethiopia’s oppressive Derg regime, settling in Washington, D.C., where celebrated Ethiopian musicians have continued to immigrate in subsequent years; major performers like Mahmoud Ahmed and Aster Aweke, as well as Hailu Mergia, a founding member of the Walias who remained in the area after the band’s U.S. tour, still reside in metro D.C. Beginning in 1998, the popular Ethiopiques series of reissues released by the Paris-based Buda Musique label introduced Ethiojazz to new worldwide audiences.
In 2010, a group of Ethiopian funk and jazz veterans who had settled in the D.C. area united to form the Feedel Band, taking their name from the Amharic word for “alphabet.” Saxophonist Moges Habte had helped to create the pioneering Walias Band. Araya Woldemichael (piano and organ) and Alemseged Kebede (bass) had performed in Addis jazz clubs, and toured internationally with famous Ethiopian performers, including singers Aweke and Ahmed.
The group came together to bring the big Ethiojazz sound into a city with plenty of Ethiopian music venues, but that, until Feedel formed, had mostly featured duo and trios. Feedel now enjoys a regular first-Thursday gig in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, at Bossa Bistro & Lounge, in addition to performing at various national festivals.
The band has made a tradition of inviting surprise musical guests to join them on stage, drawing on the many Ethiopian musicians living in the area. As Woldemichael explains, “The focus was to bring back the ’70s and ’80s era music—to provide people with group music again.” For this special Feedel performance, we are treated to a quartet of Araya Woldemichael (piano, organ), Alemseged Kebede (bass), Moges Hapte (tenor sax), and Kenneth Joseph (drums) whose swinging, high-energy sound belies its intimate size.