She whipped her neck in all directions, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until it looked like her afro was a separate entity, spinning in the opposite direction of her neck, taking off from her body. Slower moving, pulsating dancers flanked her on each side. She was a helicopter blade, a propulsion engine.
The crowd clapped a beat to keep up, but she was already gone. Her brown face and black curls blurred together and then BAM! One final clap and movement ceased, like she put on the brakes. She looked up with large brown eyes to the crowd, breathing heavily, but not exhausted. Ringlets stilled over her face. The performance of the Arsi Oromo tribal neck dance was over.
It was the grand finale of the evening’s show at Yod Abyssinia restaurant, a dinner theater where the emcee promised, from the start, that we would be taken on a “whistle-stop” tour of the tribes of Ethiopia through dance and song. All aboard.
My local guide Kaleb and I had just finished a filling dinner of the traditional Ethiopian injera, an airy crepe made with indigenous wheat. This floppy flatbread served as plate and fork for about twenty different types of available sauces and curries made with chickpeas, lentils, spinach, lamb, beef, and chicken. We filled up our plates with a sampling, sat down at the low, circular table called a mesob, and dug in with our hands, pinching the spongey bread with one type of sauce. We washed the spicy meal down with St. George’s beer, a cool relief to the heat of the food.
Five musicians played traditional songs that were a mix of spiritual devotion and earthly love in topic. A man played the massinko, a one stringed instrument made of wood and horse hair (the one string) that increases in volume by adding frankinsense to that singular string. Two men played versions of a bass and lead guitar. By versions, I mean there were five strings over a body, but the body was square and the fretboard was short. Percussion was on a kebero drum and melody on a flute, the washint.
The restaurant was not full when we started, but the cushioned stools that were around each mesob filled up fast with non-Ethiopians. Kaleb and I started a game of “guess the nationality.” Small group tours with cotton-clad backpackers, most likely from Europe, crowded around several tables. African, Indian, Chinese, and Arabic business men in suits sat knee to knee. A few Chinese couples took pictures on large DSLR cameras the entire night. A group of several Persian families took up with entire front row, scarved women on one side, kids in the middle, and men on the other.
Yod Abyssinia is a tourist place meant to show Ethiopian culture to foreigners, but there were Ethiopians present – mostly young. Couples wove through the crowd – fitted shirts and tight jeans on the men and cotton mini skirts and form-fitting blouses on the women. Hair had been un-kinked, stubble manicured. It was a night out. The audience was the definition of what Ethiopians called themselves – Habesha, a hybrid. A mix of African and Arabic.
I had arrived in the morning to Addis Ababa after two weeks in Tuscany, Italy and Sardinia. Italy was luxurious, always pleasing on the eye, always making sure I had enough food and wine. A caretaking aunt. Ethiopia welcomed me, but with a feeling. It started when I walked out of the airport and saw the streams of people on the sidewalk pulsing like blood through veins. I felt like I could seep right in and flow. Ethiopia was a cult leader. It said, join us, we are humanity.
That feeling was short-lived on my first day – there for the car ride from the airport to the hotel. My hotel for two nights was the Sheraton Addis Ababa, the most luxurious hotel in the city.* Like heads of state luxurious. The car left the concrete and dirt roads, the tin shops, the glass malls, the vegetable sellers, the mobile kiosks, and embassies and entered the garden of eden, a place where Empress Menelik had left her northern palace on Mount Entoto to find warmer weather and hot springs to the south.
The Sheraton is a palace, accessible through armed-guard gates and a metal detector. We were greeted at a private desk and welcomed at every turn by uniformed men and women who wanted me to have a wonderful stay. I walked through yellow marble hallways to my fruit-basketed, Hermes-toiletried room, looked out on the fountains and terraces. A quote from my recently completed book “Gone Girl” popped into my head, “This sh*t is bespoke!”
My itinerary mentioned that I would have the evening to myself, but I only needed the day to recover from my red-eye flight into Addis Ababa. I asked Kaleb if we could venture out for a “true Ethiopian evening” thinking he would take me to a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant with surly waiters, flourescent lights, plastic chairs, and the most delicious food that I could brag about later (as in I had the most amazing dinner in Addis…) Yod Abyssinia’s whistlestop tour was what he had in mind, and it was definitely more educational and entertaining.
In addition to five musicians, there were six dancers and three singers. All were dressed in different tribal costumes for each act and each act was a song and dance, or sometimes just a song. Our “tour” through the culture reflected different Oromo tribes of the south and Tana tribes of the north. The dancers pulsated to different rhythms, but always with a strong drum beat. They danced and sang to an eating and drinking crowd where waiters and hostesses wove through tables, stopping to pour mej, the traditional honey wine only found at Emperor Salessie’s banquets prior to the revolution.
The evening was an Ethiopian banquet, a hybrid dinner theater that was a tour of cultures on stage and off. Groups of visitors and locals all crowded around small tables, leaned in, and ate with their hands, knee to knee, stomping to the beat.
*Full disclosure: My trip is a “familiarization trip” that I am taking on behalf of my employer GeoEx, a high-end, adventure travel company. I am on a customized tour and experiencing the country through hotels, food, and activities as our guests would. These views on the blog are my own.