the ex and getatchew mekurya

The Ex & Getatchew Mekurya (Mekuria) play Aug. 18, 2008, at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park. All rights reserved by Robert Loerzel.

August, 2008

Logan Square Auditorium used to be a banquet hall. Strictly for rental. Bodas. Quinceañeras. Graduations. Etc. Old auditorium. On the second floor of grey stone buildings that house restaurants – the fancy Lula, the less fancy Johnny’s Grill where pigeons are rumored to shit on fries cooling outside the alley door.

There’s no permanent stage at the Logan Square Auditorium. It’s constructed as if for an outdoor event. A high school graduation. A three foot platform raised on metal scaffolding poles. Black curtains hide the metal structural frame. Lights are suspended on poles and a few are mounted in the small balcony that’s opposite the stage. PA monitors. Sound guy. Small diaphragm condenser microphones suspended from the balcony.

Slowly people start filing in. Milling about. Sitting on the floor against the walls. High school dance vibe. Summer scenesters on display. Warm. Humid. A fan circulates air. Plastic beer cups. A few groups of stylish Ethiopians. At first there are only a few, but by the time the Ex and Getatchew start playing, there is a good number of them mixed in the crowd. The majority of them are middle aged or older.

Just before the show begins, Getatchew is in the temporary green room. He’s wearing a t-shirt and dress pants. A swell of Ethiopians in front of him. He shakes hands. Kisses on the cheek. Everyone looks happy. The people. Him. Happy to be listening. Happy to be performing. Happy to be there that night. To share.

The music starts. A tight groove. Clarinet and brass augment the main band – two guitars, drums and vox. Still noisy, but following Ethiopian chord style. It’s instrumental. They play for a few minutes, building the groove, working the crowd. We’re all pressed forward. H, J and I up front against the stage. The press of people behind us. Surrounded by Ethiopian adults, older than us, in their forties, fifties, sixties. They are way into it.

Getatchew appears from the side. Joins in the groove and the crowd ignites. Everyone’s into it. He plays and plays. Thick distinct warm tone on his saxophone.

During the second song, the older Ethiopian woman pushes past me to stand inches from Getatchew’s sax. He sees her and plays to her. She’s ecstatic. In awe. Hand on heart. Hands in the air. Dancing. She looks away. Can’t believe she’s there. Seeing him play. Getachew backs away from the edge of the stage, rejoins the band. The woman slips back to the rest of her friends.

The band continues to play.

A slower song. More skronky. Hypnotic, mellow and out. Still based on a groove. The reeds and brass have a chance to stretch out, go outside and float above the groove. The brass goes out first. Trombone, trumpet and saxophone playing by feel. What sounds good. Atonal at times. It’s sounding good. Getatchew takes a turn. Playing more out droney. Slow. Patient. Then comes the clarinet, which starts slow and keeps building in intensity, building with circular breathing – one long continuous breath that lasts minutes; minutes go by and he’s fluttering and blowing – over-blowing the upper register, trilling his tongue to create a bird call sound, getting multiple tones at the same time. The crowd reacts to the build, the crescendo, the intensity, I’m not breathing, the people are cheering. The band continues a lock groove while this French looking clarinet player blows and blows. It’s not fast. The tempo is still fairly slow. But, good god, it’s blowing everyone away. Getatchew fans the clarinetist, Xavier Charles, with a towel, nods in appreciation. After a few minutes the solo ends, the clarinet rejoins the groove, the song continues.

After 45 minutes, Getatchew steps off the stage, disappears into the temporary green room that consists of a few free-standing panels just off of stage right. At the end of the song, when it’s quiet, he reappears in an amazing lion headdress that flows across his shoulders onto his chest and back and begins to play. The crowd cheers. Ululating throat calls from the crowd. He calls out in Amharic and the Ethiopians respond. The woman brushes by and is in front of me, right up front again. Dancing. Dancing. Call and response. This excitement from the whole crowd, but particularly the Ethiopians. It roars across the room. Waves of it. Feel it. So much more than the usual excitement of a show. She has tears on her face. “Deep down, deep down.” She says. She’s not the only one with tears. There’s all this emotion in the room. Hard not to be affected by it. H hugs her.

A dancer appears. A younger guy dressed in what seems to be a traditional outfit. White pants, white shirt, fitted. Not tight, not loose. A colorful belt. He’s barefoot. And he begins dancing. And he’s amazing. With moves like a break dancer – popping, locking, freezing but then loosening immediately into a flow of limbs. Clapping. Wielding a staff. A sword. Traditional dances. The older woman in front of me starts dancing – hands on swaying hips. Others in the audience dancing the same dance as the dancer. They know the steps. The moves. They cheer. Call and response. Smiles on faces. Smiles. Happiness. Waves of happiness. Undeniable. Palpable. Community. Expatriates living in a new country. An overwhelming reminder of home, of childhood, of growing up, of living. Nostalgia. Homesick. Bittersweet. Joy.

The next day at a free show in Millennium Park the dancer will dance and a tiny ancient Ethiopian man in a suit will dance get up, walk to the stage and dance as best he can the same dance that the young man on stage is doing. The young dancer will come over to the old man and dance with him. Another connection. A dance from a lifetime ago.

My interest in and respect for Ethiopian music grows after this show. All these older people dancing and cheering the skronkiest, noisiest parts of the songs. The guitars screaming and chiming sounding nothing like guitars, but like waves of lurching heaviness. The older Ethiopians cheer and dance. What is this music where this is normal and traditional? I’m blown away.

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