Art Review

Melaku Belay – an acclaimed traditional dancer


A young and aspiring Ethiopian traditional dancer who believes “mistakes are beautiful”  

Zela Gayel




Many refer to Melaku Belay as one of Ethiopia’s most famous traditional dancers. They are not wrong. The 36 year old who speaks modestly about his wealth of experience has now formed a traditional band named Ethio-color. The troupe has returned to Ethiopia from a successful tour in Spain in July 2012.  Melaku performs with the band at Fendika, a local bar, once in a fortnight on Fridays. The small place, which is located off Zewditu Street, is packed with people who want to see the performance and without a doubt is a top choice for Addis Ababa’s traditional dance and musical entertainment.

Melaku is not only an acclaimed dancer but has been manager of Fendika for the past four years, and it remains one of Addis Ababa’s most popular azmari bets, literary translated “House of the Azmari” and is a place where people go to enjoy traditional Ethiopian music.

As a former street child, Melaku came up with an innovative idea to turn Fendika into a house of both creative and social transformation. He sends his young Fendika dancers to school, opens saving accounts for them and provides them with accommodation.

Melaku was refugee in Sudan during the Derg Regime. His family was dispersed and he ended up as an orphan and street kid in Addis Ababa. To survive he danced for tips at Fendika music club, where he asked if he could sleep on the floor.

In an interview with this magazine, Melaku says his experiences as a child and his urge for dancing were the prides he held onto. “Dance is everywhere in Ethiopia. It is our language, the way we live. All our movements have meaning,” he says.

This is perhaps how his performance of “Ahun” came about 20 years later, in 2011. With his innate ability to relate traditional dance to the environment of everyday living, Melaku performed live in Merkato, a big open market here in Addis Ababa, an experimental piece entitled “Ahun”. The idiom “Ahun” (“Now”) is given to signify the spontaneous moment for the performance and with a view of capturing Merkato’s old architectural landscape.  Melaku was able to extract diverse Ethiopian rhythms that came out of the soundscape of the natural working process of skillful youngsters who transformed thousands of waste barrels into vital equipment with only a few hand tools.

Building bridges between tradition and modernity is fundamental for Melaku. Yet, the potential of Ethiopian dance is not limited to the relationship between Ethiopia and the world. His mission is as much personal and domestic as it is global. “Traditional dance and music of Ethiopia is the future. It is our identity. My dance is about protecting my culture,” he said.  Melaku, who now masters more than 30 different Ethiopian dances, explains how he often travels to the Ethiopian countryside to find the traditional and forgotten dancers – musicians performing at wedding ceremonies and other parties. He then brings them to Addis and invites them to perform together with the Ethio-color band at Fendika, where the music and dance from different regions and different eras in history are mixed and a fusion of tradition and modernity created. In his dance there is no wrong or right, as Melaku believes that “…mistakes are beautiful.” Melaku also said that “dance is such an important part of tradition, history and culture; it is something that should be valued and protected for the sake of future generations and their history”.

Melaku and the Ethio-Color band will resume another tour to the U.S.A and to Europe from November to December 2012.

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