Eshee Havana: salsa Ethiopian style

(The Reporter Ethiopia) – Their music has been known to have a whole room of South American ambassadors dancing in delight.

Since forming four years ago, Eshee Havana have developed a loyal fan base in Addis Ababa with followers enthralled by the energy and dynamism of a unique band.

To judge by the joy on the Jams Addis dance floor last Friday night, it is impossible to sit still when their distinctive sound reverberates around the nightclub.

Thanks to an audio cocktail of congas, timbale, base guitar, masinqo, percussion, drums, piano, trombone, trumpet and flute, the nine men on stage serve up a triumphant noise.

As the only salsa band in Ethiopia and first Ethio-salsa band in the world, the group are certainly doing things their own way.

Jams, a trendy bar near Bole Bridge, is more known for the smooth grooves of reggae star Sidney Salmon. But for one night a week, there is an intruiging alternative.

Since Englishman Tim Dodd formed the band in 2010, they have taken the renowned music of Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York and given it their own Ethiopian twist.

Tim, an architect who has lived in Ethiopia for a decade, is an experienced congas player from the London Latin scene.

When he was joined Teferi Assefa, the original drummer, Edi Stevens, the flute player and percussionist, and base player Jo Frew, the foundations were laid for a successful collective.

“There was no benchmark,” said Edi, the only other Englishman alongside seven Ethiopians.

“We opened up playing in front of lots of very keen dancers and within two or three months we were well known.

“We got a spot in Bole playing on Saturday nights. It quickly became quite popular because there was a lot of enthusiasm within the band. It was a big band and all of the members had contacts so we managed to get gigs quite quickly.

“We got into writing and compiling. We did standard Cuban classics like Oye Como Va and Guantanamera. We had a few early compositions of our own and quite quickly we evolved into writing Ethiopian salsa tunes.”

These days their set includes Ethio-salsa versions of Derra, Belomi Benna and Nin Deema. For those who enjoy a different take on Western pop music, there are covers of Rihanna’s Where Have You Been? and Adele’s Rolling In The Deep.

This evening, the band also unveil their exclusive version of the Osibisa classic, Sunshine Day.

And you can almost feel the sunshine in the room as they belt out the words “Everybody do what you’re doing. Smile will bring a sunshine day.”

Feeding off the energy are fashionably dressed couples, spinning and grinning in a whirl of activity on the dance floor.

Women wear figure-hugging trousers or skirts while men are adorned in traditional salsa clothing, tight-fitting shirts, smart trousers and loafers.

They are wowed by the varying rhythms of the Latin songs, moving freely to salsa, merengue, Latin jazz, chachacha and tumbao.

As a keen salsa dancer, Danny Burger is one of the regulars.

Having moved from Switzerland to Addis to work for Heineken, he admitted to having “two left feet” before getting into the spirit of salsa.

Much like the music of Eshee Havana, his dancing feet have become more accomplished over time.

“I lived with a Dutch couple who were into salsa and they were like ‘Danny, do you want to come along’?” he said.

“I was like ‘I don’t know if dancing is really my thing’. I ended up going along and it was a lot of fun.

“All of a sudden these guys come up and start jamming. Things are a bit calm in the beginning – then it kicks off and people start dancing.”

Those from a Latin background have been particularly unable to resist the urge to get moving.

“Sometimes you have really great gigs when everything goes to plan,” Edi says.

“One of the most memorable gigs was at the Hilton Hotel for the Venezualan ambassador. All the South Ametican ambassadors who were invited started dancing around when they’d had a few drinks.

“We have played Acacia Jazz Festival a couple of times. We have played graduation parties at Bole Rock and every single person was dancing. We also played the Armenian restaurant, Aladdin.”

While performances have so far been exclusive to Addis, there is growing interest to put on shows in Kenya and Europe.

Tonight, Edi and Jo are leading the vocals, adding to the international flavor with lyrics in English, Spanish, Amharic, Guragigna and Afan Oromo.

At times during the band’s evolving membership, there has been a female influence too, with charismatic ladies dancing and singing at center stage.

On this occasion the attention belongs to Wendemeneh, whose hypnotic masinko playing seems to sum up the happy sound.

His friend Kiya, joyfully playing the timbale, is another respected musician, both having appeared regularly on prime-time television with the Seifu Show.

While the live scene in Addis is dominated by a host of talented jazz musicians, by doing their own thing, Eshee Havana have earned respect.

“Jazz is much more cool,” said Edi. “I think we do get jazz aficionados come and listen to us as well. We are an off-shoot of the jazz scene.”

Edi, who works as an NGO consultant, has an eclectic musical background and is currently operating in a separate hip hop collective.

Through Eshee Havana’s Ethio-salsa, he is proud to produce distinctive sounds.

“It’s a really raw and driving sound that’s completely different to any other music because it’s not driven by a drum beat,” he said.

“If you take rock music, hip hop or even house music, they have a thudding drive as a main anchor. Even jazz is drum and base guitar driven.

“With salsa, the rhythm is being built by so many different instruments. That is a consequence of its history. The African-based rhythms with a Caribbean or Latin melodic structure. It was born in New York as much as in Puerto Rico and Cuba. It does have a lot of American presence but it’s African in its core. We are adding an Ethiopian element, which is the pentatonic scale with five notes.

“The music is so different to anything else any of us have ever done before in terms of song structures, rhythms and melodies. It keeps everyone on their toes.”

It is not just the musicians on stage who have to be on their toes.

Thanks to the range of soaring choruses, horn lines and powerful percussion, a room full of fans every Friday night, can’t help but move their feet.

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