Azmari entertainment can be fostered as a tourist attraction in Ethiopia, writes Ambessaw Assegued ([email protected]).
Aba Zafu, the court jester of Emperor Haile Selassie, entertains the nobility and high court officials at the Genete Leul Palace, which the Emperor later donates to establish the Haile Selassie University, subsequently renamed Addis Abeba University.
Aba Zafu, despite his edifying name, is an Ateliosis dwarf who presents himself immaculately dressed in white traditional garb, in and out of court. Within the palace, he entertains the Emperor and high officials with humorous antics and gossip during banquets and gatherings. Outside the palace, especially when the Emperor is out of town, he makes the rounds of the homes of the nobility where he is treated with much attention and honour, often delighting the households with his visits, causing a small commotion not to miss his pranks.
He entertains without jokes, singing, dancing or frolicking, unlike the Azmari, the poet-musicians of the northern highlands, who entertains with the “equivocal use of the language which only attentive listeners could truly understand,” as Ebrahim Damtew put it in his masterful article about the ‘Azmarisof Gonder.’
Aba Zafu, the erudite and affluent court jester is as far removed from the traditional Azmariwho is held in low regard during the Imperial Era. In contrast, the royal jester commands unbound respect and deference in court circles and among flatterers who fear his witty tongue, sharp ears, status and his standing so close to the seat of power.
One of the households Aba Zafu frequents is that of Weizero Belete, the first cousin of the Emperor, where the Tejand feast in her Afincho Ber house are considered one of the best in the capital. She is his favourite patron and the very astute and traditionally educated jester never loses sight of the influence her patronage brings him in the corridors of power.
To the delight of the matriarch’s household, Aba Zafu often holds court in the private chambers of his patron, poking fun at the courtiers and supplicants who eagerly vie for the Emperor’s favours in the palace corridors.
Once, Aba Zafu is offered Tejat Belete’s house in a small tumbler by a petit serving maid who seems to pour the mead grudgingly. The jester empties the content in one gulp, holds the tumbler aloft and says – mocking both the size of the glass and the maid – ‘batanshi qonjo neshi’: “if not for your small size, you would have been a beauty.”
After the Emperor moved to his new Jubilee Palace on Menelik Road, the culture of court entertainment was gradually abandoned and Aba Zafu permanently attaches himself to Belete’s household where he continues to dispense his wit, humour and subtle satire – all done with measured tones and economy to keep the play fresh and devoid of tediousness.
Much has changed in the intervening years since the fall of the empire where the tradition of the court jester has vanished, and the fortunes of the Azmarihave persisted, even though it has gone through the ebbs and flows of time. AzmariBets, traditional entertainment houses, still grace our capital – if not in as great a number as during the rise of the Dergue regime and the ascendancy of EPRDF.
The Azmariis still relevant today as an entertainer and poet-musician in the best of tradition.
There is a popular AzmariBetin Adama’s Arada section, the booming town in the heart of the Rift Valley, where mostly young professional men and women, and many from the diaspora, seem to frequent the nightly entertainment.
There, a troupe of dancers led by a male Azmaridelivers the songs solo with the accompaniment of a masinko, a single-stringed bowed viola. He is escorted by a female singer who complements the songs with hand clapping and dancing.
It is a rowdy crowd that gathers in the small narrow bar, where beer and whisky flow freely, and the diaspora seem to bask in the limelight of the special attention thrown at them by the musicians.
The song repertoire of the Azmariconsists of traditional tunes of entertaining lyrics and, witty poems that mostly poke fun at the guests and goad the patrons to reach for their wallets and tip the musicians. The poetry at this Azmari Betin Adama, as is the case in other urban centres like Bahir Dar and Gonder, are typically crass, crude and contrived. They are constructed for the sole purpose of spurring along the guests to shower the musicians with cash rewards.
But the entertainment is not without its flash of genius, where improvised lyrics and suggestive poetry, whose words have double meanings of jest; and jovial foolery playfully wow the customers to tip. The entertainers surround a table of merry revellers and poke fun at the appearance of one or shame another for the choice of company one keeps in improvised poetry. This usually elicits jocularity, laughter, approval and encouragements by the other clients, which draws more cash to the musicians.
The Azmari’srole in this wood-panel tavern is to entertain the guests, the singer often reciting poems given to him by some of the customers. When the female escort comes in to relieve the male Azmari, she croons the familiar melodies in a highly lyrical song whose refrains her audience know by heart, and they respond to her with longing and yearning.
The traditional Azmariperformances, unique to Ethiopia in almost all aspect of its delivery, lyrical form, poetry and interplay must be considered a cultural treasures. If properly cultivated and nurtured, the Azmaritradition can play a great role in attracting tourists to this exceptional entertainment form that may even rival Karaoke. Azmarientertainment can be fostered as a tourist attraction in Ethiopia, a cultural entertainment where visitors can count AzmariBetsas a pleasant addition to their sightseeing itineraries.