Tiruedel Zenebe is the star of Duka, an azmari bet in Kasanchis. At around 12:00am, once the crowd and drum player have warmed and loosened up, she takes her place in front of three singers, and in high heels with swaying hips, she begins to dance.
Her three-quarter length white dress with pink trimming shakes to the overpowering rhythm of the drum. Tossing her straight blonde dyed hair, she starts singing in a high but husky voice. The people remember to clap their hands to the drums, while failing to take their eyes off the performer.
Duka is packed with people this Thursday evening. As they keep increasing in number, the crowd becomes more animated, energising the performers who, in turn, make the crowd’s shoulders itch to move.
Tiruedel, 23, has been performing as an azmari for seven years. Her sister, Sintayu “Mimi” Zenebe (28), is the owner of Duka. She opened it three years ago after having had another traditional club before.
Like her sister, Mimi is also an azmari, a traditional singer and dancer. She started singing at home with her brother when she was 10 years old.
“Being an azmari means to appreciate something and to describe it through singing,” Mimi explained. “Azmaris never stop performing, unless they develop a problem with their voice. You can perform until you die.”
Mimi then struts her stuff, which means singing a traditional song, her preferred activity, and goes around the club, shaking it, encouraging patrons to dance, too. She used to be the singer of a band called Dub Colossus, with whom she toured internationally and which comprised a masinko, guitars, saxophone, trumpet, and piano. They recorded an album called, “In a Town Called Addis.” Now, the club features only a traditional band.
The performers, totalling 15, include two drummers, four masinkos, five female singers, and four dancers (two male and two female) who take turns performing, mostly solo, but sometimes together. The drummer always plays alone, and even uses the decorations on the wall behind his seat for percussion.
It is a fulltime job, with performers working seven days a week. They start at around 10:00pm and carry on until late, sometimes even four or five o’clock in the morning, if it is full of people, like on Fridays and Saturdays, usually their busiest days, according to Mimi.
Usually, it also starts to fill up after 10:00pm, and, the busier it gets, the more fun one is likely to have. Not only are there more people to dance with, there are also more people to make fun of, mostly amid the loud but good-natured laughter of other clients, who are bound to get their turn to be teased.
In the beginning of the evening there is only one other couple sitting in the corner looking a little bored.
“Why do you look bored? / If you do not like the song, we can change it. / Why are you sleeping? / Play, have fun,” the masinko player teases.
“We make the jokes up on the spot,” said Mimi. “Sometimes we tease the crowd. Other times two performers will joke with each other.”
Much of the joking has double meanings with sexual undertones. The performers also sing about animals and cities like Bahir Dar, Gojam, and Bati, a place in Wollo, Amhara Regional State. Amhara iskista is faster than the Tigrayan version and is illustrated when a man, dressed in shorts and a shirt with many buttons and a green sash tied around his waist, starts dancing with a lady in a white dress. His shoulders move superfast.
The dancers move around the restaurant, inviting people to dance with them, making “sssss” and “ghughu” noises as they go.
At one point, the lady dancer goes down on one knee, only to be teased to “grow,” seeing that she is so short, by the masinko player. There are no female masinko players at the club.
Eritbu “Solomon” Agegnehu, 25, has been playing since he was 12 years old. His father taught him the finger positions, which are key to playing the instrument, he said.
“I like singing slow love music. Most of the customers like it when I do that and request songs from me.”
Customers often show their appreciation for the performers by sticking money to their foreheads, and popular azmaris can earn a decent amount on a busy night. The house usually does not charge an entrance fee, but one bottle of beer will set a guest back 20 Br.
Eventually, coffee ceremony is performed in the corner by the performers who are dressed in traditional clothes, mostly white dresses, but since it is cold they wear modern jackets or jerseys over them.
They sit in the corner and take turns making the coffee and serving people St George beer in bottles. The girls also form a choir as background music to the individual singing and alternate singing or dancing solo.
“I love traditional clothes,” Mimi said. “I have about 16 different dresses.”
The decor of Duka, which is named after the wooden stool, is also traditional. The ceiling is decorated with squares of tiles and animal skins, and woven injera baskets serve as tables, while the stools are made from wood. Traditional woven mats line the walls, and the cushions on the seats are made from traditional fabric. On the walls hang goatskin-covered traditional lunchboxes from Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara.
By 10:30pm there are around 20 people and the “choir” gets up and moves to make room for the increasing customers to sit. Three old ladies arrive, fitted out in their traditional best, one with a short, blood red hairstyle. She treats the crowd to a dance with a machine gun prop.
The place continues to fill with people. By 11:30pm there are around 30, who are all up and dancing, until Tiruedel takes to the floor, leaving the patrons in wonder.