By the second half of Feedel Band’s gig at Bossa in January, you could tell the group had struck a chord with the audience. It was past 11 p.m. on a cold Thursday night, yet nobody was leaving. Glasses continued to clink and it was a struggle to find an open seat — not exactly a small feat for a work night.
The band, which takes heavy inspiration from the sounds of Ethiopian jazz during the 1960s and ’70s, a style that some of its members had a formative role in developing, managed to summon the feel of a geographically distant time and place, but also a lost moment that hit closer to home. There was something about Feedel Band’s set that made Adams Morgan feel a little more like its old self.
Stylistically speaking, there’s not much out there like Ethiopian jazz. The songs are a moody hybrid of classic R&B grooves and harmonies built atop distinctive minor-key Ethiopian scales. It’s the kind of music that has become rare in the post-Internet everybody-knows-about-everything world — a hybrid born of cultural exchange but nursed and enhanced by isolation. These could be the backing tracks for James Brown in a bizarro reality in which Brown was reserved and moody rather than explosive and effusive.
Over the last decade, Western audiences have become more aware of the Ethiopian jazz and pop music of the ’60s and ’70s, including such artists as singer Mahmoud Ahmed or jazz musician Mulatu Astatke, who were widely popular in their home country and among expats, but not as well-known abroad. Word eventually got out via compilation records such as the Ethiopiques CD series, classic album reissues and international tours.
While the Washington area has a large Ethiopian community, and many clubs and restaurants continue to host live performers, it isn’t easy to find bands playing locally in the style that these reissues celebrate. Venues tend to book small ensembles — usually duos or trios — that work with a drum machine, which keeps costs (and sound levels) low. The rhythms and harmonies are there, but the vibe isn’t quite the same.
Formed five years ago, Feedel Band — “feedel” means “alphabet” in Amharic — was an attempt to bring the larger group sound back to the District. The talent was already here, after all.
“We had been playing the Washington area for several years — since ’94 or ’95 — under different names. That’s how we got to know each other,” says Araya Woldemichael, who plays keyboard with the group. “We would play and travel for jazz festivals around the world, but that’s just backing up singers. So we came up with this idea and started doing this instead.”
The septet — which performs the first Thursday of each month at Bossa — is comprised of veteran touring musicians, a few of whom played on some of the classic recordings during the ’70s.
“The focus was to bring back the ’70s and ’80s era music — to provide people with group music again,” Woldmichael says. “I have a chance to make more money doing a one-man band just using Yamaha keyboard, but I’ve been playing music all my life; I don’t want to go back to that situation.”
Raised in Ethiopia, Woldmichael studied music in Moscow and ultimately landed in Atlanta, where he began playing music at Ethiopian restaurants. Through that gig, he made connections and was hired as a member of the touring band for singer Aster Aweke. In 1995, he relocated to Washington.
The rest of Feedel’s members have similar résumés: a decade or more spent supporting popular Ethiopian and Eritrean singers in touring ensembles. Some have histories that go a bit deeper, though. Saxophone player Moges Habte, for instance, played in the revered Wallias Band and appears on a number of songs featured on “Ethiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz and Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974,” one of the most influential collections within the series.
Initially, the band performed a mix of classic Ethiopian standards and smooth-sounding modern jazz, but in the past couple of years, they’ve come to concentrate more fully on the former, playing well-loved old tunes and originals written in a style that echoes the music of that era. It’s a labor of love, but also a pretty sound business plan.
In 2013, D.C.-based keyboardist Hailu Mergia, who was also a member of Wallias Band, had something of an unlikely national resurgence when a cassette of accordion and synthesizer music that he recorded during the ’80s, “Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument,” was reissued by the label Awesome Tapes From Africa. Mergia, who played his last show in 1991 and who has driven a cab for two decades, was suddenly getting booked to perform at international music festivals.
That element of rediscovery is something Feedel Band has tried to tie into its performances at Bossa. Each month, the group invites an unannounced guest to sit in, often musicians like saxophonist Tesfa Mariam Kidane or bassist Giovanni Rico (formerly of Ibex and Roha Band), who have storied histories but do not perform in public quite as regularly.
“A lot of Ethiopian musicians, they came here a long time ago,” Woldemichael says. “They’re busy with children, busy with life, and they never get a chance to perform places. So what we did, we said, ‘Let’s make them the star every month and bring one person at a time.’”
Most are willing to oblige, even if they’re sometimes a little rusty. “Some say, ‘I’m out of practice, give me two or three months,’” Woldemichael says. “We want to give them hope. They were one time very popular in Ethiopia, but when they moved here they have to survive. Being a musician is hard — it goes up and down and it’s hard to maintain. One of the reasons we’re doing this is that we want to give them a chance.”
Leitko is a freelance writer.
First Thursday of the month at Bossa Bistro and Lounge.
Next show is April 2 at 10 p.m.
2463 18th St. NW. 202-667-0088. www.bossadc.com. $10.