As more Ethiopians immigrate to the US, their culture blooms while retaining its unique identity.
Modest-sized Ethiopian-American enclaves quietly tuck themselves into burgeoning New Jersey cities. Nonetheless, their presence is quite noticeable.
Kebron Aklilu, a Rutgers student of Ethiopian descent notes that “there isn’t many [Ethiopians] in Jersey compared to D.C., Maryland, Toronto, Texas and LA.”
Where size escapes the group of East African descendants in Dirty Jersey, their culinary flavors and traditions make up for it. From New Brunswick to Montclair, restaurants, cultural shops and cultural production mark their territory, loudly.
Situated between the Middle-East, the Mediterranean, and Sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is in a part of the world considered one of the most significant cradles of religious tradition, trade and architecture. An area highlighted for ornate stone structures in Addis Ababa, practicing the oldest form of Christianity and evidences of antiquated Judaic practices, Ethiopia’s cuisine marks these complex intersections.
Ethiopian food is soulful and powerful, relying on an intricate pairing of robust spices and powerful seasonings to give a kick to the unique plates. While many dishes use meats such as chicken, beef and lamb, there is a wide selection of vegetarian recipes in Ethiopian cuisine. These include lentil-filled fried sambusas, mesir wat (slow cooked red lentil stew), a type of spicy collard green fare called gomen and it’s sister dish, tikil gomen, a well-seasoned mixture of cabbage and potatoes.
“[Ethiopia] is a beautiful country with good food,” says Tsigereda, manager of Dashen Ethiopian Cuisine, an Ethiopian-owned restaurant that has garnered attention in the city of New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Doro wot is one popular dish according to Tsigereda. It consists of chicken simmered in berbere sauce, mixed with sauteed vegetables, flavored with nit’ir qibe and served with a hard-boiled egg on the side.
Coffee as old as the pyramids ቡና
Ethiopian coffee remains a cultural force. Being the homeland of coffee, vendors such as Starbucks and others have taken to featuring Ethiopian brews. However, there is little authenticity involved in this process as Ethiopia has its own culture of coffee tasting.
Tsigereda is quick to remind guests that “coffee originally comes from Ethiopia” and the country’s ancient history involves a complex coffee ceremony.
Dashen employees will perform the Ethiopian coffee ceremony for guests. The ceremony involves the fragrant smell of burnt incense and multiple small cups set on a table for guests. The coffee beans are ground, freshly brewed and poured into the cups. All in that particular order.
Named one of the “hottest restaurants” by NJ.com, Dasheen has seen a boom patronage. The small restaurant is located on Albany Street, sandwiched between two larger European restaurants, Old Man Rafferty’s (Irish) and Due Mari (Italian).
Resilience and Culture የመቋቋም
New Brunswick has been the target of gentrification with ever-expanding construction projects consisting of high rise office buildings and upscale apartments. Yet, Dashen remains resilient in achieving success as a Black-owned business.
Part of this determination is linked to Ethiopia’s backbone. Located in the Horn of Africa, the country still celebrates a historical feat that determined its independence. Out of the 50-plus African countries, Ethiopia is the only nation to have successfully fought off European colonial powers. First, at the turn of the twentieth century. Then, in a highly publicized war with Italy in the late 1930s.
The media frenzy centered on the African country’s resistance to the imposition of a European superpower, leaving an indelible mark on the world.
At the same time, the mobilization of country-folk in the Italo-Ethiopian wars showed an Ethiopian solidarity that travels within its Diaspora.As seen in the interior of the Dasheen. Which presents strong Ethiopian identity and evokes the cultures of Amhara, Tigray and Oromo. The intention, as Tsigereda aptly puts is that, “we are one.”
Ethiopian Jazz ጃዝ
Ethio-Jazz is a musical form birthed from traditional folk sounds syncretized with American-born jazz: the innovative and improvisational genre that originated from African-American musicians.
Ethio-jazz and vocal music provides the ambiance while the aromatic list of spices serves as both a fragrance and a mental appetizer for the soulful food awaiting diners. The walls are adorned with plaques of Ge’ez script and seminal artwork by famed Ethiopian artist Afewerk Tekle.
As noted earlier, Dashen has a soundtrack of Ethiopian tunes setting the atmosphere for guests to enjoy a taste of the African East.
“Ethiopian music is a way of life” says Gili Yalo, an Ethiopian-Israeli musician. Yalo recently released his self-titled solo album and is in talks for a possible collaboration with American soul artist Leon Bridges.
There is a connection between Ethiopian music and food since, according to Yalo, in Ethiopia and among the Ethiopian-Israeli community, there are many musicians on the streets, in dining areas and coffeehouses.
Parallel to how African-American music can be tied to cooking and celebrations. Spirituals and folk songs are sung in slave kitchens to jazz music being birthed from the celebrations at Congo Square in New Orleans.
Éthiopiques and scales
There are thousands of years of history behind Ethiopian music. The country holds many layers of diversity as exhibited by the hundreds of ethnic groups and a population exceeding 100 million. This makes Ethiopian music heterogenous in its styles, significance and history.
With a diversity of languages, Aklilu states that Amharic is the most popular language for Ethiopian musicians. However, music from the Northern parts of Ethiopia that border Eritrea, is sung in Tigrinya.
Regardless of the language, Ethio-jazz music has gained a small but growing following in the US and the growing Ethiopian-American population has helped that diffusion.
Ethio-jazz utilizes traditional Ethiopian instruments such as the masenqo, the krar and the begena. All of which are stringed instruments similar to the violin, the harp and the lyre respectively. The begena is particularly sacred as it was “used by King David” according to Yalo.
Yalo notes that one of the distinct elements of Ethio-jazz is that while the lyrics can evoke sadness, still the “groove is very danceable.” Adding that there are “five notes” (a pentatonic model) in the music, and that the Geez scale system also “has a lot of minor scales”.
“Ethiopian (Geez) scales are unique from other African scales,” says Nadav Paled, guitarist and co-founder of the Anbessa Orchestra, a NYC-based Ethio-jazz band. Paled was under the tutelage of Abatte Barihun, a well-known Ethiopian-Israeli saxophonist.
Musicians and bands such as Anbessa Orchestra, Gili Yalo, Akalé Wubé, uKanDanZ and Black Flower are some musicians who are working to continue the legacy of Ethio-jazz and recapture the magic of the 1960s and ‘70s movement.
Éthiopiques, or as Yalo states “the bible of Ethio-jazz.” The collection of compact disc releases, compiled of many legendary artists from the 1960s and 1970s, has also served as an introduction to the genre. This collection is available on Spotify and features famous international Ethiopian-jazz artists such as Hailu Mergia and Mulatu Astatke.
More over, Ethiopian music has grown more accessible in the U.S. mainly through the popularity of streaming services.
“I listen to a lot of Teddy Afro, Michael Belayneh, and Elsa Kidane,” Aklilu says. “I usually just listen to the playlist Spotify has on Ethiopian songs.”
In New York, Paled notes that he sees “a growing number of bands playing this music” and even DJs have taken a liking to using Ethiopian beats in their sets.
Defying Stereotypes ስታንዲዮይፕስ
In the Western gaze, Ethiopia has been disserviced with the constant images of starving children, abject poverty and bloody wars. However, the other lens shows a country with an ancient and richly storied history.
From the wealthy Axum Empire and its history of trade with Ancient Egypt, to its early adoption of Christianity prior to Constantine’s Rome, and its skirmish against Italy’s failed invasion of Ethiopia the nation found success in fighting off Western imperialism. Yalo wisely states, “Ethiopians are proud people.”
The country has been a symbol of hope for Black Civil Rights activists, with the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, remaining deified by the Jamaican Rastafarian movement.
Even in U.S. cities where gentrification is looming and there are pressures of westernization due to a cultural hegemony, the Ethiopian diaspora are still maintaining their distinctinction, sharing it with Americans through food and music.
Ethiopian food is soulful and powerful, relying on an intricate pairing of robust spices and powerful seasonings to give a kick to the unique plates.
Like the cuisine, the music creates a delicious melody of beautiful sounds that birthed a revival movement in Addis Adda and a growing following in the West.
Yalo who experiments in different genres sees a bright future for Ethiopian musicians in the United States, which is already a melting pot of different cultures.
“My dream is to mix my culture with this (American) music,” Yalo says.