Andy McLean was an early writer for Test Pressing way back when he was living in Jamaica and out exploring the world of music happening around him. He’s now in Africa and back posting news and noise from over there.
Ethiopia has history. Home of ‘Lucy’, our 3.2 million year old ancestor (apparently named after ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ which was playing on a cassette tape round the campfire on the night her skeleton was unearthed…). Home of King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Emperor Menelik and His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God. Home of the coffee bean. The only African country not to have been colonised; and fiercely proud of it. It has suffered famine and war but is now one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.
Culture is all around you in Ethiopia: distinctive music, food, art and religion. These come together in January each year at the Ethiopian Orthodox festival of Timket (meaning ‘epiphany’) a celebration of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. It’s an amazing spectacle that you don’t have to be religious to be captivated by. I was working on a project in Ethiopia a couple of years ago and was curious to see this festival that I heard people talking about.
In the early hours of the morning, priests carrying Tabots – models of the Ark of the Covenant – wrapped ornately on their heads process to nearby streams or pools to bless the water and re-enact the baptism. They’re accompanied by drummers and singers who conduct an all-night vigil. By the time I arrived at the dusty field in the middle of Addis Ababa in the morning it was packed with thousands of people. Colourful umbrellas bobbed above the sea of white scarfs worn by the women, solemn old priests contemplated the significance of the occasion holding huge ornate crosses, younger priests looked very pleased with their robes, teenagers flirted shamelessly, kids had huge smiles, hustlers performed magic tricks. Everything was going on at once – groups of people chanting, women bowed down in prayer, children singing, and young men waving sticks and performing a warrior-like dance.
Then around midday a signal was given and the throng began to organise themselves into procession lines which headed out of the park in different directions back to their churches where the Tabots would be laid back to rest. I followed one line back towards town through streets laid with red carpets to greet the procession and thronged with people. Women threw long grass onto the carpet in front of the advancing procession to symbolise the reeds in the river Jordan. Then after the priests had passed, the women would sweep off the grass and a team of young guys would roll up the carpet and run through the crowd, overtaking the priests, to the front of the procession where it would be rolled out again. Ceremony on a loop. Two extravagantly-dressed men rode past on horse-back and then a horse-drawn carriage appeared with a young couple inside it. Symbolising King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, they were on their way to get married.
At the church it was a much calmer scene. Priests dozed in the hot sun, people cooled off by the fountains, women chattered in groups sheltering in the shade of the pillars, families strolled by in their best outfits. All waiting patiently and expectantly for the return of the procession and the royal couple before heading home to feast.