A young Ethiopian girl dragging red, green and yellow balloons across a stretch of grass in Mosswod Park yelled “Melkam addis amet!”—“Happy New Year!” in Amharic—as she made her way to decorate a stage at Oakland’s Mosswood Park in preparation for a host of African bands that would perform later that day. Ethiopian flags were draped across tents offering community services and selling Ethiopian food, t-shirts and Ethiopian Orthodox religious merchandise on Saturday as Ethiopians from all over the Bay Area gathered to mark the new year on the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar, known as Enkutatash in Amharic.
The Ethiopian calendar has 13 months in a year, making it seven years behind the Gregorian calendar, which is used in the United States. The first day of the New Year is known in the Ethiopian calendar as Meskerem 1, which usually falls on September 11 in the Gregorian calendar.
“We have turned from 2004 to 2005,” said attendee Bemdilu Betaw, a local cab driver, of this year’s celebration. “Enkutatash means from winter we have transferred to summer,” he said, referring to the end of the rainy season in Ethiopia. Enkutatash comes at the end of a period of monsoon rains in Ethiopia and its meaning, “gift of jewels,” refers to the blooming of flowers and the harvesting of crops.
Although not affiliated with any particular religion, Enkutatash is celebrated in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith, the predominant religion in Ethiopia, which also has a significant Muslim community.
“We pray for around three hours and we sing a lot of church songs,” said Father Kle Aregaw, the head priest at the Ethiopian Orthodox church Debre Selam Iyesus in downtown Oakland, referring to how the church observes the New Year. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians typically wear white, seen as a pure color, to signal a fresh start to 2005.
As Ephrem Shifta, a board member of the Ethiopian Community and Cultural Center (ECCC), an Oakland-based organization that hosted the event, watched the park fill up with families, music and food lovers, and curious passersby, he spoke of Enkutatash’s cultural significance. “Enkutatash reminds us Ethiopians of how we were raised,” he said. “It’s a big holiday celebrated regardless of religious beliefs. It brings all Ethiopians together.”
The Bay Area’s Ethiopian community of around 25,000 people is mostly based in Oakland and San Jose. Enkutatash offers an opportunity for them to gather as a community and celebrate traditional Ethiopian culture. The ECCC acts as a nucleus for that community, putting on job fairs, small business seminars, computer training and ESL classes, health fairs, and educational programs for children.
As the afternoon went on, a host of African, Ethiopian and reggae musicians entertained the estimated 3,000 festivalgoers with laid-back music that brought many to their feet. Guitarist Samba Ngo, who currently alternately resides in both California and France, kicked off the festivities with music from his native Democratic Republic of Congo. Ngo and his band, famous in the Cuban Rumba-inspired soukous genre for their 1998 album Metamorphosis, lavished melodic tunes and traditional bongo-bashing drumming upon the swaying sun-drenched crowd.
As the afternoon went on, Ethiopian legend Mahmoud Ahmed, famous for his role in shaping the American jazz-inspired Golden Age of Ethiopian music in the 1960s, performed a warm-up show with local act Elias Negash and the Retroz Band. His voice shrieked as it drifted across the octave scale accompanied by Elias’s piano and the sounds of a saxophone and guitar.
Families danced together in the sunshine and little kids ran around playing soccer while national and local politicians used the event to canvas the Ethiopian community for votes in the upcoming November election. Mayor Jean Quan, Vice Mayor Ignacio De La Fuente and Congresswoman Barbara Lee all addressed the crowd, extending New Year’s greetings.
In the bright glare of the afternoon sun a young boy and an older man danced together in front of the stage, trading moves and celebrating the day’s sunshine as much as Enkutatash.
“The Ethiopian diaspora in Oakland is just too busy,” Bemdilu said of the gathered crowd. “It’s good for them to hug each other and spend some time together.”