East Africans in Oakland: Sharing Ethiopian music with the world
on April 10, 2012
Many of the 20,000 people from Ethiopia and Eritrea living in the Bay Area call Oakland home. Oakland North is taking a look at the culture and history of the Ethiopian or Eritrean community in Oakland with “East Africans in Oakland” a series of profiles on everyday people living in the city.
The plan was for Elias Negash to live in the U.S. for a just a couple of years, get a degree, and then return home to Ethiopia. But as he says now, “Things happen. You never know what life is going to throw at you.”
Negash never returned to live in Ethiopia, and instead has lived in this country— mostly in the East Bay—for more than 40 years. Negash is a member of the jazz and world music group The Retroz Band, as well as a solo recording artist who has put out five of his own albums he recorded at his home studio. His talent as a piano and keyboard player helped him travel all over the world to perform and play in influential and popular jazz and reggae groups. It’s how he met musical legends like Bob Marley, and also, by chance, how he met his own wife. While Negash’s music is well known to jazz and African music aficionados in the US, it is also popular in his native country—it’s played at hotels around Ethiopian and on Ethiopian airlines. He owns a spacious home in the Oakland Hills with a swimming pool and a recording studio he built.
“Music is what makes me happy and I know it makes other people happy,” Negash says. “I just really love it.”
Negash mostly plays Ethiopian jazz, a combination of traditional music and jazz, and he has a wide range of influences; his music sounds like anything from soft jazz melodies to swing and gospel. For example, on his new album, which he recorded at his home studio and is for sale through his website, “Jazzed Up” Negash takes the 1930s jazz standard “Harlem Nocturne” and mixes it with a reggae beat. He also has a lot of African musical influences, especially from Kenya, where he spent time as a boy.
“I’m a versatile musician, I like all styles of music,” Negash says. “I don’t care if it’s tango, waltz, rap. But what I really like is melodies.”
Negash, who has short curly hair and a lot of energy, is sitting in front of a couple keyboards in his studio on a weekday morning. The studio also has a piano in the corner and drum set with a Rastafarian flag behind it. Framed posters of Bob Marley (autographed to Negash), Jimi Hendrix and Barak Obama hang on the walls, along with framed CD copies of Negash’s albums like “Harrambe” (which means “Let’s pull together” in Swahili) “Peace” and “Love.” Buddy, the friendly German Shepherd Negash adopted from a rescue foundation, is softly panting as he walks in and out of the door of the studio, which leads out to the swimming pool.
As Negash reflects on his more than four-decade body of work as a musician, he clicks through a photo album on his computer that has shots of all the bands he played in, from his teenage days with a jazz group in Ethiopia called The Dashens to his current work with The Retroz Band.
Negash’s life has revolved around music, starting in his early days in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia. He remembers that as a young boy he would listen to his mother playing the family’s studio upright piano, and he recalls a trip made by renowned jazz pianist Duke Ellington’s through Ethiopia to play in 1973. The music of Mulatu Astake, whom Negash calls “The Father of Ethiopian Jazz,” had the most effect on his desire to be a musician. Negash loved how Astake combined traditional Ethiopian music with jazz, and wanted to do the same thing. “He changed Ethiopian music completely,” Negash says.
Popular music—The Beatles, James Brown, Motown—influenced Negash’s first band, The Dashens, a five-member group that mostly played school concerts in the late 1960s. At that time, Negash was still a teenager. He remembers some of his friends in the band had Ethiopian and Italian parents and had names, like Romeo and Giovanni. “We had a lot of Italian influence back in those days because of the invasion during World War II,” Negash says.
In 1971, Negash’s parents—fairly well off and working for the government of then-emperor Haile Selassie—sent him to the U.S. to attend college and live with his uncle in Troy, New York. Negash soon moved to Boston, where he went to junior college and hoped to transfer to the Berkelee School of Music to follow in the footsteps of Astatke, who Negash says was the first Ethiopian to go to the renowned musical academy.
But by 1973, Ethiopia was in a state of revolution and Selassie’s government was overthrown by a communist junta. Negash was financially cut off from his parents because of the ongoing war. Without much money, instead of going to Berkelee he decided to move across the country and live with his brother, Petios, a UC Berkeley student. And besides, Negash says, he was tired of the cold weather on the East Coast, and homesick.
He wasn’t sure what was going to happen to him, or if he could ever return home to Ethiopia. “The plan was really to go for four years and go back home,” Negash says. “But I ended up staying 40 years.”
While living in Berkeley with his brother, Negash began studying music theory at Laney College and the College of Alameda. At the same time, around 1974 or 1975 he remembers, the area’s first Ethiopian restaurant, the Blue Nile, opened on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, near 51st Street. Negash says he was asked to play piano at the restaurant. “It was huge, people were tipping me,” Negash remembers. “It was a lot of money for me in those days.”
At that time, he remembers, there weren’t many Ethiopians living in the Bay Area, also those who were there formed a tight-knit group. He remembers a big group would get together on the weekends to play soccer. They called their team The Abyssinians, which refers to the people of Abyssinia, a historical name for Ethiopia.
“We knew each other, somehow we found each other,” he says of the Ethiopian community in those days. “Since it was a small community, this was our chance to get together and speak our national language.”
While playing piano at the Blue Nile, Negash was approached by a friend who asked him to join a group he was forming called Obeah that would play a combination of reggae, calypso and African High Life music. The band members all lived in the Bay Area, but they were from all over all over the world—Cameroon, Trinidad, the Virgin Islands. Negash remembers that there weren’t any other bands around playing the kind of music they were, so Obeah was booked solid, playing at venues like Ashkenaz in Berkeley and The Palms and The Reunion in San Francisco.
“Since we were a unique band, all these clubs wanted us to play at least once a week,” Negash says. “We were busy seven nights a week.”
As if he wasn’t busy enough, Negash also formed a band called Axum to play Ethiopian music. They performed regularly at Ashkenaz in the 70s as well. Negash and Axum band also traveled to Washington D.C., which has one of the largest Ethiopian populations in the country. “There’s an Ethiopian area over on 18th Street, and they heard of our band,” Negash says. “So they hired us.”
Negash’s reputation as a keyboard player grew in the Bay Area during the 70s. He remembers playing with reggae groups like The Sons of Negus when they came to the Bay Area. “They’d ask who is the hardest keyboard player in the Bay Area, and that would be me,” Negash says.
In 1980, Negash moved to Santa Cruz with some people, including members of The Sons of Negus, and formed a reggae band called The Rastafarians. They recorded the acclaimed album “Orthodox,” and in 1981, they hit the road to travel the country on tour to promote the album.
“The Rastafarians were huge,” Negash says, laughing. “Steel Pulse was opening for us.” But Negash says financial problems ended the Rastafarians after only one album.
He next moved to L.A., where he cut his hair and joined a reggae and salsa band called Magyk. During his 13 years living in L.A., Negash also found a short-term job playing jazz piano in a group that performed on a cruise ship through Europe, as well as a gig playing jazz piano at a resort in Japan.
While living in L.A., in 1994 Negash was invited by a friend to come back to the Bay Area for a weekend and perform with Getachew Kassa, a famous Ethiopian singer.
Shortly before he took the stage for the Saturday night show, the woman who would become Negash’s wife, Sophia, walked through the door with some of his friends and family. Taking advice from his uncle, Negash introduced himself by telling Sophia he had heard that she was the most beautiful woman in the Bay Area. The couple was married within the year, and Negash moved back to the Bay Area.
When they moved into their Oakland hills home a few years later, Negash converted a cabinetmaker’s workshop into a 92-track recording studio and named it Sophel—a combination of their names. When they travelled to Ethiopia together, they found that they grew up in the same neighborhood, and Sophia had even seen The Dashens perform when she was a young girl. “Destiny is amazing,” Negash says.
Negash says he’s proud, and a bit amazed, that he’s been able to share Ethiopian music with the world. After all, he thought his stay in the states would be a short one, and he’s not sure what would have happened hadn’t been for the war. Instead, he’s been able to do what he loves, and see that he’s had an impact on the world by sharing Ethiopian music.
Recently, he heard from members of the Rastafarians for the first time in decades, about playing a reunion show at the Dub Club in Los Angeles. The group then got back together for one night in November, 2011.
“We had 850 people come. It was so much fun,” Negash remembers. “We were together and playing pretty much the same songs. When the drummer started, everyone knew which song it was. It was wonderful.”
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