Horn of plenty: Eighties world music festivals have been replaced by less commercial events. Naseem Khan embraces the spirit of Ethiopia

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The Independent Culture
If you become aware of unwonted activity in your neighbours' house in the run-up to Easter; if you notice them staying up all night cooking, and then sitting down to eat at the ungodly hour of 2am, then there can be only one explanation. You are living next door to Ethiopian Coptic Christians.

Bethelhem Yohannes' Ethiopian restaurant, Senke, in the back of north London's Finsbury Park, is remarkably convivial. The restaurant takes its name from a word that originally meant the dried food travellers took on long journeys. But over time senke has come to mean anything that sustains you in life. And the restaurant is not the only place where it can be found.

A few miles west in a down- at-heel rehearsal room, Ezera practise their dance. An 18- strong group from Ethiopia, all are refugees and almost all unemployed. Musicians and dancers back home, they banded together at the behest of Mentesnot Mengesha, a refugee worker here but a playwright in Ethiopia whose works have been regularly banned.

When I arrived, five men in white satin trousers and tunics were performing a dance from Tigre. The distinctive feature came from the shoulders. The dancers rippled both in turn, as if dislocating them. The movement gives the impression of extreme shivering cold and can cause serious damage to the uninitiated.

Both Ezera and Senke are part of the New Visions of the Horn of Africa festival. Ezera dances at London's South Bank today; Senke offers discounts throughout the festival, and Yohannes is conducting cookery lessons in Ethiopian food. They join a busy programme in London and Liverpool which aims to reach both Horn of Africa immigrants and wider community. 'People's awareness of these areas is so distorted,' says Anne Hunt, director of Arts Worldwide, the season's organisers. 'I wanted to try and do something that would give people a different view. Something that is celebratory in the midst of doom and gloom.'

There are textiles and ceramics, historical scrolls with charms and medicinal instructions, Sudan's foremost oud or lute player, dance, and storytelling from Somalia. Grassroots venues like Dougie's Nightclub in Clapton share the limelight with the more august and neutral South Bank Centre.

The mixture is markedly different from the big bonanzas that characterised world music at its height. That sort of format, says Hunt, is no longer a good idea. 'When people started in the Eighties - when the term world music was coined - there was such a dearth of music coming in that there was a need for that sort of programme. But it became commercialised, trying to run events in the manner of rock, which is very much artist-orientated and personality- based. That was a big mistake. It led to many disillusioned artists and sidelined locals. We've moved on from there. Everybody now knows what a kora is.'

Arts Worldwide's new format is more modest than the mega- buzz of those huge open-air pop concerts. But they are looking for bigger returns: a long-term dialogue, a developmental partnership with local groups, and a festival that will be recognised for embodying that distinctive quality of senke.

New Visions of the Horn of Africa, to 20 Apr, info (071-354 3030); Senke (071-359 7687)

(Photograph omitted)

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