Recently, while going down a Red Hot Chili Peppers Spotify rabbit hole, I stumbled upon their relatively unknown 2011 album I’m with You. While this track is filled with classic Chili Peppers magic, seen through songs such as “Annie Wants a Baby” or “Look Around,” I was particularly drawn to the 4th song off of the track, “Ethiopia.” A poignant and beautiful song, “Ethiopia” describes the experiences of bass player, Flea, when he visited Ethiopia as part of a “musical field trip.” Describes Flea to Genius.com, “I got lost in a city called Harar. It was a really amazing experience that really changed everything.” Intrigued by the story and culture presented in this song, I took a deeper dive into Ethiopia itself. What about Ethiopia had struck such a chord with the band?
First, I traced the modern history of Ethiopia. One of the oldest and most prosperous African Empires, Ethiopia found its footing in modern times under the rule of Ras Tafari, who was named king of Ethiopia in 1928. By 1931, Tafari crowned himself emperor of Ethiopia, renaming himself under his baptisimal name, Haile Selassie I. Immediately, Selassie went about modernizing the country by introducing a representative parliament and implementing more infrastructure, such as roads, schools, and hospitals. With his efforts, Selassie hoped to integrate Ethiopia into the world market. Selassie’s success alarmed Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy at the time, who sought to suppress the rise of Ethiopia and regain control of the Horn of Africa. Quickly, Mussolini launched an attack on Ethiopia; within nine months, Emperor Selassie was in exile, and Mussolini had control of the country.
After Italy entered the European theater of the war in 1940, Selassie was able to regain control of Ethiopia in 1941 with the help of the British. Unfortunately, this marked the start of a period of economic and political turmoil for Ethiopia. In the next 40 years, Ethiopia would go through many regimes and political visions, from communism and socialism to democratic republics. Like many other African nations, Ethiopia still suffers greatly from the effects of European imperialism and interference.
After researching modern Ethiopian history, I sought to learn more about the people, and the cultures present in Ethiopia. I visited a local Ethiopian restaurant, Zeni, a spot that places great emphasis on traditional culture and cuisine. At Zeni, diners are treated to colorful displays of Ethiopian art, music, ceramics, furniture, and famous tea and coffee ceremonies. Furthermore, diners are expected to eat food in the standard way: off of a big piece of injera, a traditional Ethiopian fermented flatbread. The injera is spread out on a plate about the size of an XL pizza; it is then covered with spiced and cooked meats, vegetables, and lentils.
Finally, and fittingly, I dove into Ethiopian music. I was particularly drawn to Ethiopian jazz, because of the interesting rhythms that could be found in nearly every song. Smiling, I realized that some of the rhythms in “Ethiopia,” the song by R.H.C.P. that started it all, were based on traditional Ethiopian music.