Each morning in Addis Ababa, I piled into the historic home of the late Muluemebet Emiru — Africa's first woman pilot — with 16 musicians and poets. The house was temporarily transformed into a community space for songwriting and music production called a Beat Making Lab.
(This is a blog post by Pierce Freelon about the Beat Making Lab project. Read to the bottom to find more about our partnership with Beat Making Lab.)
On the first day of class I jokingly challenged the students to emulate Emiru by making some fly beats. The pun was either lost in translation, or too corny to merit even a charity laugh.
Ethiopia was the fifth country where my colleague, Apple Juice Kid (aka Stephen Levitin), and I have developed Beat Making Labs. Similar mobile studios exist, from central America to the South Pacific. Beat Making Lab started as a course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I teach in the departments of music and African, African American and Diaspora studies.
Apple Juice Kid and I were co-teaching the class in 2012 when we crowd-sourced the funds to sponsor our first international Beat Making Lab at a community center in the Democratic Republic of Congo called Yole!Africa. Months later, we developed Beat Making Lab into a web-series with PBS Digital Studios, and after traveling to Panama, Senegal and Fiji, we arrived in Ethiopia.
In Addis Ababa, we collaborated with a global health organization called Intrahealth, asking students to reflect on health issues in their communities as they composed beats and poems. Among our most talented students was a young woman named Gelila, whose poem about access to health care facilities became the basis for a catchy anthem collectively produced by several of our Ethiopian students.
Gelila's warm energy, thoughtful lyrics and prowess as an amateur beat maker were driving forces in our Ethiopia studio. This video shows a day in Gelila's life, as she attempts to navigate the world of beat making — like a pilot on the first day of aviation school.
Editor's Note: Over the next few weeks we'll be checking in with the team at Beat Making Lab to find out how the project in Ethiopia is progressing. In mid-November, Levitin and Freelon will head back to Ethiopia to make a presentation about the project with the students at the International Conference on Family Planning. It's the first time the pair have ever returned to a city where they set up a lab — and we'll be able to join them. Check back each of the next six Wednesdays for updates on the Beat Making Lab.