Feeling upbeat

"There are other discos that don't let us in. They'll say it's a closed party. There are many excuses."

ethiopian disco 298.88  (photo credit: Irene Fertik)
ethiopian disco 298.88
(photo credit: Irene Fertik)
The strobe light is flashing, the music is blasting, the beer is flowing and the dancers - not necessarily in couples - are beginning to fill the floor. People just arriving at 1:30 a.m. are greeted with hugs and kisses and slaps on the back. It looks like a cross between a discotheque and a class reunion. Welcome to the Prince Bar, one of two Ethiopian-owned discotheques in Jerusalem. In walking distance of one another, both discos cater largely to Ethiopian young people. They play black music - hip hop, R&B and reggae - and also modern and traditional Amharic music. "I go first and foremost to meet my friends," says David (not his real name), a 22-year-old soldier currently in an officers' training course who immigrated to Israel with Operation Solomon in 1991. "And also to hear Amharic music. It's a fun atmosphere. I feel at home. After all, it's an Ethiopian club." Located in the bowels of the building on Rehov Pierre Koenig in Talpiot, the Prince (formerly Queen) Bar opens at midnight and to enter, one has to pass by two outdoor guards and what looks like a small reception committee at the door. A few early arrivals fill the bar stools or venture onto the dance floor, but things don't really get going until about 2 a.m. "There is a lot of racism in Israel," says Robel Fetene, a 27-year-old engineering student who operates the Prince Bar with his partner Avi Elazar, 28. "There are other discos that don't let us in. Yes, it's against the law, but what's a law? They'll never say they're excluding you because of your color. They'll say it's a closed party. Or you're not a member. There are many excuses." Says Elazar, who holds a law degree: "This place helps the Ethiopian community. They feel like family here, not like in other clubs where they feel they don't belong. We aim for quality, not to be just another nightclub. It goes beyond money. We do this out of love. For us, it's the realization of a dream." Fetene and Elazar began organizing parties for Israelis of Ethiopian origin in other venues in the 1990s. "We saw we had the audience and thought, why not open a place for our own community?" he says. "Many young Ethiopians arrived long ago and they don't know their own culture. They don't value where their parents came from. We expose them to their culture. "The only place that plays black music in Jerusalem on Thursday nights is here," he continues, sitting on a couch in what looks like an underground parking lot just outside the entrance to his disco. "It's not just for us. It's for everyone, as you see." Indeed, there are "faranjim" (white people) at the Prince, including house dancer Moti Giat. He performs occasionally at the Prince - hip hop with elements of break dance. Giat, 32, who picked up break dancing when he lived on the streets for a year and half, runs B-Dance, a dance school in Kiryat Menahem and in French Hill. "The goal is to gather the street kids and give them a love of dance," he says. "I learned some positive things on the street and I try to pass them on." Not everyone agrees that other discos in Jerusalem have racist polices. "I can't deny there is racism in Israel in general, but I've been to many discos in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and I've never had a problem," says Reuven Molla, a 23-year old volunteer PR man for Candela, an Ethiopian discotheque in the Rav Chen shopping center open only on Friday nights. Asher Rahamim, a social worker, says he did experience some closed doors when he went to clubs when he was younger. Now a father of two, he no longer frequents clubs often but he is happy Ethiopian clubs exist. "People have the tendency to seek out and connect with what is familiar to them. The ethnic and language connection is like a family connection." The Prince, which is five years old, charges an NIS 40 entry fee. The newer Candela uses various gimmicks to compete with the more established club. Women enter free between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. Men pay NIS 20 till 1 a.m., NIS 30 from 2 a.m. and NIS 40 after 3 a.m. Two weeks ago they raised the entry age from 18 to 21. At special parties, they feature "surprises" such as free drinks or confetti. On November 17, says Molla the PR man, the Candela is bringing their first singer from Ethiopia - the well-known Abebe Malesa. Prince features singers from Ethiopia about once a month. It's 2 a.m. The Prince Bar is slowly filing up and people have to cup their hands to their friend's ear when they talk. The DJ is playing a remake of "I'm Mr. Lonely" with a heavy downbeat. The atmosphere is open and friendly - indeed, the young people in attendance say one of the reason they like it so much is because they feel at home. "All week, I study hard, and I come here every Thursday to enjoy myself," says "Nava," a 21-year-old Hebrew University science student who recently finished her national service. "It's a place where Ethiopians and white people can have fun together. When there is a majority of Ethiopians, you feel more sababa," she says, using the Hebrew (actually Arabic) slang for wonderful. "Everyone I know comes here, so it's a place to meet friends." Nava says she has not experienced racism at other clubs. Like many of the young women who frequent Jerusalem's Ethiopian discos, Nava comes from a traditional family. Her family think she is "overdoing it" by going every Thursday night, but they don't object. Other parents are kept in the dark. "When I was about 21, there was a period when my girlfriends and I went to the Prince every Thursday night," says 25-year-old "Almaz," a criminology student. "It was a very nice atmosphere; they try hard to keep it peaceful. My parents didn't know. I'll never forget the night they found out. My father said, 'You are not entering this home if you go again.' It's not acceptable in our culture for a girl to go out at those hours. So I stopped." There is no trouble between men and women at the discos because everyone knows everyone, or "someone you know knows them," a female student says. "It's like a friends' club." Prince owner Fetene says if someone even tries to bother a woman he is asked to leave. At both clubs, troublemakers are blacklisted. The revelers at both clubs stressed the fact that there is no violence. The police confirmed this. "There is nothing out of the ordinary concerning these clubs," said a Jerusalem police spokesperson. "There has been no trouble there in the past two years." Ethiopian National Project director Nigist Mengesha sees the disco as strengthening the identity of Ethiopian Israeli young people. "Older people need such places as well," she says. "You should see the longing for Amharic music at weddings. People don't sit, they don't eat. Everyone dances.