Africa by Night (in Milan)

Before it closed, Bar Etiopia had been running for ten years by the graceful Abeba. It was located on Via Tadino, P.ta Venezia, a neighborhood close to downtown Milan, where many different communities found their home and have been running activities in the last few decades: Indians, Filipinos and, above all, immigrants from former Italian occupied territories (Ethiopia) or colonies (Eritrea)colonies: Ethiopians and Eritreans. I don’t remember exactly when I started to go to the bar, it could probably be toward the end of 2009, trying to find comfortable places in the capital of fashion. Milan is a difficult city. It’s hard to find specific places where you can frequently go and hang out. There is no neighborhood life. You basically go to a place because you’ve been invited. Bar Etiopia had been an exception to this disposition.

There you could find different crowds: the art world (three of the most important art galleries in town are located nearby), music lovers and, of course, hipsters; but, interestingly, the bar kept carrying its local communities, creating a rare, combined and lovely environment. Nevertheless, the owner, Abeba, recently declared that “half of her customers are Italians.”

In February 2010, some friends and I organized a small party at the bar. I was supposed to DJ with another DJ, Fidel, but he didn’t show up that night. Abeba cooked meat and vegetable wat with injera, Lorenzo Senni brought the PA and a smoke machine and finally we did it, spontaneously and, uncommonly, without any risks.

Comboni_01That same night, a few people were going somewhere else, it was about 2.30am: “where are you guys going?”, I asked — “to Comboni”, they replied. I didn’t know these Eritrean guys, but I was sure I did meet them before at the bar. They were apparently going to a club called “Comboni”. “It’s easy to reach!”, they told me after I asked. “Alright, see you there!”

Then I looked on the map and I realized it was close to one of the biggest parks in Milan. We decided to go and check.

We also got the street number, but there were no buildings on the sides of the street. At one point, we saw a car entering the park through the cycle lane, we decided to follow it and after about six hundred metres there was a sort of warehouse complex. A guy closed the gate behind us — “We got it!”, someone said.

Comboni_02Comboni was an illegal club. It ran for about a year between 2010 and 2011. The parking lot in front of the warehouse, the one where we were already in with no escape options, was full of caravans. The complex was, in fact, a caravan deposit.

I managed to find the owner who told me that the club usually opens around 3am and goes on until 8am. It turns out that it was actually the only place in the city still open that late. It’s the perfect spot for an “after”, as it was called in the late 1990s — that word is only a distant echo since more or less the beginning of the 2000s, especially in a region where to run an activity or a dance club you need so many licenses and agreements that you are almost obliged to go illicit.

Comboni was a unique, rectangular space. In the first half behind the entrance there was the bar; the second half was occupied by the dancefloor and on the sides there were sofas and tables equipped with narghilès. When I saw the console from where the DJ was spinning records I couldn’t believe my eyes: an aerial wooden balcony, hung at about three meters over the dancefloor.

There was a resident DJ whose name I never got to know, unfortunately. The three times I went there he played an intriguing selection of Eritrean and Ethiopian dance music along with reggaeton and he’d chang the mood with a hip hop or reggae song. I remember he took a chance to play a track by Marracash, a Milanese MC who grew up in the Barona neighborhood and released his first solo album in 2008. When he was a kid, his schoolmates used to call him “Marocchino”, “Marugo” (“Moroccan”) or “Marrakesh” because of his Sicilian origin and Moroccan traits — hence his nickname.

In the song ‘Lo Straniero’ (The Foreigner), included on the 1994 seminal hip hop album SXM, Sangue Misto sang these lyrics:

Io quando andavo a scuola da bambino la gente nella classe mi chiamava Marocchino, Terrone — Muto! Torna un po’ da dove sei venuto!” (“When I was a kid, my schoolmates used to call me Marocchino, Terrone — Shut up! Go back to where you came from!”).

The word “Terrone” is a derogatory term for southern Italians and Sicilians.

I don’t know whether the DJ was aware of all these levels, but hearing a Marracash song play at an Ethiopian club was a revelation of sorts (to me). Although Marracash might not be what can be labelled as ‘conscious rap’, it was a great moment of ‘conscious clubbing’.

Comboni is not there anymore, unfortunately. It closed down in the Spring of 2011. I desperately tried to get in touch with the owner — in more than a year I probably have collected three different mobile numbers — after he told me that he was going to run another business in a double floor building: the idea was to have a restaurant on the first, and, of course, a club on the second.

Recently I wrote a text for Zero, while I was waiting for the official news. Here is the translation:

The inheritance of colonialism reaches us as a boomerang. It oversteps urban landscapes of European cities. How come that to write a piece on Milanese club culture — the true one, the one which will bring you on until 8am — we have to start from a black hole of our history? Ethiopian and Eritrean communities push autochthon and hybrid sounds, and they do it not only in P.ta Venezia, it could happen in the most hidden places. In those nights we learned how to dance to Tigrinya music, how to move our shoulders, how to go round in circle. And we understood that from there it’s easy to get into reggaeton and even Italian hip hop (I’m serious).

The second chapter of Comboni never took off. And Bar Etiopia is gone too. Abeba moved her bar to a bigger spot on Via Lazzaro Palazzi, about a block away from where it was originally located. The bar is now called ONE LOVE Etiopia. Still, it’s one of the loveliest place to go — the place also where I started to write this post.

* Special thanks to Luca Legnani and Jacopo Miliani. Simone Bertuzzi is a DJ, artist and blogger. He is also on Twitter

6 thoughts on “Africa by Night (in Milan)

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