Melaku Belay (C), is the director of Fendika Cultural Center and founder of Ethiocolor dance group. Photo: AFP

Melaku Belay, is the soul of Fendika, a place he discovered 25 years ago, buoyed by "a passion and love for dancing".

A homeless school dropout, Belay survived on the tips he earned at Fendika before the club's owners allowed him to sleep indoors on the floor.

"I... then completed high school while performing at night and studying during the day," the 43-year-old says.

"That's how I started."

Melaku Belay, director of Fendika Cultural Center, gestures as he plays music to the audience. Photo: AFP

Now owner and director of Fendika, Belay regularly encourages his employees to go on stage.

Meselu Abebayew, a drummer with Ethiocolor, waited tables at Fendika some16 years ago. He learned to dance and play the drum and has finally become a sound engineer.

"I travelled around the world because of this place", says the 32-year-old, who has also founded his own group, Gungun.

Another member of Ethiocolor, Emabet Woldetsadik started as a cleaner, then became a cashier, then a waitress, “but now I am a dancer and singer."

Fendika "changed my entire life", says the 30-year-old. "As an Ethiopian dancer, I am responsible for showcasing and preserving my culture."

Members of Ethiocolor band play traditional music at Fendika Cultural Center.  Photo: AFP

Two decades earlier, Fendika was one of 17 "azmari bet" (a venue hosting performances by Ethiopia's azmari musicians) in the Kazanchis district, a neighbourhood harkening back to Addis Ababa's jazz-fuelled era.

Today, according to Belay, “it is the only one still standing”.

Comparable to medieval performers, the azmari are itinerant poet-musicians from rural Ethiopia, who improvise songs while playing the masenqo, a single-string bowed lute made of wood, horsehair and hide.

Their songs are rich in metaphors and double meanings, humorously mocking their audience, civil society and even powerful elites, reflecting a freedom of expression rarely seen in Ethiopia.

Fendika Cultural Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: AFP

Under the watchful eyes of Belay, an internationally renowned dancer and choreographer who took the reins in 2008, Fendika has grown into a cultural hub.

Its nondescript entrance and dilapidated walls - covered with faded posters - belie the thriving life inside, where patrons can browse its library, attend performances and visit a gallery displaying the work of young Ethiopian painters.

In addition to the azmari, Fendika hosts Ethio-jazz performers and bands revisiting the country's rich musical traditions.

It is usually packed with Ethiopians and foreigners, many savouring a glass of beer or tej, an Ethiopian honey mead.

A member of Ethiocolor dance group performs a traditional dance at Fendika Cultural Center. Photo: AFP

Bridging tradition and modernity

The club is "a very unique place" to learn about Ethiopia and its mosaic of ethnic traditions, according to Addis-based American researcher Luana DeBorst, a regular visitor to Fendika.

"Ethiopia is in a bit of a crisis in terms of how it defines ethnic borders and Fendika brings people together, no matter what region they are from and that's a very powerful thing in a divided" country, the 27-year-old told the AFP news agency.

The star attraction remains Ethiocolor, an in-house band founded in 2009 by Belay, that has performed in Europe and the United States.

Comprising dancers and musicians from various generations and regions, Ethiocolor aims to be a bridge between tradition and modernity while bringing together the cultures of more than 80 communities in Ethiopia.

Chairs crafted with wood art at Fendika Cultural Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: AFP

On borrowed time

A beloved monument to Ethiopia's traditional cabaret culture, Fendika is running on borrowed time, having just escaped demolition.

Fendika's performers and patrons alike had a shock last month when the municipal government announced plans to demolish the club to make way for a luxury hotel.

Since 2008, old structures have been increasingly forced to cede space to new buildings in the Ethiopian capital of Addis.

The club "is a vital place" for Ethiopia's artists, said Eden Mulu, a painter and designer who has previously exhibited her work at the cultural centre.

Patrons wait for the Ethiocolor dance show to start at Fendika Cultural Center 

"Fendika is the place where we meet to share ideas and ideas flow and where we support each other," the 30-year-old says.

"Our identity is our history and culture. If that is destroyed, you become a copycat of others' cultures," Ethiocolor drummer Meselu adds.

After a wave of opposition, the municipality offered a surprise reprieve to Fendika, asking Belay to come up with a proposal to develop the property.

Belay now has an ambitious dream of building a multi-storey structure next to Fendika that can house a performance hall, recording studios and an artists' residency.

The financing could take a while, but after a 25-year love affair with Fendika, he is willing to wait.

"I promised myself, Fendika will never be demolished," Belay said, smiling.

Members of Ethiocolor dance group perform traditional dance at Fendika Cultural Center. Photo: AFP

As for now, the cabaret lives to dance another day.