Entrepreneur couple Tibebe Woldemichael and Hirut Dagnachew welcome comedy and music as a way to teach tolerance

Credit to Author: Canadian Immigrant| Date: Mon, 30 Mar 2020 20:56:12 +0000

Canadian comedy Ethiopian Style

Ethiopia is known for many things: coffee, its own distinct alphabet, and being one of the cradles of humankind. Standup comedy, not so much. However, at Toronto’s Hirut Café, comedy flourishes on the last Friday of the month and attracts some of the biggest acts in Canadian standup, such as Ali Hassan, Judy Croon, Simon Rakoff, Sandra Battaglini, John Steinberg, and many others. Why? Because of Tibebe Woldemichael and his wife Hirut Dagnachew.

Tibebe Woldemichael and Hirut Dagnachew run Hirut Café in Toronto.

Tibebe and Hirut immigrated to Canada from Ethiopia via Greece as refugees in the late 1980s.

“We applied through the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It gave us three options where to settle: Australia, the United States, or Canada. We chose Canada. We were taught Canada was peaceful,” says Hirut.

Within three days of being in Toronto, Tibebe found a job at the Bank of Nova Scotia. Hirut took ESL lessons and did an apprenticeship as a hairdresser but didn’t pursue the trade. A friend suggested to Hirut that they partner and take over the contract of an Ethiopian restaurant on the Danforth. They eventually bought the business and ran it for seven years. This success motivated Hirut and Tibebe to buy their own commercial property and open Hirut Cafe.

They designed their restaurant to include a stage where they envisioned hosting music and poetry nights. Standup comedy was not on the radar.

Enter Canadian comedian and actor Kevin MacDonald from suburban Mississauga. Along with Canadian Comedy Award winner Winston Spear, comedian and writer Scott McCrickard, and myself, we paid a visit to the restaurant and dug the vibe. Doing standup comedy in an Ethiopian restaurant, however, was a new one for everyone.

After a modest beginning, word of the comedy night in east end Toronto spread. Many in the Danforth East neighbourhood soon discovered the show. Regulars Lisa Mazzara and Joe Siino credit the show for bringing them closer together. “We came to Hirut on our fourth date. By then I knew Joe had a great sense of humour and he would appreciate the comedy. He fell in love with it instantly, just as I did.” says Lisa.

Not only did they fall in love with the show and the restaurant, they fell in love with each other and married in 2018. “The comedy, the restaurant, and Tibebe and Hirut, give us a feeling of family. We’ve grown so close to them that we invited them to our wedding,” says Joe.

Over the years, the aptly named ‘Hirut Hoot’ comedy show reached new creative heights. Comedians who perform at the restaurant comment on the warmth and good feelings they get. “Ethiopian culture embraces the arts,” says George Westerholm, a comedian, musician, and TV writer for such shows as This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the Rick Mercer Report. “Tibebe and Hirut have cultivated a great space for comedians and musicians.”

The neighbourhood has also taken notice of the spirit at Hirut. Many community groups meet there, including the Danforth East Community Association, and the Enku Scholarship Fund, a registered Canadian charity that helps underprivileged girls in Ethiopia pursue university education which recently organized a fundraising event featuring Ethiopian-Canadian comedian Dave Getachew.

Gelila Ephrem, founder of the Enku Scholarship Fund, was touched when the comedian donated his fee back to the cause. “Dave gave a great comedy performance. It was refreshing to see his comedic take on life as a young first generation Ethiopian-Canadian. And Tibebe and Hirut have helped us so much. They’ve hosted three of our annual fundraisers, as well as every meeting with the Board of Directors.”

Recently retired after 29 years successful years at Scotiabank, Tibebe now focuses on musical acts, especially ethio-jazz. Many high-profile jazz acts regularly play at Hirut, including Daniel Barnes and Girma Woldemichael, Don Naduriak, and others. Tibebe and Hirut perform on occasion too, he on guitar and Hirut on vocals.

They both count their blessings. “This is our dream come true. The biggest happiness for me is the friends we’ve made. All of my friends and clients at the bank, all the great comics, the great musicians – Canada gave us so many things,” says Tibebe.

In these times of building walls and excluding people, they see the value in the stage they provide.

“The world is becoming polarized. We wanted to make a space where we can bring everyone together through art, through music, to teach tolerance through art, even teach people through comedy. We need to laugh at ourselves,” says Tibebe, with a big smile.

[Carolyn Bennett is a writer, comedian and co-producer of Hirut Hoot.]