This month brings us to Ethiopia in our series of articles exploring traditional and contemporary music across many different areas of the world.
My name’s Sam, and music is one of my biggest passions - I was a professional piano player and composer for several years, studying jazz at the Birmingham Conservatoire and performing across the UK and Europe. Travel has always been another of my passions, and I went on to work as a tour leader across the world – of course immersing myself in the music of each region as much as possible and discovering fantastic new worlds of music and culture wherever I worked.
Sam playing the guitar at the Imaginative Traveller summer outing in 2014
For me, and all of us here at Imaginative Traveller, experiencing the music of a region is one of the major highlights of travelling there and encapsulates the atmosphere of every place you go - you’ll find many different soundtracks accompanying your travels throughout the world which we’ll be taking a closer look at. Here we look at the music of one of our most spectacular and culturally fascinating destinations – Ethiopia.
The Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia
The mountainous, land-locked country of Ethiopia has a distinct national identity and a rich cultural history spanning 2000 years – from the Axumite Kingdom, through the ages of Zagwe, Menelik and Haile Selassie, Ethiopia has mostly remained independent and retained it’s own very unique atmosphere and set of cultures, which make it a truly exciting place to travel to.
Ethiopia has over 80 different ethno-linguistic groups, and this diversity is reflected in the country’s variety of cultures and music – in particular, there are some very distinctive sounds associated with various ethnic groups, religions, and the different instruments that are used across the country.
Traditional Ethiopian Music
There are many varieties of traditional music throughout Ethiopia, but there are a lot of common features and similar instruments that are used. Most Ethiopian music is ‘pentatonic’ (using only 5 notes of the scale), and has very similar feel and lyrics to music from all over the Horn of Africa (including Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea). Let’s take a look at some of the unique traditional instruments that give much of Ethiopia’s traditional music it's distinctive sound.
The masenqo is a single-stringed lute that is played with a bow – it was developed in the northern highlands Ethiopia but has gained popularity throughout Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although it looks simple (and only has one string!), it takes a lot of skill and dexterity to master and can produce an astounding variety of complex melodies.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ez4GbrMe4rs – masenqo virtuoso Endriss demonstrates the instrument
It is often played by a musician known as an azmari, who traditionally sing folk songs (or songs filled with sarcastic comedy!) in Amharic while accompanying themselves with the masenqo - they can be seen as similar to a ‘minstrel’.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7XvVFyq6Ok – azmari Dereb Desalegn sings a beautiful traditional song with the masenqo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyDcYCOCTI0 – an azmari sings traditional folk songs while playing the masenqo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lUjKDYAQoQ – two azmaris sledge each other during a comedic song (much like a rap battle!)
An azmari plays the masenqo during a coffee ceremony
Traditional love songs are often sung with the softer-sounding krar, a 5 or 6-stringed lyre that is either plucked or strummed.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFD5evahTso – Traditional song with the krar
Another instrument commonly used by Amharic musicians is the washint, a breathy-sounding wooden flute that can come in many different sizes and generally has 4 finger holes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUQhM9tpKj8 – Washint virtuoso Anmut Kende plays a beautiful solo demonstration
As well as secular songs, there is also a lot of religious music from Ethiopia – there is a long history of Coptic Christianity in the country, and this is reflected in the traditional softly-sung Christian songs known as mezmur.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45niX8gRtB4 – an Orthodox mezmur sung by Zemari Zeray Derbe (this song also contains the washint, masenqo and an electric krar!)
The 12th-century Christian rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
One-third of Ethiopians are Muslim, especially in the Harar, Somali and Oromiya regions – an intriguing style of music known as manzuma, that sets Islamic lyrics or poetry in the Amharic or Oromo languages to distinctive rhythmic and melodic patterns, is very popular in these areas.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoH9Dy4QKXk – manzuma music from Wollo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CgBVZgEp78 – a manzuma tune called 'Habibi Habibi'
Muslims in the town of Harar, eastern Ethiopia
Amongst the southern tribal areas of the Omo Valley, there is a unique style of traditional polyphonic singing that is particularly worthy of mention and popular amongst the Dorze and Gamo tribes. They use a rhythmic technique known as ‘hocket’ where several vocal motifs are repeated over each other, producing a mesmerizing Steve-Reich-like effect!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzdKnu3hNUY – incredible polyphonic singing from the Dorze tribe in the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia
https://youtu.be/IN_ynmOZ5Jk?list=RDIN_ynmOZ5Jk&t=716 – more distinctive polyphonic singing from the Gamo people in southern Ethiopia
The iconic huts of the Dorze tribe, who are also famous for their polyphonic singing
Ethiopia’s popular music was largely confined to brass orchestras until the 1950s, and the advent of the cool, soulful, and funky sounds of Ethio-Jazz. The period from the 1950s to the 1970s is known as Ethiopia’s ‘Golden Age’ of music and culture, when Addis Ababa was the exciting cultural hot-spot of independent Africa and swung to the infectious, cool rhythms of musicians such as Mahmoud Ahmed and Alemayehu Eshete.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmA84OA9ysc – ‘Kenoru Lebatchache’ – Alemayehu Eshete
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSjcrsfCx8g – ‘Aynotche Terab’ – Mahmoud Ahmed
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mT3wqRiP24 – ‘Wubit’ – Muluken Melese
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUcQUM0rk5s – ‘Ebo Lala’ – Seifu Yohannes
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6UsdlfwFbg – ‘Lantichi Biye’ – Tlahoun Gessesse
An Ethio-jazz band in Addis Ababa in 1971
The most influential musician of this era was the ‘Father of Ethio-Jazz’, Mulatu Astatke. Born in western Ethiopia, Astatke studied in London, New York, and Boston, where he combined the traditional Ethiopian music of his homeland with jazz and Latin music, creating the distinctive Ethio-Jazz sound – he still performs today at the age of 71!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rpVllqQu_c – ‘Yegelle Tezeta’ – Mulatu Astatke
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SImPf1HsFxo – ‘Emnete’ – Mulatu Astatke
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InFJoHoFOmk – ‘Yekermo’ (2009) - Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu Astatke, the 'Father of Ethio-Jazz'
There has been a large revival of Ethio-Jazz and some traditional music, due largely to the 29-part ‘Ethiopiques’ collection of CDs showcasing music such as that highlighted above, released between 1997-2015 by the Paris-based world music label Buda Musique. This collection not only helped to bring the style and Ethiopia’s music to a wider audience, but also helped to inspire several Western jazz bands to play the style too, as in the example below.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Vrntv-TVpE – ‘Amlak Abet Abet’ – Asselefetch Ashine (original Ethiopian version from the 1970s)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5TBHR99Xtg - ‘Amlak Abet Abet’ – Either Orchestra (cover by an American jazz band in 2000)
One of the CDs of the Ethiopique series, that helped Ethio-Jazz reach a worldwide audience
Since the 1990s, there has been a move towards a heavier use of synthesized instruments and vocal effects. One example is in the following link, from the very popular 1980s and 90s singer Neway Debebe.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtHkhhrD_f0 – ‘Yetikimt Abeba’ – Neway Debebe
Popular artists in Ethiopia today include the singers Aster Aweke and Teddy Afro (whose 2005 album Yasterseryal is the best-selling Ethiopian album of all time).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWATLFQfEEQ – ‘Bichayen’ – Aster Aweke
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvSYB9tAWZY – ‘Yasterseryal’ – Teddy Afro
Teddy Afro performing live
Internationally, the most well-known Ethiopian musician is Gigi, who has performed with many American jazz legends such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Bill Laswell. Living in the USA, she recorded 2 albums for the Ethiopian ex-pat community before gaining wider recognition in the early 2000s – she has developed the music of her homeland into incorporated it into many other comtemporary genres.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAnx_rQIcjg – ‘Aynama’ – Gigi
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZjp_ph2w4o – ‘Guramayle’ – Gigi
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7Bvv-88vx8 – ‘Mengedeg’ – Gigi with Tabla Beat Science
The internationally-acclaimed Ethiopian singer Gigi
As you can see, the music of Ethiopia is as fascinating and as beautiful as the country and the people, and once again you'll be sure to have an awesome local soundtrack on your travels through this incredible region!