Music of Ethiopia
The music of Ethiopia is extremely diverse, with each of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups being associated with unique sounds. Some forms of traditional music are strongly influenced by folk music from elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia. However, Ethiopian religious music also has an ancient Christian element, traced to Yared, who lived during the reign of Gabra Masqal. In north-eastern Ethiopia, in Wollo, a Muslim musical form called manzuma developed. Sung in Amharic, manzuma has spread to Harar and Jimma, where it is now sung in the Oromo language. In the Ethiopian Highlands, traditional secular music is played by itinerant musicians called azmaris, who are regarded with both suspicion and respect in Ethiopian society.
The music of the highlands uses a fundamental modal system called qenet, of which there are four main modes: tezeta, bati, ambassel, and anchihoy, the later three have originated from Wollo. Three additional modes are variations on the above: tezeta minor, bati major, and bati minor. Some songs take the name of their qenet, such as tizita, a song of reminiscence. When played on traditional instruments, these modes are generally not tempered (that is, the pitches may deviate slightly from the Western-tempered tuning system), but when played on Western instruments such as pianos and guitars, they are played using the Western-tempered tuning system.
Highland music is generally monophonic or heterophonic. Outside of the highlands, some music is polyphonic; Dorze polyphonic singing (edho) may employ up to five parts, Majangir four parts.
Ethiopian Musical Instruments
The begena (or bguna, as in French) is an Ethiopian and Eritrean string instrument that resembles a large lyre. According to Ethiopian tradition, Menelik I brought the instrument to Ethiopia from Israel, where David had used the begena to soothe King Saul’s nerves and heal him of insomnia. Its actual origin remains in doubt, though Ethiopian manuscripts depict the instrument at the beginning of the 15th century (Kimberlin 1978: 13).
Known as the instrument of noblemen, monks, and the upper class and performed by both Amhara, Tigray, and Eritrean men and women, the begena was used primarily as an accompaniment during meditation and prayer. Though commonly played in the home, it is sometimes played during festive occasions. During Lent, the instrument is most often heard on the radio. One may compose one’s own texts or they may be taken from the Bible, from the Book of Proverbs, or from the Book of Qine, an anthology of proverbs and love poems. Subject matter includes the futility of life, the inevitability of death, saints, mores, morality, prayer, and praises to God. A song can last a few minutes to several hours depending on the text and the persistence of the player. Though many texts are of a religious nature, the instrument is not used in the Ethiopian Orthodox church services, even if it is seen occasionally in religious processions outside the church.
Large kebero as used in church music (Linden Museum, Stuttgart)
A kebero is a double-headed, conical hand drum used in the traditional music of Eritrea and Ethiopia. A piece of animal hide is stretched over each end, thus forming a membranophone. A large version of the instrument is used in Orthodox Christian liturgical music, while smaller versions are used in secular celebrations.
The kissar (also spelled kissir), or Gytarah barbaryeh, the ancient Nubian lyre, still in use in Egypt and Abyssinia (as of 1911). It consists of a body having instead of the traditional tortoise-shell back, a shallow, round bowl of wood, covered with a soundboard of sheepskin, in which are three small round sound-holes. The arms, set through the soundboard at points distant about the third of the diameter from the circumference, have the familiar fan shape. Five gut strings, knotted round the bar and raised from the soundboard by means of a bridge tailpiece similar to that in use on the modern guitar, are plucked by means of a plectrum by the right hand for the melody, while the left hand sometimes twangs some of the strings as a soft drone accompaniment.
The krar is a five- or six-stringed bowl-shaped lyre from Eritrea and Ethiopia. The instrument is tuned to a pentatonic scale. A modern krar may be amplified, much in the same way as an electric guitar or violin.
The krar, a chordophone, is usually decorated with wood, cloth, and beads. Its five or six strings determine the available pitches. The instrument’s tone depends on the musician’s playing technique: bowing, strumming or plucking. If plucked, the instrument will produce a soft tone. Strumming, on the other hand, will yield a harmonious pulsation. The krar is often played by musician-singers called azmari and accompanies love songs and secular songs, which makes it an enjoyable accompaniment to a cozy meal.
The masenqo (also spelled masenko or masinqo) is a single-string violin. The square- or diamond-shaped resonator is normally covered with parchment or rawhide. The instrument is tuned by means of a large tuning peg. As with the krar, this is an instrument used by Ethiopian minstrels, or azmaris (“singer” in Amharic). The masenqo requires considerable virtuosity.
A sistrum (plural: sistrums, sistra) is a musical instrument of the percussion family, chiefly associated with ancient Iraq and Egypt. It consists of a handle and a U-shaped metal frame, made of brass or bronze and between 76 and 30 cm in width. When shaken the small rings or loops of thin metal on its movable crossbars produce a sound that can be a from a soft CLANK to a loud jangling. The name derives from the Greek verb, seio, to shake, and, seistron, is that which is being shaken. Its name in the ancient Egyptian language was sekhem and sesheshet . Sekhem is the simpler, hoop-like sistrum, while sesheshet (an onomatopoeic word) is the naos-shaped one.
The tom is a plucked lamellophone used in the traditional music of the Nuer and Anuak ethnic groups of western Ethiopia.
The instrument was also used in some pieces performed by Orchestra Ethiopia in the 1960s.
A washint is an Ethiopian end-blown flute with four finger holes. The instrument is made of wood or cane. It is similar to the foodhir and the Arabic/Turkish ney. Its playing technique is highly melismatic, using a great deal of ornamentation.
The washint is used as a solo instrument, but may also be used in an ensemble of traditional instruments, as it was used in Orchestra Ethiopia beginning in 1963. One of the most prominent washint players is Melaku Gelaw, who performed with Orchestra Ethiopia and is now a successful recording artist.
Ethiopia is a musically traditional country. Of course, popular music is played, recorded and listened to, but most musicians also sing traditional songs, and most audiences choose to listen to both popular and traditional styles. A long-standing popular musical tradition in Ethiopia was that of brass bands, imported from Jerusalem in the form of forty Armenian orphans (Arba Lijoch) during the reign of Haile Selassie. This band, which arrived in Addis Ababa on September 6, 1924, became the first official orchestra of Ethiopia. By the end of World War II, large orchestras accompanied singers; the most prominent orchestras were the Army Band, Police Band, and Imperial Bodyguard Band. Most of these bands were trained by Europeans or Armenians.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Ethiopian popular musicians included Bizunesh Bekele, Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete, Hirut Bekele, Ali Birra, Ayalew Mesfin, Kiros Alemayehu, Muluken Melesse and Tilahun Gessesse, while popular folk musicians included Alemu Aga, Kassa Tessema, Ketema Makonnen, Asnaketch Worku, and Mary Armede. Perhaps the most influential musician of the period, however, was Ethio-jazz innovator Mulatu Astatke. Amha Records, Kaifa Records, and Philips-Ethiopia were prominent Ethiopian record labels during this era. Since 1997, Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques series has compiled many of these singles and albums on compact disc.
During the 1980s, the Derg controlled Ethiopia, and emigration became almost impossible. Musicians during this period included Ethio Stars, Wallias Band and Roha Band, though the singer Neway Debebe was most popular. He helped to popularize the use of seminna-werq (wax and gold, a poetic form of double entendre) in music (previously only used in qiné, or poetry) that often enabled singers to criticize the government without upsetting the censors.
Ethiopian music: Traditional
Traditional Ethiopian musical instruments include the masinqo, a one-stringed violin like instrument that is played with a bow; the krar, a six-stringed lyre, played with fingers or a plectrum; the washint, a flute made from bamboo; and various drums. There are three types of drums that are used in different occasions: the negarit (kettledrum), played with sticks, the kebero, played with hands, and the atamo, tapped with the fingers or palm. Other instruments include begena, a huge, multi-stringed lyre often referred to as the Harp of David; the tsinatsil or sistrum, which is used in churches; the meleket, a long trumpet without fingerholes, and the embilta, a large, one-note flute used on ceremonial occasions.
In addition to the above traditional music instruments,Ethiopian music also includes various types of modern music instruments that are used by bands playing Ethiopian jazz, pop, and the like. Modern Ethiopian musical instruments include the guitar, percussion, violin, saxophone, mandolin, clarinet, accordion, etc.
The masinqo is one of the most popular traditional Ethiopian music instruments used throughout Ethiopia. It is one of the fixtures in Ethiopian music and culture. Although it looks simple, the masinqo can, in the hands of an expert musician, produces a wide variety of melodies. It is often played by wandering minstrels as well as professional musicians, particularly at restaurants and local bars called “Bunna Bet”. The word Azmari is derived from the Geez word Zemmari, which means “one who sings”. Today, the concept mainly applies to establishments where professional masinqo players and the female singers that accompany them play.