Music of Ethiopia

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The music of Ethiopia is extremely diverse, [1] with each of Ethiopia's ethnic groups being associated with unique sounds.

Ethiopia Country in East Africa

Ethiopia, officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is a country in the northeastern part of Africa, known as the Horn of Africa. It shares borders with Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, the de facto state of Somaliland and Somalia to the east, Kenya to the south, South Sudan to the west and Sudan to the northwest. With over 102 million inhabitants, Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country in the world and the second-most populous nation on the African continent with a total area of 1,100,000 square kilometres (420,000 sq mi). Its capital and largest city is Addis Ababa, which lies a few miles west of the East African Rift that splits the country into the Nubian and Somali tectonic plates.


Music theory

Ethiopian music uses a distinct modal system that is pentatonic, with characteristically long intervals between some notes.

A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave, in contrast to the heptatonic scale more familiar to Western tradition that has seven notes per octave.

The music of the Ethiopian Highlands uses a fundamental modal system called qenet , of which there are four main modes: tezeta, bati, ambassel , and anchihoy. [2] Three additional modes are variations on the above: tezeta minor, bati major, and bati minor. [3] [4] [5] Some songs take the name of their qenet, such as tizita, a song of reminiscence. [2] 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.

Ethiopian Highlands mountain range

The Ethiopian Highlands is a rugged mass of mountains in Ethiopia, situated in the Horn region in northeast Africa. It forms the largest continuous area of its elevation in the continent, with little of its surface falling below 1,500 m (4,900 ft), while the summits reach heights of up to 4,550 m (14,930 ft). It is sometimes called the Roof of Africa due to its height and large area. Most of the Ethiopian Highlands are part of central and northern Ethiopia, and its northernmost portion reaches into Eritrea.

Ambassel scale

The Ambassel scale is a pentatonic scale widely used in the Gonder and Wollo regions of Ethiopia.

Tizita is a type of song in Ethiopia. The term itself may serve as the name of a ballad performed in this style, or it can refer to the, qenet, musical mode, used in such songs.

Music in the Ethiopian highlands is generally monophonic or heterophonic. [2] In certain southern areas, some music is polyphonic. Dorze polyphonic singing (edho) may employ up to five parts; Majangir, four parts. [2]


In music, monophony is the simplest of musical textures, consisting of a melody, typically sung by a single singer or played by a single instrument player without accompanying harmony or chords. Many folk songs and traditional songs are monophonic. A melody is also considered to be monophonic if a group of singers sings the same melody together at the unison or with the same melody notes duplicated at the octave. If an entire melody is played by two or more instruments or sung by a choir with a fixed interval, such as a perfect fifth, it is also said to be monophony. The musical texture of a song or musical piece is determined by assessing whether varying components are used, such as an accompaniment part or polyphonic melody lines.


In music, heterophony is a type of texture characterized by the simultaneous variation of a single melodic line. Such a texture can be regarded as a kind of complex monophony in which there is only one basic melody, but realized at the same time in multiple voices, each of which plays the melody differently, either in a different rhythm or tempo, or with various embellishments and elaborations. The term was initially introduced into systematic musicology to denote a subcategory of polyphonic music, though is now regarded as a textural category in its own right.

Polyphony music with multiple, independent melody lines performed simultaneously

In music, polyphony is one type of musical texture, where a texture is, generally speaking, the way that melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic aspects of a musical composition are combined to shape the overall sound and quality of the work. In particular, polyphony consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to a musical texture with just one voice, monophony, or a texture with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords, which is called homophony.

Musical instruments


Masinko (left) and Kirar (right) Masinko and krar.jpg
Masinko (left) and Kirar (right)

In the highlands, traditional string instruments include the masenqo (also known as masinko), a one-string bowed lute; the krar (also known as kirar), a six-string lyre; and the begena , a large ten-string lyre. [6] The dita (a five-string lyre) [7] and musical bows (including an unusual three-string variant) are among the chordophones found in the south. [6]

String instrument musical instrument that generates tones by one or more strings stretched between two points

String instruments, stringed instruments, or chordophones are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when the performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner.


The mesenqo or chira-wata is a single-stringed bowed lute commonly found in the musical traditions of Ethiopia and Eritrea. As with the krar, this instrument is used by Ethiopian minstrels called azmaris . Although it functions in a purely accompaniment capacity in songs, the masenqo requires considerable virtuosity, as azmaris accompany themselves while singing.

In music, a bow is a tensioned stick which has hair coated in rosin affixed to it. It is moved across some part of a musical instrument to cause vibration, which the instrument emits as sound. The vast majority of bows are used with string instruments, such as the violin, although some bows are used with musical saws and other bowed idiophones.


The washint is a bamboo flute that is common in the highlands. [6] Trumpet-like instruments include the ceremonial malakat used in some regions, and the holdudwa (animal horn; compare shofar) found mainly in the south. [6] Embilta flutes have no finger holes, and produce only two tones, the fundamental and a fourth or fifth interval. [6] These may be metal (generally found in the north) or bamboo (in the south). [6] The Konso and other people in the south play fanta, or pan flutes.It has 6 holes.

The washint is an end-blown wooden flute originally used in Ethiopia. Traditionally, Amharic musicians would pass on their oral history through song accompanied by the washint as well as the krar, a six stringed lyre, and the masenqo, a one string fiddle.

Bamboo subfamily of plants

The bamboos are evergreen perennial flowering plants in the subfamily Bambusoideae of the grass family Poaceae. The word "bamboo" comes from the Dutch or Portuguese languages, which probably borrowed it from Malay.

Flute Musical instrument of the woodwind family

The flute is a family of musical instruments in the woodwind group. Unlike woodwind instruments with reeds, a flute is an aerophone or reedless wind instrument that produces its sound from the flow of air across an opening. According to the instrument classification of Hornbostel–Sachs, flutes are categorized as edge-blown aerophones. A musician who plays the flute can be referred to as a flute player, flautist, flutist or, less commonly, fluter or flutenist.


In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, liturgical music employs the senasel, a sistrum. [6] Additionally, the clergy will use prayer staffs, or maqwamiya, [8] to maintain rhythm. [6] Rural churches historically used a dawal to call the faithful to prayer. They are made from stone slabs or pieces of wood. [6] The Beta Israel use a small gong called a qachel as liturgical accompaniment, though qachel may also refer to a small bell. [6] The toom, a lamellophone, is used among the Nuer, Anuak, Majangir, Surma, and other Nilotic groups. [6] Metal leg rattles are common throughout the south. [6]


The kebero is a large hand drum used in the Orthodox Christian liturgy. [6] Smaller kebero drums may be used in secular celebrations. [6] The nagarit , played with a curved stick, is usually found in a secular context such as royal functions or the announcement of proclamations, though it has a liturgical function among the Beta Israel. [6] The Gurage and certain other populations in the lowlands commonly play the atamo , a small hand drum sometimes made of clay. [6] In Gambela region in western Ethiopia, the Anuak specify three different kinds of drums: the anedo (small drum), the odola (medium drum), and the bul (big drum), with different rhythmic patterns attached to certain song genres. [9]

Religious and secular music

Some Ethiopian religious music has an ancient Christian element, traced to Yared, who lived during the reign of Gabra Masqal. In northeastern 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 mostly itinerant musicians called azmaris , who are regarded with respect in Ethiopian society.[ citation needed ]

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.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Ethiopian popular musicians included 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 Éthiopiques 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.

Contemporary scene

Teddy Afro singing at a concert Teddy Afro.jpg
Teddy Afro singing at a concert

Currently the most prominent Ethiopian singer internationally is Gigi. Through her performing with prominent jazz musicians such as Bill Laswell (who is also her husband) and Herbie Hancock, Gigi has brought Ethiopian music to popular attention, especially in the United States, where she now lives.

Another noteworthy singer is Neway Debebe, who was very popular among the youth of the 1980s and early 1990s with such songs as "Yetekemt Abeba," "Metekatun Ateye," "Safsaf," and "Gedam" - among others. Abatte Barihun has exemplified all four main qenets on his 2005 album Ras Deshen . [4]

Éthiopiques producer Francis Falceto criticizes contemporary Ethiopian music for eschewing traditional instruments and ensemble playing in favor of one-man bands using synthesizers. [10] Harvard University professor Kay Kaufman Shelemay, on the other hand, maintains that there is genuine creativity in the contemporary music scene. [11] She further points out that Ethiopian music is not alone in shifting to electronically produced music, a point that Falceto acknowledges. [10] [11]

Aster Aweke Aster Aweke.jpeg
Aster Aweke

In the West, several bands were also created in recent years to play music inspired by the Éthiopiques series and other examples of Ethiopian music of the '60s and '70s. They include Boston's Either/Orchestra, [12] Imperial Tiger Orchestra (Switzerland), [13] and Le Tigre des platanes (France). [14]

New genres of music, popular in western countries, such as EDM, rock and hip hop have been introduced in recent years. Musical acts like Jano Band play a new style of music dubbed "Ethio-rock", a mix of Ethiopian music and rock music. [15] Hip hop music started influencing Ethiopian music in the early to mid 2000s and culminated with the creation of Ethiopian hip hop, rhymed in the native Amharic language. The Earliest and most influential rappers of Ethiopian hip hop were Teddy Yo and Lij Michael, with the latter being more commercially successful. [16] The success of both Jano Band and Lij Michael led to their inclusion in the 2017 edition of Coke Studio Africa [15]

In 2018 a young artist named Rophnan has introduced the country to its own version of Electronic dance music winning the album of the year award and changing the mainstream music scene further more. [17]

Related Research Articles

Music of Africa Overview of musical traditions in Africa

The traditional music of Africa, given the vastness of the continent, is historically ancient, rich and diverse, with different regions and nations of Africa having many distinct musical traditions. Music in Africa is very important when it comes to religion. Songs and music are used in rituals and religious ceremonies, to pass down stories from generation to generation, as well as to sing and dance to.

Krar five- or six-stringed bowl-shaped lyre from Eritrea and Ethiopia

The krar, kirar, kerar or kraar is a five- or six-stringed bowl-shaped lyre from Eritrea and Amhara, Oromo, and Tigrinya in Ethiopia. It is tuned to a pentatonic scale. A modern krar may be amplified, much in the same way as an electric guitar or violin.

Culture of Africa

The culture in Africa is varied and manifold, consisting of a mixture of countries with various tribes that each have their own unique characteristic from the continent of Africa. It is a product of the diverse populations that today inhabit the continent of Africa and the African Diaspora. African culture is expressed in its arts and crafts, folklore and religion, clothing, cuisine, music and languages. Expressions of culture are abundant within Africa, with large amounts of cultural diversity being found not only across different countries but also within single countries. Even though African cultures are widely diverse, they are also, when closely studied, seen to have many similarities; for example, the morals they uphold, their love and respect for their culture as well as the strong respect they hold for the aged and the important, i.e. kings and chiefs.

Éthiopiques is a series of compact discs featuring Ethiopian singers and musicians. Many of the CDs compile songs from various singles and albums that Amha Records, Kaifa Records and Philips-Ethiopia released during the 1960s and 1970s in Ethiopia. Prominent singers and musicians from this era appearing on Éthiopiques releases include Alemayehu Eshete, Asnaketch Worku, Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke and Tilahun Gessesse. However, some other releases contain new recordings.

Culture of Ethiopia

The culture of Ethiopia is diverse and generally structured along ethnolinguistic lines. The country's Afro-Asiatic-speaking majority adhere to an amalgamation of traditions that were developed independently and through interaction with neighbouring and far away civilizations, including other parts of Northeast Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India, Italy and Malaysia. By contrast, the nation's Nilotic communities and other ethnolinguistic minorities tend to practice customs more closely linked with South Sudan and/or the African Great Lakes region.

Mulatu Astatke Ethiopian musician

Mulatu Astatke is an Ethiopian musician and arranger considered as the father of Ethio-jazz.

Mahmoud Ahmed singer

Mahmoud Ahmed is an Ethiopian singer of Gurage ancestry. He gained great popularity in Ethiopia in the 1970s and among the Ethiopian diaspora in the 1980s, before rising to international fame with African music fans in Europe and the Americas.

Orchestra Ethiopia was an Ethiopian performing group formed in 1963 by the Egyptian-born American composer and ethnomusicologist Halim El-Dabh. The group, which was founded in Addis Ababa, comprised up to 30 traditional instrumentalists, vocalists, and dancers from many different Ethiopian regions and ethnic groups. It was the first ensemble of its type, as these diverse instruments and ethnic groups previously had never played together. For a time, due to El-Dabh's efforts, the Orchestra was in residence at the Creative Arts Centre of Haile Selassie I University.


A kebero is a double-headed, conical hand drum used in the traditional music of Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia. A piece of animal hide is stretched over each end of the instrument, thus forming a membranophone. A large version of the kebero is also used in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian liturgical music, while smaller versions are used in secular celebrations. The Kebero is primarily used in weddings and other ceremonies. It was created in the Norther Highlands of Ethiopia. The instrument is made from the hollowed out section of a tree trunk and then hard particles are inserted into it. The shell is then covered with two cow leather membranes, so that one can be tuned higher than the other. A kebero is also used in a worship called wereb. It is mostly done in Ethiopia.

Russ Gershon is an American saxophonist, composer and arranger, founder of the large jazz ensemble Either/Orchestra in Massachusetts in 1985. He received a Grammy nomination in 1992 in the category "Best Original Arrangement of an Instrumental Composition" for his "Bennie Moten's Weird Nightmare," recorded by the Either/Orchestra.

The Either/Orchestra (E/O) is a jazz group formed by Russ Gershon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, in 1985. E/O is configured as a "small big band", with three saxes, two trumpets and one or two trombones. E/O's is characterized by a heavier and more orchestrated sound than that of a smaller jazz combo, but remains more streamlined and improvisation-oriented than most big bands.

Abatte Barihun Israeli composer and musician

Abatte Barihun is an Israeli jazz saxophonist and composer. His sound is reminiscent of John Coltrane's, who has highly influenced Barihun.

Majang people ethnic group

The Majang people, or Majangir, live in southwestern Ethiopia and speak a Nilo-Saharan language of the Surmic cluster. The 1998 census gave the total of the Majangir population as 15,341, but since they live scattered in the hills in dispersed settlements, their actual total number is undoubtedly much higher. They live around cities of Tepi, Mett'i, and scattered southwest of Mizan Teferi and towards Gambela.

Getatchew Mekurya Ethiopian jazz saxophonist

Gétatchèw Mèkurya was an Ethiopian jazz saxophonist.

Walias Band were an Ethiopian jazz and funk band active from the early 1970s until the early 1990s. Formed by members of the Venus Band, Walias backed up many prominent singers with a hard polyrhythmic funk sound influenced by western artists like King Curtis, Junior Walker and Maceo Parker. In 1977 they recorded one of the few albums of Ethiopian instrumental music in collaboration with vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke, whose role as a bandleader and composer was also a major influence on Ethiopian popular music.

Imperial Tiger Orchestra is a Swiss group of modern popular Ethiopian music. Its name hints at the Imperial bodyguard band of the Halie Selassie era and Monty Python’s “Tiger in Africa” sketch It was formed after a jam organized by Genevan trumpet player Raphaël Anker. The band has released three albums and played in Europe, Southern Africa and Ethiopia. It also worked with renowned Ethiopian musicians, like Endress Hassen or the singer Hamelmal Abate.

Debo Band

Debo Band are a Boston-based Ethiopian music ensemble led by saxophonist Danny Mekonnen and fronted by vocalist Bruck Tesfaye. Ranging from 10–12 members playing horns, guitars, violins, percussion, and accordion, their sound incorporates Ethiojazz, folk, and pop styles from the Horn of Africa infused with tinges of motifs from Eastern Europe and Asia, as well as punk, experimental, and psychedelic rock. Rolling Stone described Debo's sound as, "guitar solos, massed vocals, violin and brass [that] rush in like a Red Bulled marching band...Dance at your own risk."

Ethiopian chant

Ethiopian liturgical chant, or Zema, is a form of Christian liturgical chant practiced by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The related musical notation is known as melekket. The tradition began after the sixth century and is traditionally identified with Saint Yared. Through history, the Ethiopian liturgical chants have undergone an evolution similar to that of European liturgical chants.

Kignit or qenet (ቅኝት) is a mode in the music of Ethiopia, particularly that of the Amhara people in the Ethiopian highlands. There are four main kignit that are used, all of which are pentatonic: tizita (ትዝታ), bati (ባቲ), ambassel (አምባሰል), and anchihoye (አንቺሆዬ). 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.


  1. "Folk Music of Ethiopia". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved 2018-09-12.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Shelemay, Kay Kaufman (2001). Sadie, Stanley; Tyrrell, John (eds.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians . viii (2 ed.). London: Macmillan. p. 356.
  3. Frangou, Chris. "Common Ethiopian Pentatonic Scales or Qenet (ቅኝት woyesa)".Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. 1 2 Abatte Barihun, liner notes of the album Ras Deshen, 200.
  5. Abate, Ezra. "Ethiopian Kiñit (scales): Analysis of the formation and structure of the Ethiopian scale system" (PDF). Proceedings of the 16th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Shelemay, pp. 355–356
  7. Ethiopian Traditional Music Instruments (on Mekatecha - Tigrina Language News and Culture website)
  8. Playing the maqwamiya, senasel and kebero explained (youtube)
  9. "Musical Instruments". Songs from Ethiopia and South Sudan. 2019-01-10. Retrieved 2019-01-10.
  10. 1 2 Eyre, Banning (2005-12-18). "Francis Falceto - Ethiopia: Diaspora and Return (interview)". Afropop Worldwide . World Music Productions. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved March 10, 2007.
  11. 1 2 Eyre, Banning (2006-09-15). "Kay Kaufman Shelemay - Ethiopia: Diaspora and Return (interview)". Afropop Worldwide . World Music Productions. Archived from the original on October 25, 2007. Retrieved March 10, 2007.
  12. Roger Levesque (November 13, 2012). "Either/Orchestra brings African Sound to Edmonton". Edmonton Journal .
  13. Denselow, Robin (12 January 2012). "Imperial Tiger Orchestra – review". The Guardian . Retrieved 2013-03-02.
  14. Queille Dominique (December 19, 2007). "Le Tigre des Platanes fait ses griffes à Africolor". Libération .
  15. 1 2 "Jano Band takes Ethio-rock to Coke Studio Africa".
  16. Nyanga, Caroline. "Tanzania's Yamoto band in Kenya for a collaboration with Ethiopia's Lij Michael". Standard Digital News. Retrieved 2017-08-26.