Ethiopia - Traditional Music

During the classical era, and for some period afterward, Ethiopia was one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the region, with close links along the Red Sea, out to India and into the Mediterranean. It became one of the first Christian nations in the 4th century. Of course, its modern history has not been a particularly healthy one. Documentation on what is apparently a very musical culture is slow in forming, and so my remarks will hopefully serve to trigger more interest.

Ethiopia actually contains many distinct cultures. The most populous is that of the Christian Amhara around the capital plateau, but there are other Christian, Jewish, and Muslim peoples, some remote and virtually unknown. The following remarks apply to Amhara lyric poetry.

Sung verse poetry is here the major musical artform, given a very plastic melodic conception based in artistic standards which revel in double meanings. The basic formats together with the ambiguities in phrasing have something in common with poetic forms in Yemen and serve principally to attract my interest. The sonorities of instrumental ensembles can also be similar, with the instruments serving primarily to accompany or mimick the voice, but with the notable inclusion of the krar lyre which seems to have direct ties to ancient lyres of Greece and King David (a fixture of Ethiopian iconography). The music itself is very much melodically driven, frequently with interesting harmonic accompaniments which anticipate American "blues" (a traceable influence) and relatively little emphasis on percussion.

There have been a handful of recordings illustrating Ethiopian traditional music appearing over the years, but they have been more tantalizing than notable. By contrast, Ethiopian Westernized night club singing has been drawing attention, partly on account of its clear link with American Jazz traditions. This particular fusion has been an easy one.

The following collection is the first I've found to be exclusively traditional music in compelling performance:

Musiques des Hauts-Plateaux
Playasound 65219

This collection can again be analogized to that appearing for Yemen, in that it is similarly enigmatic. In the case of Yemen, some decades later, dedicated recitals devoted to the most interesting facets did appear together with some actual documentation.

Along with this secular or epic music, there is also the liturgy of the Ethiopian Christian church. It has existed in notation since the 16th century, although the songs above are purely oral. The liturgical music has also been given a modal organization, one which seems to be reflected at times in the secular songs, but apparently not systematically so.

Finally, one important historical instrument which did not appear on the previous collection is the bägänna harp, a harp with ancient roots connected to King David of Israel. This emphasizes Ethiopia's connection to the Middle East. A very fine recital featuring this "king" of instruments together with sung poetry:

Alemu Aga
Bägänna of Ethiopia
The Harp of King David
Long Distance 142009

Another anthology featuring Alemu Aga in some tracks can be found on the Unesco label.

Recordings illustrating the rather different music of some smaller ethnic groups have also appeared.

To Near-Eastern music menu.

T. M. McComb
Updated: 8 November 1999