Ethiopian Music

Message Bookmarked
Bookmark Removed
After downloading some tracks from the Ethiopique series of cds, which I found very interesting, I tried to find some context for this unusual (to me) style of music. The best I could come up with was this, from Robert Christgau:

"Because Ethiopia was its peculiar self--an uncolonized absolute monarchy so insensible to indigenous music that its national anthem was composed by an Armenian--the set also does without such world-music boons as love of the past, belief in the future, and lust for conquest. As the soundscape to a locale undiscovered by squarer, older tourists, however, it obviously has its uses, especially for an alt generation that's always mistrusted organic ecstasy. I've never encountered a more neurotic-sounding Third World sensibility. Its m.o. is to mush up Middle East, Africa, and Europe for a small-time power elite you can almost see--anxious young traffickers in court intrigue sitting around smoky, well-appointed clubs where petit-bourgeois artistes strive to give them a thrill. And just often enough, the organic-imbued with melody or hook or vocal commitment or instrumental synergy, only to be tempered and twisted by an endemic uncertainty--peeps through."

My question is - is this actually true? Is Ethiopia a country without any real tradition of popular music, where musicians edgily attempt to please a ruling elite with a hotpotch of alien styles? This analysis doesn't strike me as very convincing - surely all countries have a musical tradition, even if it's unknown to the outside world. (I'd be especially interested in Nitsuh's comments.)

tracey, Wednesday, 26 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

the liner notes of the sets are very helpful for placing their context (vols 3 and 8 are the ones to start with). Christgau isn't someone to just make shit up, and he's pretty knowledgeable about African music and history, but I'm not so I can't say how accurate that is.

M Matos, Wednesday, 26 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

I wasn't meaning to imply that he made that stuff up, just that maybe he's misinterpreted the situation.

tracey, Wednesday, 26 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

I overstated, apologies

M Matos, Wednesday, 26 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

He is without doubt interpreting badly, largely due to ignoring cultural context.

(a) There are many different ethnic groups within greater Ethiopia, each with distinct musical and artistic traditions. (They would likely not sound incredibly different to a newcomer -- as different, perhaps, as two songs from the same record -- but they are nonetheless rigidly identifiable.) And as with the US, the fact of one ethnic group (Amharas) being politically dominant did not necessarily translate into a musical dominance. In fact, I think this may be one instance where one gets closer to the truth by viewing things as an uninitiated newcomer: if you listened to music in five different Ethiopian ethnic traditions in a row, you would still perceive something sort of centrally "Ethiopian" uniting them -- in fact, you'd perceive this more strongly than the average Ethiopian, unencumbered as you'd be by culturally differentiating between those ethnic traditions. This makes it harder to pick any sort of "main line" of an Ethiopian musical tradition: but it also means there's more than one, and in sum they amount to rather complex and vibrant whole.

(b) It's easy to forget that Addis Ababa, up to the '73 revolution, was one of those now-lost Great Cosmopolitan Cities, like Havana or Beirut or Kabul or Rio in their cultural heydays. Christgau seems to recognize this with his imagery of bourgeoise clubs, but then he forgets it in his analysis. The music reflected in the Ethiopiques series was born during the tail end of the cosmopolitan system and somehow managed to thrive into the first decade of Mengistu Hailemariam's Marxist regime (despite legal restrictions): this, obviously, is why it's a cosmopolitan music. This was the period during which Ethiopians and people throughout the third world suddenly got their hands on the new toolkits of foreign musics -- and, even more generally, the period during which traditional cultures around the world suddenly opened up to foreign, cosmopolitan, cultural influences. Compare with Brazil during the same period. What Christgau is doing is the exact equivalent of listening to Os Mutantes and other Tropicalia-era stuff and proclaiming that Brazil doesn't have a musical tradition that's much it's own: one would suspect that anyone making such a claim just isn't aware of (or in Ethiopia's case doesn't have access to) the traditional form that the artists in question were suddenly combining with this sudden profusion of other options, other options made possible by the new availability of recorded, widely- distributed, inexpensively-imported music (and clothes, and films, and books, and ideas in general) from other parts of the world.

(c) The Armenian thing, however, goes something like this: Haile Selassie went to Israel (in the 20s or 30s, I think), and ran into an Armenian brass band who had fled the situation in Armenia. He really really liked them, so he invited them back to Ethiopia to serve as his royal band. Their influence on the use of horns, which figure heavily in the Ethiopiques-era stuff, is fairly large. "Traditional" Ethiopian stuff, though, doesn't use horns.

(d) Funnily enough this comes down to Robert Christgau versus Mengistu Hailemariam FITE. One particular goal of the Marxist government was a sort of nationalist education program in traditional culture, within which students took many courses in music and dance (from each regional tradition). This created a pretty big cadre of cultural artisans, and state events and particularly state-run television during the latter portion of that regime was positively crammed full of traditional performance. I doubt Christgau has ever seen any of these.

(e) What I've never figured out is how much people are actually missing Ethiopian-invented material in the Ethiopiques-era stuff, due to forgetting that Ethiopia was, throughout the colonial period, an uncolonized cultural power, and a lot of what they think of as coming from elsewhere is actually Ethiopian in nature. (Jamaica and Rastafarianism are very very key to this.)

(f) It's damned if you do, damned if you don't: why, in the first place, the focus on Ethiopia having a traditionalism musical heritage? It seems like he sees an African nation as by nature a source for "indigenous" music, as opposed to self-conscious artisan music. He may even think noting that Ethiopia bucked that trend is some kind of compliment, but really I think the whole issue is a bad way to go about approaching "foreign" music.

(g) Sorry for the essay. If we lived in the future I would somehow post an hour of instantly-loading state-TV performance video on this page and that would be enough to convince you that Christgau, while he's vaguely right about the cosmopolitan nature of the stuff he's talking about, really should have like looked for anything else from the country before deciding that nothing else exists. What's doubly baffling is that if you look at "traditional" stuff side by side with "cosmopolitan" stuff, they're really not that different in the least. (Similarly, listening to Bollywood musical numbers and traditional Indian music side by side reveals them to be obviously part of the same tradition, only with new approaches filtered in.) So where did Christgau think all of the non- cosmopolitan elements of the Ethiopiques stuff was coming from? I think he thinks it's from "the Middle East," as he says: he seems to think it's a newly-minted hodgepodge when in fact it's in many senses a traditional hodgepodge, one whose elements were sorted out well before America's foreign-influence "hodgepodge" coalesced into a music we nonetheless think of as uniquely American.

nabisco%%, Wednesday, 26 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

Actually, sorry to append but this an offhand analogy in there strikes me as URGENT AND KEY -- what you are listening to when you listen to Ethiopiques stuff is almost the exact cultural equivalent of Tropicalia. Both Ethiopia and Brazil had a sort of hope during the 60s, combining political stability and (apparent) progress with peaks of culture and cosmopolitanism; both nations reflected this musically with a sort of newly-modern but not radically anti-traditional music. Then both underwent political spasms toward the start of the seventies, revolutions that whether you supported them or not made the character of day-to-day life a lot more grim. And musically, both went into a more fiery, more worldly, more electrified, and much less traditional realm.

nabisco%%, Wednesday, 26 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

N****h is again the man. Lend your brain and knowledge, please. I promise I'll return it one day.

Ned Raggett, Wednesday, 26 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

I suspected that something along those lines was the case. Thanks, n****h for coming back so quickly with such a comprehensive response. Perhaps M Matos should email this thread to Xgau (who I respect hugely btw) for a right of reply – not that I’m trying to start a FITE or anything.

tracey, Wednesday, 26 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

And speaking of Ethiopian music, I recently bought the recent self- titled disk from Gigi after hearing a bit of it on the radio one night. I like it but I wonder how much of it is Laswell-derived and how much sounds like her other music? Do people consider it a travesty or a valid blending? Some people here seem to think Laswell shlocks-up a lot of the stuff he touches.

nickn, Wednesday, 26 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

[bowing] thanks, N....uh. you, as always, da man.

M Matos, Thursday, 27 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

If I recall correctly, the Voice printed a letter, that I think raised some of the same points you do, a few weeks after the Christgau piece. I can't remember if he responded or not, but he's usually pretty good about that.

J Blount, Thursday, 27 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

I wonder what Christgau means by "organic". He clearly thinks of it as a musical virtue, but he never defines it. What does it mean that the "alt generation [has] always mistrusted organic ecstasy"? And what is he talking about when he says that "the organic... peeps through" on these records? It sounds like he's describing some sort of health food diet.

o. nate, Thursday, 27 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

Best Ethiopian artist -- Aster Awake. One of my best friends (and roommate for three years) was from Ethiopia. All he listened to was Aster, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan.

Yancey, Thursday, 27 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

Eeesh, Aster Aweke is like the Shania Twain of the Ethiopian diaspora.

Oh, and also: H in Addis Ababa should really be commenting on this thread -- he's spent infinitely more time there than I have, and his job, if I remember correctly, is with a sound/music production team. Your estimation of my rightness in the above rambling would probably plummet dramatically if he went through and corrected the factual inaccuracies or misrepresentations that I'm quite sure are in there.

nabisco%%, Thursday, 27 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

Oh, and to Christgau's credit he seems to be arguing that modern Ethiopian music is "insensible" to indigenous styles, not that indigenous styles don't exist. But really I think the issue is that he is sort of "insensible" to the very clear links between the two, whether it's because he's unfamiliar with the traditional, focusing too much on the foreign influences of the modern, of just expecting something more "African-sounding" to constitute the "indigenous" part.

Central example of traditionalism: here is an Eritrean guy holding a kraar. The kraar in various forms appears in most greater-Ethiopian traditions (as this guy's being Eritrean sort of demonstrates). (Although his is sort of a fancy-modern kraar: I can't find a picture online of the proper sort.)

nabisco%%, Thursday, 27 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

Nitsuh, did you get my email?

M Matos, Thursday, 27 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

I have one Ethiopian friend. He listens to Jimmie Rodgers.

B-Rad, Thursday, 27 June 2002 00:00 (eighteen years ago) link

nine months pass...
shit, just found this, and saw I was supposed to comment almost a year ago. Nabisco has however more eloquently than I could covered pretty much everything so I will just limit myself to a cpl of additions. Part of the problem with Christgau’s review is that he has always been drawn more to music from Western and Southern Africa, and it took him quite a while to warm up to music from other regions (specifically thinking of North Africa here and in his 80s review of Mahmoud Ahmed’s 'Ere Mela Mela' he does admit that if you liked North African you might find Mahmoud more rewarding than he did.) However, instead of acknowledging his unfamiliarity with the style he speaks in this ultra-authoritative tone which is misleading.

Re the mish-mash he talks about, Ethiopia had a long history of trade across the Red Sea and you will find many linguistic, musical & cultural links with – a lot of what to him sounds MidEastern is the (or a) traditional ‘Ethiopian’ sound insofar as it evolved there over the centuries. The Armenian connection does add some interesting links – the jazz scene in Syria for example was dominated by Aremenian so you will find similarities in the horn arrangements. I would differ with Nabisco on that there is a common Ethiopian thread; most Ethiopian music draws from the Amhara, Tigre and to a lesser degree Gurage traditions. Music from the Gambela region or that of the Konso ppl for example does sound vastly different.

There’s a wonderful book Abyssine Swing (think it is available on Amazon) by Francis Falceto, the editor of the Ethiopiques series that follows the development of music here through the 20th century. Great photos and provides a useful overview.

Nabisco, where did that Aster=Shania characterization come from??

Nickn – if you’re still around, I think Gigi’s album is great. Easiest thing might be to link to an article I wrote about her a couple years back

Finally, since I found this thread after promising to recommend stuff to RS, the best place to start is the Ethiopiques series. Since it is now up to 14 volumes I’ll try to pick some highlights as a starting point.

3 – Compilation of different singers so you get a sense of the different singers out there. Muluken Mellesee is one of my favorite singers from that period and he has an amazing song ‘Hedech Alu’ on that one.

6 & 7 – Mahmoud Ahmed, one of the greatest Ethiopian singers. #7 'Ere Mela Mela' is generally considered the classic but #6 ‘Almaz’ edges it out for me

14 – Getachew Mekuria – the (still) reigning King of Ethiopian saxophone, pioneered this sort of honking proto-freejazz style called shellela based on 1) the maskinko, a one string viol used by azmaris (minstrels) and 2) ‘fukkera’ improvised chants that were used to build up courage before battle – swaggering blustering threats to the enemy.

H (Heruy), Saturday, 19 April 2003 16:46 (seventeen years ago) link

Did Christgau really not realize that the Ethiopians have an historical connection to other Semitic groups?

Rockist Scientist, Saturday, 19 April 2003 17:35 (seventeen years ago) link

would hesitate to say the he didn't realize there would be conections, but the way he describes the mishmash shows a lack of knowledge about the music here. as nabisco said, if you took the traditional and put it next to themore modern compositions, such as on ethiopiques, it is not that huge a leap

H (Heruy), Saturday, 19 April 2003 18:55 (seventeen years ago) link

H: When I said that about Aster Aweke I guess I was thinking of her more recent stuff, the sort of world-crossover material. I've since heard a lot more of her material from the 70s, which I think is way better. But some of the more recent stuff -- you know, the kind of stuff that gets sold on tape in DC restaurants -- always struck me as making really unnecessary crossover moves.

BTW, how separate do you think the different musical traditions are, at this point? My view on this is probably slanted, because most of my experience of it is from the Mengistu national-music era, where everything was always roped off: like, here's an Amhara song; now here comes the Gurage part; etc. Obviously they're not that different in the grand scale of things, but it always seemed like there were efforts being made to maintain them as distinct "traditional" styles. (I usually like the Gurage stuff best, actually.)

My favorite Ethiopian 70s track remains "Good Aderegegnye," but I think I'm spelling that wrong and consequently can't google to remind myself who it was by.

nabisco (nabisco), Saturday, 19 April 2003 19:38 (seventeen years ago) link

The other day my dad was claiming that his good friend "Million Birr" hung out with Mahmoud Ahmed all the time. I have a hard time imagining my dad as running in swinging-Addis artists' circles, but considering that he apparently had a friend called "Million Birr" (birr = national currency of Ethiopia), I suppose it's possible.

nabisco (nabisco), Saturday, 19 April 2003 19:42 (seventeen years ago) link

Aster's last two albums were terrible but her first couple of albums for the world market are actually pretty good. I love Aster but I can't listen to her for too long, there is this high note she hits tha over repeated exposure drives me nuts. I've actually had to leave a cpl of her shows due to that (but most other ppl don't have that problem.

guragegna is like the soul music of ethiopia, much funkier, more upbeat. I think everyone I know loves it.

re seperation of muisc - well, it is still pretty roped off, ppl work in one tradition but as part of their set will always have at least, e.g one gurage song.

I think the song must be "Gud aderegegn' can't remember who did it but will post when i remember.

re your Dad hangin' with Mahmoud, remember Addis is a small town so everyone knew/knows each other. My folks knew him and were not part of 'swingin' artists' scene.

H (Heruy), Saturday, 19 April 2003 20:12 (seventeen years ago) link

(Actually, what was the population of Addis like back then? I've only been recently: I'd forgotten how many people came into the city during the 80s.)

nabisco (nabisco), Saturday, 19 April 2003 20:24 (seventeen years ago) link

well, about 1 million then but when you're talking abt the middle class way smaller, plus everyone either went to school together, was related, socialized in same places etc.

i mean addis anywhere between 4 and 5 million and it still fels like a village where everyone knows our business and you bump into the same ppl 10 times a day

H (Heruy), Saturday, 19 April 2003 20:27 (seventeen years ago) link

Nabisco, is the song you meant 'Gud Aderegetchen' by Ayelew Mesfin on Ethiopiques 13 - Ethiopian Groove?

H (Heruy), Sunday, 20 April 2003 09:31 (seventeen years ago) link

I've got it on some other comp (and with a different spelling), but yeah, that's the one. It makes me wish I understood more Amharic -- since he's not, like, ordering food, asking me if I mowed the lawn, or telling me how sad it is that I don't speak Amharic, it's beyond my comprehension.

Q. One thing you see a lot with Ethiopian bands that never winds up on recordings is this live-performance comedy thing: the band plays a figure and then stops, and the singer interjects amusing lines -- bum bum dum DUM (quick sentence) bum bum dum DUM (quick sentence) bum bum dum DUM (quick sentence) / Amharic-speaking portion of audience bursts into riotous laughter / non-Amharic portion asks what's so funny / Amharic-speaking portion offers confusing translation often involving a hyena metaphor. Are there any recordings that include this sort of thing? Not that it'd be much use to me, but I just wonder.

nabisco (nabisco), Sunday, 20 April 2003 18:52 (seventeen years ago) link

I've always found that when I've found translations of African music I've liked, I usually wish I hadn't. I guess bad lyrics and lyrics about things in which I have no interest (religion is the top one here) are more common than good and interesting ones. And ones that are good and survive the translation seem to be really rather rare.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Sunday, 20 April 2003 19:00 (seventeen years ago) link

dammn, lost my post.

Nabisco, I was saying that I've never seen that in the band context, only in the azmari bets. (losse translation, azmari bet = minstrel home) where the azmaris will riff on the crowd, use 'semmena worq'(wax & gold) to, through punning and layered meanings, coment on daily life, politics etc. I don't think any of this has ever been recorded (the experience is such a part of it that wouldn't really translate to recordings)

Vol. 2 of Ethiopiques is devoted to modern azmaris and has some interesting pieces on there, Tigist Assefa's "Toutouye" is the most explicitly sexual song ever done in Ethiopia. I would not advice playing that for your folks unles syou want to be slapped upside the head. Danny Teka's "Bob Marley" is hilarious as he tells the story of how his brother left him to find success as Bob, while Danny stayed home with the sheep.

H (Heruy), Sunday, 20 April 2003 19:07 (seventeen years ago) link

eleven months pass...
i am searching for an address or site to listen ethopian music
can any one give this. ?


Ahmed Noman, Thursday, 15 April 2004 09:03 (sixteen years ago) link

It occurred to me today that Ethiopian music might be a really good bridge for me between Arabic music and salsa. Ethiopian vocal technique is similar enough to Arabic singing (or anyway different enough from typical western styles of singing) to be compatible with it. Meanwhile, there is a heavy jazz/funk/R&B horn element in some Ethiopian music, which obviously connects up to salsa (more than Arabic music does, anyway).

Rockist Scientist, Tuesday, 27 April 2004 21:12 (sixteen years ago) link

Speaking of which, there are some new Ethiopiques releases which need H.'s reviews (or anyone else's). There's also finally a Rough Guide to Ethiopian Music, and I think it's all taken from that series.

Rockist Scientist, Tuesday, 27 April 2004 21:14 (sixteen years ago) link

six years pass...

Saturday September 18th

For the first time in New York City
Legendary World Music Award Winner
Ethiopian Music Legend Icon


curmudgeon, Wednesday, 15 September 2010 04:00 (ten years ago) link

Yeah figures it'd happen after I move across the country. Dammit.

Metal Lifestyle, Evil, Hatred, Headbanging (GOTT PUNCH II HAWKWINDZ), Thursday, 16 September 2010 09:48 (ten years ago) link

He has done DC shows over the years, but they're usually only publicized in flyers left at Ethiopian restaurants and in D.C.'s Ethiopian newspaper.

L.A. has Ethiopian restaurants and an Ethiopian community, I wonder if he's doing a gig there also?

curmudgeon, Thursday, 16 September 2010 17:55 (ten years ago) link

And apparently he has played NYC before-- and he was just at the Chicago jazz fest

curmudgeon, Friday, 17 September 2010 03:54 (ten years ago) link

So a weekend for ethiop music in NYC
Friday night got Debo Band and Fendika at Joe's Pub, Debo is a Boston based big band put together by Danny Mekonnen, the repertoire is ethiopian music tho the band is a mixture of americans and ethiopians, presented them at my festival a cpl years back, Fendika is an azmari bet in Addis Ababa and got singers and dancers from here performing with Debo. If anyone saw the Getachew/Ex tour the owner of Fendika, Melaku who is performing with Debo was the dancer on the tour

Fri Sep 17 - Joe's Pub - NYC
Sat Sep 18- Balliceaux - Richmond, VA
Sun Sep 19 - Crossroads Music - Philadelphia
Thu Sep 23 - Burnside Park Music Series - Providence, RI
Sat Sep 25 - Global Union - Milwaukee
Sat Sep 25 - Martyr's - Chicago World Music Festival
Sun Sep 26 - Navy Pier -Chicago World Music Festivalv

Mahmoud is a phenomenal live performer and one of my all time favorite voices, he played DC a cpl weeks ago, not sure if he has another show there. His west coast shows were cancelled due to travel issues may be recheduled
(and yeah he played NYC 2 years ago as part Lincoln Center Outdoors, as I organized that show was a lil peeved when I saw the flyer)

H in Addis, Friday, 17 September 2010 09:42 (ten years ago) link

Oooh by coincidence I'm going to be in NYC from 18th! You there, H, or are you literally "in Addis"?

Daniel Giraffe, Friday, 17 September 2010 12:29 (ten years ago) link

literally in Addis

H in Addis, Friday, 17 September 2010 13:07 (ten years ago) link

I'm actually arriving on Saturday evening, so there's every chance I'll be fast asleep by the time the concert starts. We'll see...

Daniel Giraffe, Friday, 17 September 2010 13:48 (ten years ago) link

Awww man, I wish I knew about that M. Ahmed show in DC. DC has a huge Ethiopian population but, as I noted above, the shows only seem to be advertised via postcards in Ethiopian restaurants, an Ethiopian language newspaper available only at Ethiopian shops and restaurants, and there might be a one time a week AM radio show in Ahmaric. I love Ethiopian food, but if I don't go have it for a few weeks, I seem to miss out on events. H,' do you have any DC contacts who could keep me in the loop? When I found a postcard in January for a Teddy Afro show that month at the 6,000 seat DC Armory, and blogged about it for the City Paper it got linked to by several websites and got tons of comments from Ethiopians.

curmudgeon, Friday, 17 September 2010 13:54 (ten years ago) link

hmm, there are a cpl mailing lists, will get back to you on best way to be up to date

speaking of Teddy, I am quite surprised by the few tracks that have heard from his upcoming album, was never a huge fan and thought the majority of his stuff was just watered down pop reggae but this is a much more rootsy approach, lots of traditional instruments, much more instruments period and less reliance on synths. actually really looking forward to hearing the whole thing

H in Addis, Friday, 17 September 2010 15:23 (ten years ago) link

Thanks. Someday I need to familiarize myself with the DC Ethiopian musician community that perform at various Washington DC area restaurants and write about them in the paper/website.

curmudgeon, Friday, 17 September 2010 15:28 (ten years ago) link

five years pass...

RIP Getatchew Mekurya

wizzz! (amateurist), Monday, 4 April 2016 20:26 (four years ago) link

Some mentions of him here on this thread:

Ethiopiques S/D

curmudgeon, Monday, 4 April 2016 21:01 (four years ago) link

four years pass...

In 1984 , 4 Young Ethiopians in DC recorded an album that rearranged golden era sounds with their DC & elsewhere influences - highlife, disco, Brazilian Jazz, reggae. They added 80s synths and drum machines too

The album is now reissued

curmudgeon, Friday, 11 September 2020 14:33 (one week ago) link

Oh, that’s my interview/ Article on them

curmudgeon, Friday, 11 September 2020 14:33 (one week ago) link

Oh, that’s my interview/ Article on them

curmudgeon, Friday, 11 September 2020 14:33 (one week ago) link

You must be logged in to post. Please either login here, or if you are not registered, you may register here.