The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Music of Ethiopia

East African music

Ethiopian music is strongly influenced by Muslim forms as well as folk musics from the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia. In northeastern Ethiopia, in Wello , 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. The most popular musician from Ethiopia is the Los Angeles-area exile Aster Aweke.

The last couple decades of the 20th century saw Ethiopia wracked by famine and drought, and war with the breakaway republic of Eritrea as well as neighbor Somalia. Since the end of the 1990s, however, the country has made steps towards recovery, and among other improvements, music has become more omnipresent and more easily accessible outside of Addis Ababa. Ethiopian music uses a unique modal system that is pentatonic, with characteristically long intervals between some notes. This creates a somewhat "unfinished" and anticipatory atmosphere to the music.

Traditional music is largely played by itinerent musicians called azmari , who are regarded with both suspicion and respect by Ethiopian society. Folk instruments include masenqo (fiddle), washint (flute), kebero (percussion) and krar (lyre).

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. The first popular music tradition in Ethiopia was brass bands, imported from Europe during the reign of Haile Selassie. By the end of World War 2, 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 Bezunesh Bekele , Mahmoud Ahmed , Alemayehu Eshete , Hirut Bekele , Ali Birra , Ayalew Mesfin , Muluken Mellesse and Tlahoun 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 .

During the 1980s, a dictatorship ruled 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 an interest in senna-werq (wax and gold), a poetic form of double entendre that often enabled singers to criticize the government without upsetting the censors.

More recently, music from Tigray and Eritrea has become popular in Ethopia and among exiles, especially in Italy. The biggest new trend, however, was the rise of bolel , a sort of blues-like music, played by sarcastic azmari playing in parts of Addis Abba, especially Yohannès Sefer and Kazentchis . Bolel musicians include Tigist Assefa , Tedje and Admassou Abate .

Currently the most prominent Ethiopian singer internationally is Censored page, who has brought Ethiopian music to popular attention, especially in America, where she now lives, through performing with top jazz musicians like Bill Laswell and Censored page


  • Falceto, Francis. "Land of Wax and Gold". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 480-487. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01