Ethiopian Music

Ethiopian music is as diverse as it is beautiful; its music varies by ethnic groups as well as by traditional and modern elements at play within its culture. Like Western culture, Ethiopians utilize wind, percussion, and string instruments, but differ from Westerners in that much of the music is based on modal scales and pitches may be off intonation-wise from what our ears have been accustomed to. As is common in any culture since the rapid technological advances and globalization of popular music; many younger Ethiopian musicians have started to embrace modern music, including the use of technology and Western musical instruments. Despite this, however, many Ethiopian performers both young and old have tried to maintain ties to the traditional music of their home regions. Below is an example of a youtube Ethiopian music video performed by Gossaye Tesfaye, which combines elements of both new and old styles:


Ethiopian Instrumental Music: Many  instruments, such as the malakat, kebero, and nagarit, are also used in classical Eritrean music. Additional stringed instruments include the one-stringed masenqo and the  six-stringed lyre known as the krar (pictured on the left). Wind instruments include the fanta (pan flute), the holdudwa (an animal horn) and the washunt (bamboo flute). Traditionally, people have been called to prayer with the use of various percussion instruments including prayer staffs, the jangling senasel, and gongs.

A Brief History: The 1950s through the 1970s was a prominent time for both popular and folk Ethiopian musicians. During this time, Ethio-jazz became popular, especially influenced by Mulatu Astatke. This Golden Age in Ethiopian music soon diminished when the communist military junta, the Derg came to power in the 1980s. With the government’s strict control over free speech, Azmari musicians started satirizing the government through seminna werq, a form of double entendre. In addition to these witty lyrics, Azmari performers are also rewarded for singing uplifting messages and compliments to members in the audience. One of the parts I find so impressive about Azmari musicians is their ability to improvise, something that Western art music (aside from Jazz Bands) have largely done away with. The musical and dance cultures are very closely knit; dancers in northern Ethiopia practice a dance called eskesta, or “dancing shoulders,” which is still practiced today, but has roots in old Ethiopian tribes.

Much of traditional and popular Ethiopian music has become popularized in pockets across the world including Los Angeles and London. Famous American performers such as Herbie Hancock have taken interest in Ethiopian music after he performed with the very talented and famous Ethiopian, Gigi.

Image Sources: Wikipedia,

Below are additional articles and resources about Ethiopian music found at Music Education For All:

Ethiopian Instrumental Music

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *