Ethiopian jazz is a unique mix of traditional Ethiopian music, jazz, afro funk, soul and latin music.
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The foundation of Ethio-jazz can be traced back to Emperor Haile Selassie’s visit to Jerusalem in 1924. Here, Selassie saw a marching band of forty Armenians, orphans of the Armenian genocide, between the ages of 18 and 25 and was moved by their performance. Selassie learned that the orphans were a financial strain to the local church and offered to adopt them. The marching band came to be known as the Arba Lijoch (Forty Children) and are considered to be a big part of the modernisation of Ethiopian music. Through their performances at national events through the years, they influenced many musicians to take up brass instruments as opposed to Ethiopia’s traditional instruments, made from wood and string.
This, together with Emperor Selassie relaxing of the law banning music production, which was formerly only officially practiced by the state cultural organization and recording company, Agher Feqer Mahber ("The Love of Country Association"), set the basis for the Ethiopian Golden Age of Music, a period of time spanning from the late 60s until 1974. Some of the most well-known artists from around this time include Mahmoud Ahmed, Mulatu Astatke, Alemayehu Eshete, Haily Mergia & Walias Band.
In 1974 the Derg, a military junta (government composed of military leaders) suppressed the music scene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. In this period of time mainly patriotic songs were played, Ethio-jazz was considered a ‘western import’ and therefore censored. This continued until 1991, when a coalition of rebel forces overthrew the Derg.
Instruments & Music Theory
The most commonly used western instruments in Ethio-jazz music include the vibraphone, saxophone, organ, guitar and bass. These are often heard together with the krar, begena and masenqo.
The krar is a lyre chordophone. Traditionally associated with male, wandering minstrels called azmari. Today the krar is played by professional musicians of any gender and taught at educational institutions. The krar is traditionally made of wood and leather, with animal skin acting as a membrane to amplify the sound of the string when plucked.
The begena is a ten-stringed lyre made from wood, fiber and skin. It is a sacred instrument often used at home in meditation and prayer, but also sometimes in festivities. Traditionally the begena is not accompanied by any other instruments than the human voice. It was commonly reserved for the aristocracy, while the krar was a folk instrument.
Alemu Aga from Ethiopia playing the Begenna
Horse hair, rawhide and wood. These three things predominately make the beautiful one stringed lute that is the Masenqo. Tuned with the protruding wooden peg at the top, this instrument is played with a bow much like a cello or violin. Its simple construction lends for smooth harmony with the powerful Amharic voice.
Dereb Desalegn live with his masenqo
Ethiopian Scales (Kiñit)
The Kiñit describes both the musical scale as well as the tuning of the traditional instruments used in Ethio-jazz. There are 4 main Kiñits: Tizita, Ambassel, Batti and Anchihoye. The tunings of traditional Ethiopian instruments are hard to describe using Western musical notation, due to the vast variations in tunings that individual musicians used.
Tizita is commonly used in melodies played on traditional Ethiopian instruments such as the krar, masenqo and washint. Tizita is the foundation of Ethio jazz.
Tizita is named after a popular Amharic song form, the word roughly translates to lost love, memory and nostalgic longing. It is a pentatonic scale, meaning it has five notes. There are major and minor variations. The major variation is equivalent to the major pentatonic scale in Western musical terminology.
Nadav Peled teaching the Tezeta Minor scale
The Ambassel scale is also named after a popular song form, commonly practiced in the Gonder and Wollo regions of Ethiopia.
It is similar to the Tizita minor scale, starting on the fifth degree of the scale. Ambassel is traditionally known for having a single type, but recently it has been divided into two types. The first type is widely accepted by modern and traditional musicians as the Ambassel Kiñit, while the second type is less popular and is known by another name, the Mixolydian pentatonic scale. This second type is more commonly used in popular songs, such as those from the Gonder area, and in songs like Ieyew Demam.
Temesgen teaching Yigermal on krar in the Ambassel scale
The Batti scales are associated with the Batti region, and are also featured in a popular song of the same name. These scales come in various forms, with the Batti minor utilising a flattened fifth being a common occurrence in Ethio-Jazz. The Batti major, which includes a raised fifth, is frequently used by musician Getachew Mekurya.
Henock Temesgen demonstrating the Bati Lydian Major scale on bass guitar
Named after the song Anchihoye Lene, the Anchihoye scale is often used at weddings and festivals.
Two of the most famous record labels from the 60’s and 70’s include Amha and Kaifa. There are many wonderful artists and bands within this genre. Some of those are listed below.
Feqadu Amde Mesqel
Mahmoud Ahmed & Ibix band
Mulatu Astatke Interview at Red Bull Academy 2007 (Astatke, Mulatu. 2007)
Ethio-Jazz: The Amazing Story Behind Ethiopian Jazz (Diarra, Lilian. 2016)
In The Company of Emperors: The Story of Ethiopian Armenians - The Armenite (Aslanian, Ani. 2014)
https://www.okayafrica.com/african-music-instruments-of-ethiopia/ (Mcpherson, Malik. 2012)
Ethiopian Kiñit (Scales): Analysis of the Formation and Structure of the Ethiopian Scale System (Abate, Ezra. 2009)
Tezeta: A Celebration of Ethiopian-Armenian Musical Culture (Torosyan, Lilly. 2013)
Itineraries of Modern Ethiopian Instrumental Music (Johnson, Lucien. 2017)
Tizita — Ethiopia in Theory (Zeleke, Elleni Centime. 2021)
Ethiopian Music Modes (Kiñit) (Tegbaru, Dawit. 2022)