Ethiopia has a long and at times tormented history. With that it has an equally long and fascinating history of arts and culture. To write about Ethiopia’s traditional music in one article such as this may not do justice to everyone nor reveal the complete and true picture of the situation. This text should thus simply serve as a launch pad for further study for anyone who would like to venture deeper into the country’s traditional music.
The music of Ethiopia is a reflection of all the historical and social episodes, such as the military campaigns that various warlords or chiefs had to launch. The music is about war as well as patriotism, songs of victory, songs that incite support for a certain crusade. The music is also about love, with wonderful melodies and poetic lyrics. The spirituality of Ethiopians is expressed in the form of music. All these types of tunes and melodies are prepared and performed using various traditional instruments.
Ethiopian traditional music is best expressed with its musical instruments, besides the contribution of the renowned vocalists. The most characteristic and widely used instruments are the masinko, the krar, the washint, the begena, the kebero, and the tom-tom.
The masinko is a single-stringed instrument that is used in many parts of the country by several people, including the Amhara, the Tigreans and Oromo. The masinko as it is a kind of fiddle made from the tail of horses and a piece of hide. It is relatively easy to make and is played by rubbing a bow made of a string against the fiddle. People in the Ethiopian highland areas learn to play the masinko at a very early age, particularly in the north around Gondar. Verses are typically created by the vocalist and player of the instrument – or as is the tradition, the audience suggests poems or lyrics and the vocalist just repeats them word for word. Among the greatest masinko specialists in Ethiopia was Getamessay Abebe, who used to be a leading member of the Ethiopian Orchestra[i], a traditional musical group founded in 1963. The group attained prominence when Charles Sutton, a US Peace Corps member fascinated by the instrument, joined the group and learnt to play one. The group subsequently toured the US, introducing Ethiopia’s traditional music at concerts. Other influential masinko players include Legesse Abdi (in Oromiffa language), Adane Teka and Habtemichael Demissie, while Alemayehu Fanta more recently played Amharic songs using the single-stringed instrument.
The masinko is one of the most popular traditional music instruments used throughout Ethiopia and one of the fixtures in Ethiopian music and culture. Although it looks simple, the masinko can, in the hands of an expert musician, produce a wide variety of melodies. It is often played by wandering minstrels, as well as professional musicians, particularly at restaurants and local bars called ‘Bunna Bet’. The word ‘Azmari’ is derived from the Geez word ‘Zemmari’, which means “one who sings”. Today, the concept mainly applies to establishments where professional masinko players perform accompanied by female singers.
The krar is a traditional lyre[ii] with five strings. A conversation about the krar cannot come to an end without mentioning the name of Kassa Tessema. Kassa was a prominent krar player who made a name for himself with patriotic hymns such as ‘Fano Fano’ and love songs such as ‘Shegitu’. Asnakech Worku[iii], often referred to as ‘the Queen of krar’ (1933-2011) had the krar as her trademark. Even though she was an actress, Asnakech was known for her skills with the krar, along with her quick wit and inspired improvisations.
The begena[iv] or Ethiopian harp is an instrument mostly used for spiritual purposes. Among the most popular players of this instrument is Alemu Aga, along with Alemayehu Fanta. Spiritual hymns are mainly heard during fasting periods for Orthodox Christians when people express their devotion to God.
The washint or the flute is another widely used traditional musical instrument. It is typically played by Ethiopian shepherds while herding cattle. The bamboo flute usually has four to six holes. Ethiopian youth learn to play this instrument at a very early age. Yohannes Afework, a member of the famous Orchestra Ethiopia of the 1960s, and Animut Kinde are among the most popular players of this instrument.
The Ethiopian drum or kebero is used to accompany the traditional tunes that Ethiopians play. The drum enriches most songs, which would be not as interesting to listen to without the drum beat. The double-headed kebero drum is also used in the traditional music of Eritrea and Sudan. A piece of animal hide is stretched over each end of the instrument, thus forming a membranophone. A large version of the kebero is also used in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian liturgical music, while smaller versions are used in secular celebrations. A special kind of drum referred to as tom-tom is used in the south-western part of the country, in Gambella Region. The beating of drums in general is very characteristic of the fast songs played in the south of the country, where you have the Kenbata, Hadiya, Gedeo, Sidama and others performing their colorful, traditional belly dances that are reminiscent of the Middle Eastern or Arabic dancers.