Ethiopia’s diversity can be heard in the diversity of its music. Different regions have their own prominent styles of musical forms based on historical influence – whether it be Christian influences or Muslim influences or simply folk music. Much of Ethiopian music is based on a pentatonic modal system, similar to and influencing the music in other neighboring countries as well. When playing these pieces on traditional instruments, it’s not tempered (meaning that each pitch has an unequal distance between the one above it and below it – it’s tuned differently than modern instruments). Music of the highlands is typically monophonic (having one melody line) or heterophonic (having more than one voice, but playing similar lines). Some southern music produces polyphonic singing (having more than one voice playing/singing individual lines – some in these areas employ four or five parts at the same time).
This diversity in musical style and ethnic groups understandably leads to different dance styles throughout the country. Many of these dances utilize the upper body: the head, the shoulders, and the chest. It seems that generally, the steps aren’t as vigorous as the upper body parts, but there are some regions that move the whole body more than others. In some dances, the women will spread their skirts out as part of the dance, and others will use rattles and fringe on their body to accentuate the music.
Some of the common instruments heard in Ethiopian music include masenqo (one-stringed bow lute), krar (six-string lyre), begena (large ten-string lyre), washint (bamboo flute), malakat (trumpet-like instrument), fanta (pan flutes), senasel (a type of sistrum), quachel (a small gong), toom (somewhat like an mbira), kebero (hand drum), nagarit (hand drum played with a curved stick), and other variations of these instruments.
There are several contemporary musicians from Ethiopia that I’ve listened to in the past week or so. I liked Teddy Afro’s sound. It has that “world music” feel to it, with distinct African drumming rhythms underneath melody lines. The first track was in 6/8 (or some other kind of triplet meter), and other songs from the album Tikur Sew often used triplet rhythms. The use of harmonies is a unifying practice. Another musician, Aster Aweke, fell into the same style of music as Teddy Afro in my opinion, although with a little more “soft rock” feel to her music -- minus the harmonies and African drumming of Teddy Afro.
The musician Gigi has several songs from the album Peace, Love and Respect that sounds like indie rock. (I really wished they would’ve used the Oxford comma in the title – it drives me crazy.) I liked this album because I’m a fan of the indie rock sound -- it’s very much Western-influenced. I did find that this album is available on iTunes for $9.90. (Yes, I’m trying to figure out a way to convince my husband I should buy this.)
And listening to some slightly older music, I found a Tilahun Gessesse compilation. He’s considered one of the greats. It has a sound that reminds me a little of early reggae music. One unifying theme in instrumentation from Gessesse to Teddy Afro is the use of bass and guitars along with horn line. In some songs, the horn lines answer the guitars, and in other songs (like many of Gessesse’s), the guitars lay the groundwork for the harmonies while the horns have the melody lines.
During the 1960s and 1970s, a style of jazz emerged called Ethiopian jazz, or Ethio-jazz. And many musicians consider the father of Ethio-jazz is Mulatu Astatke. I absolutely love this style of jazz; I was immediately drawn to it. One of the signature sounds is the congo drums and the vibraphone that he played while conducting the band. This music blended traditional jazz sounds with Ethiopian music and Latin jazz. I added the albums Sketches of Ethiopia and New York to Addis to London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 to my Spotify playlist and would listen for hours. The second album is a must have if you’re a vibraphone fan like me.
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