A Preview of Ethiopian Music
by Zenebe Bekele (Ethnomusicologist)
Ethiopia has all the characteristics of a rich cultural mosaic. One reason for this is that the country has over 80 languages of which Amharic has become the Lingua franca. As George Galperin put it: Ethiopia deserves recognition as one of the oldest countries in the World as far as the origins of mankind are concerned. A large number of acclaimed scholars of varies nationalities have dealt exhaustively with the influence of cultural assimilation within the ethnic framework of the Ethiopian people. Ethnic integration in Ethiopia was largely the result of a long process of assimilation among the peoples inhabiting some of the central regions of the country. A process which saw drastic acceleration at the end of the last century. As Ullendorff pointed out: The Abyssinian plateau has acted as a stage on which this union has produced a handsome race of subtle, sensitive, exceptionally intelligent, mentally alert, extraordinarily eager to learn, and proud people. It is known that early African man who created the megalithic stone cultures of which fascinating evidence can be found today in parts of southern and western Ethiopia.
Take the religion situation in Abyssinia before the middle of the 4th century A.D
or the Dragon King "Zendo" worship where ritualistic song and dance performances accompanied the sacrificial services of the Dragon cult. All this displays the belief and worship of spirits which formed the basis of religion in early man and the earliest musical practices of the African inhabitants of this part of the continent. Beside this the Ethiopian script is the only one which is still possessed by Africans as continental cultural property. The musical notation system of Yared and other indigenous composers are praised in this regard.
Factors related to the various causes of assimilation such as religion, marriage etc, have largely resulted in the integration of the Ethiopian ethnic groups. When a way of life undergoes very rapid change during political periods, tradition or folklore of which music is also a part, has an uphill struggle in retaining its original properties. These of course doesn't mean that music as part of culture remains unaffected by socio-economic change. But musical change in a society is seen as very slow when compared with other social traits. Music is affected by historical process- acculturation, transculturation, and interculturation. Birth, weddings and death are accompanied by songs. These types of songs are put in to what we call social categories, while things like fishing, wood cutting, creal grinding etc, are put into the economic section. Songs such as national anthems, military and children´s songs belong to the political section. Songs such as `Woreb´, `Qidassie´ - ecclesiastical manifestations, `Yezar chuhet´ are put in the religious category. In other words, Ethiopian music is defined as music and recreation, music and work, music and politics, music and spiritual belief.
Another feature of Ethiopian traditional music is its forms. These are:
-Textual or Vocal music - the music of the Azmaries(Griots).
-Mimes or expressive dances - The folklore of different tribes - Anuak, Dorze, Mursi etc.
-Instrumental - the imbilta music of Gidole, and Tigre.
In Ethiopian music the earliest style is a personal lament of Ingurguro which has a simple form with small ranges of undulating movement. The second style is Mezmur that has its unique character of singing, performance style, rhythmical restrictions and limitation of contents. The third style is Zefen - the most popular musical style within all the ethnic groups. It differs from the other two in its irregularity of meter - isometric and hetrometric patterns, and its performance style. The fourth syle is Zema - this is only for ecclesiastical songs and hymns. But we find similarity of styles and modal ranges both in Sacred and Secular music of Ethiopia. One of the mysteries which has never been cleared up by the studies of different scholars and which led to confusion in identifying the music of Ethiopia from that of Arabia is its melismatic nature.
Characterstics of song types:
A) Ingurguro is sung mostly in high falsetto vocal style by female singers and deep vocal range for male singers. Aster AwoQe´s
character of music and Kassa Tessema´s Kirrar music are some examples. We see a combination of musical styles in
Aster´s music (Ingurguro character + Zefen rhythm) that makes the singer stylist of the modern Ethiopian music but Kassa´s music is a very traditional style of ingurguro.
B) Mezmur is sung in a full voice - woreb songs and songs that are used after sport games, etc, are of this sort.
C) Zefen is sung in a relaxed manner accompanied by a dance, dram, Iskista, Regeda etc.
Qualities of singers: Ethiopian singers are considered to be good if they have a melismatic and loud voice, but if one shouts without wavering tones in the style of Ingurguro and Zefen music - he is called `Chuahi or Gagano´ (vociferous).
If one sings in a deep or low growling voice in Zefen style, he won't deserve the name of Tiru Zefagne or Zemari. The one who is considered to be good or even the best singer is the one who knows a variety of song texts and the singing characteristics of all the musical styles.
Secular music of Ethiopia is classified in the following manner:
Mode: 7 modes
1. Qedamai Silt, ( Tizita)
2. Dagmai Silt (Ambasell)
3. Salisai Silt (bati)
4. Rabai Silt ( multi modes)
5. Hamsai Silt ( Anchihoye)
6. Sadisai Silt ( Gererso type music)
7. Sabai Silt ( Adere´s chromatic type)
Mode: 3 modes
Sacred Music Styles:
4. Wonchere etc.
Yared´s music composition based on different seasons of the year:
Zemene Yohanis : i) from Meskerem 1st to Meskerem 26
ii) from Meskerem 26 to Hidar 6 (Woriha tsige)
Zemene Merawi : i) from Tahisas 29 to Tir 30
ii) from Yekatit 1st to Miazia 29 (Woriha tsome)
Zemene Kiremit : i) from Meazia 29 to the middle od Sene (Woriha tinsae)
ii) from Middle of Sene to Meskerem (Kiremit)
These distributions of yared musical compositions are used according to Julian calendar.
The vocal organ which consists of
lungs, larynx, pharunx, nose, mouth as means of creating a voice are registerd
1. Yederet dimits (chest)
2. Yegurero dimits (larynx)
3. Yeras dimits (head)