Music is a powerful tool that has the ability to evoke emotion, move nations, comfort lost souls, and guide celebrations. It is a tool that Africans have long used to tell stories, express joy, and call for change. With this much influence, it’s only fitting to celebrate the beauty of a country through its music.
As we highlight the ongoing atrocities in Ethiopia, it’s important to understand and acknowledge the beauty that lies within this country that has been burdened by unrest, and that's why we wanted to give a shout out to a few incredible Ethiopian musicians that the world needs to know about.
Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray has been engaged in a civil war since Nov. 4, 2020, when the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed commanded a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray, as the BBC reports.
This was the national government’s response to an alleged attack on a military base situated in the north that, at the time, was accommodating national government troops. The ongoing war, which has spread to neighbouring regions, Afar and Amhara, has disrupted lives, uprooted families, and taken away from the beauty of the multi-ethnic, multicultural African country — which is also the only nation on the continent that has never been fully colonised.
Global Citizen has partnered with OkayAfrica in support of their Crossroads series to shed light on the ongoing unrest that has plagued northern Ethiopians for almost a year. For four weeks we’ve taken a deep dive look at the dispute and the impact that it is having on the country’s people, which you can read more of here.
Now, to mark the first anniversary of the conflict, we're putting the beauty of Ethiopian music in the spotlight, as it wonderfully reflects the personality of the multi-faceted nation. This is evident in the use of instruments unique to the East African region, such as the masinko, the krar, the washint, the begena, the kebero, and the tom-tom.
These create a distinctive sound that allows the listener to travel not only to the country, but also to a time where folklore and storytelling was prioritised in music. The sounds are often so soothing that they almost resemble prayer.
As part of our partnership with OkayAfrica, we’ve created a playlist on Spotify celebrating Ethiopian music. Here are 10 artists from the East African country you should definitely add to your rotation.
1. Aster Aweke
Aster Aweke is an Ethiopian-born, Washington-based singer. One of the country’s leading artists, Aweke was born in Gondar in 1961, and was already making strides towards a professional music career in her home country by her late teens.
In 1982 she had become so unhappy with Ethiopia's oppressive political climate — which at the time was a combination of a civil war that began in 1974, and further unrest that involved neighbouring country, Eritrea — that she relocated to the United States. When Aweke finally returned to her native country for a month-long tour in 1997, she performed in front of over 80,000 people who welcomed her home.
"Anteye" is probably her most famous and highly-valued single, even selling for as much as $800 for a single copy. It’s a classic Ethiopian love song that makes the listener feel like they are dancing with their soulmate.
2. Mulatu Astatke
Affectionately known as the father of "Ethio-jazz", Mulatu Astatke is a composer, arranger, and bandleader. Astatke’s gifts landed the 16-year-old a place at London’s Trinity College of Music where he studied the piano, clarinet, and the harmonica, before heading to the Eric Gilder School of Music.
Four years later, in 1963, he left London and went to Boston, which led him to become the first African to enroll as a student at the jazz-orientated Berklee College. This is where the legendary musician picked up his Latin influence, which is evident in most of his music.
Astatke finally returned to his homeland in 1969 with the intention of creating a musical fusion that incorporated all he had learned in Britain and America with elements of the Ethiopian sound. Composed purely of instruments, "Munayé (My Muna)" is the sweetest of ear candy that transports you to a 1980s feel good movie scene.
3. Sèyfou Yohannès
Sèyfou Yohannès was an Ethiopian soul-funk singer whose life was cut short at the age of 26. At the time of his death, Yohannès had only recorded six songs on vinyl. An independent pioneer dubbed the Ethiopian James Brown.
"Tezeta" is considered the pillar of Ethiopian music as it encapsulates the feeling of nostalgia, memories, and time past, or lost. "Tezeta" loosely translates to "my memory" in Amharic but is also a term used to describe Ethiopian blues.
4. Abinet Agonafir
It would be a disservice to celebrate Ethiopian music without acknowledging the influence of Sudan, as Sudan and Ethiopia share a very special bond conveyed through the medium of music. One artist who continually reworks and covers Sudanese songs is Abinet Agonafir.
Agonafir is a contemporary multi-talented artist who dabbles in singing, songwriting, film scripting, and music composing. The musical instrument that saw him join various bands was the keyboard.
"Talga Eldunia Fareha" by Agonafir is a song that has deep reverence for Ethiopia’s neighbours. However, in this playlist we have featured "Ye Ewunet Menged", which is a classic Ethiopian wedding song.
5. Alèmayèhu Eshèté
Also dubbed the Ethiopian James Brown, alongside soul singer Sèyfou Yohannès, and fondly known as the "Abyssinian Elvis", is the charismatic Alèmayèhu Eshèté. Eshèté was an Ethiopian soulful pop singer who was known for his rebellious behaviour — he recorded for an independent record label in Addis Ababa, which was forbidden by the Ethiopian government of that time.
"All the musicians used to work for the government," the "Telantena Zaré" singer said in the 2017 documentary Ethiopiques: Revolt of the Soul.
Eshèté’s popularity in Ethiopia can be attributed to the fact that he sang primarily in Amharic and represents the culture of modern Ethiopian music.
6. Yishak Banjaw
Keyboard player and composer, Yishak Banjaw, is known in Ethiopia for his innovative compositions and unique sound.
Unlike some of the other musicians we’ve listed, Banjaw was never able to reach international audiences until the release of the album Love Songs Vol. 2 in 2016.
The album forms part of Ethiopia’s finest musical hours even though it was recorded in Eritrea while Banjaw was working for the Police Band in 1986.
Due to the oppressive political climate in his home country, Love Songs Vol. 2 was a neglected musical experiment. It is a hypnotic sound created on a “keyboard for kids”, Banjaw once mentioned.
The passionate and patriotic artist released the ode to his home country "Ethiopia Adey" in 2017, a song that's charged with an electronic and Afro-pop fusion that makes you want to dance.
7. Abdel Aziz El Mubarak
Remember when we said it would be a disservice to talk about Ethiopian music without speaking to the influence of the Sudanese? Abdel Aziz El Mubarak is the perfect example.
Born in Sudan in 1951, the singer said that Ethiopia might have well been his second home. Ethiopian musicians learned Sudanese songs and performed them in Khartoum, Sudanese musicians showed their gratitude by doing the same in Addis Ababa.
One of the Sudanese musicians who participated in this ultimate show of love, which took place in the two African cities, is El Mubarak. He performed the classic Ethiopian tune "Na-Nu-Na-Nu" to a bustling crowd, who were swept away by the combination of prayer-like sounds and feel-good instrumentals.
8. Muluken Melesse
Born in northern Ethiopia, Muluken Melesse began his singing career in 1966, at the age of 12. Melesse is considered one of the 1970s greats in his country and is loyally and widely beloved. In addition to being a singer, he was also a drummer. In 1976 he recorded what was to be his last song and never returned to music due to his ministerial calling.
According to OkayAfrica, "Ishururu Belut" — by the artist with a voice that feels like “mildly spiced honey" — is a song that would have fit right in the New York boroughs: Brooklyn, Bronx, or Queens during the 1990s. In the Global Citizen x Okay Africa’s Essentials playlist, we’ve featured Melesse’s "Yeregem", a song that carries the energy of 1990s NYC boroughs with its jazziness.
9. Hailu Mergia
Hailu Mergia is a keyboardist and accordionist who became distinguished in the 1970s as the bandleader for the Walias Band, an instrumental funk and jazz ensemble hailing from Addis Ababa.
However, Mergia relocated to Washington DC in the 1980s and worked as a taxi driver while making homemade solo releases. He was later rediscovered in 2010 by an American record label, and made a comeback with his album Lala Belu.
Mergia’s song, which features The Walias, "Musicawi Silt" is a beautifully composed track that represents the pinnacle of Ethiopian mastery and musicianship.
10. Alèmu Aga
Last on the list is the Ethiopian musician, singer, and master of begena, Alèmu Aga, who began learning the musical instrument fondly known as "David’s Harp" at 12 years old with a renowned master.
The begena is a lyre — a U-shaped stringed instrument almost like a mini-harp — and, according to oral tradition, has religious history. The instrument is associated with the Christian faith and is often played at Ethiopian religious events.
Aga has performed in several different countries with his beloved instrument to showcase it to a wider audience.
"Abatatachen Hoy" (the Lord’s prayer in Amharic) performed by Aga is a classic church hymn and the distinctive sound of the begena can be heard. The song showcases the reverence that the country has for spirituality, as one of the oldest Christian countries in the world.
As much as it is crucial to stay informed about the ongoing civil unrest in the Horn of Africa, we must not forget the beautiful culture and diversity that Ethiopia contributes to the world.
One way to support Ethiopia, above staying up to date on the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia's north, is to support the art, music, and culture coming out of the country.
This article is a part of OkayAfrica's Crossroads, a special series supported by Global Citizen examining Global Africa at critical moments. For the first part of the Crossroads series, Global Citizen is joining OkayAfrica in four weeks of coverage examining Ethiopia through a deep dive into music, politics, and culture.