Ethiopia has a number of different scales, from three to seven notes, depending on the region. There’s some debate on how many scales there are and their tuning, since there’s quite a bit of variation depending on which village you go to. In the 20th century, with the urbanization of Ethiopian music traditions and the establishment of traditional orchestras, scales became more standardized, at least in Addis Ababa. Rather than provide a comprehensive overview of all the possible scales and the debates surrounding them, then, I’m going to focus on the four main scales that musicians in Addis Ababa identify and utilize: tizita (ትዝታ), bati (ባቲ), ambassel (አምባሰል), and anchihoye (አንቺሆዬ). These pentatonic scales are called kignit, (ቅኝት) and are named after popular songs that are sung in these particular scales.
Note that these transcriptions don’t necessarily reflect the tuning, as especially traditional music is not always equal-tempered, particularly when played on traditional instruments like the masinqo, etc.
Tizita is perhaps the most popular kignit, which is a major pentatonic scale and is used in many different regions throughout Ethiopia.
Tizita minor is a variation that lowers the 3rd and 6th.
The bati kignit consists of the root, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th of the diatonic sale.
One of the kignits that is especially unique to Ethiopia is anchihoye, which is distinctive for its lack of a perfect 5th. Anchihoye especially tends towards microtonality, so sometimes the fifth note (the Bb) is notated as A instead.
Last but not least, we have ambassel. Ambassel actually has the same intervals as tizita minor but uses a different tonic note.
And, now, listen to these kignit in action, as demonstrated by YOD Abysinnia Cultural Band on July 12, 2015, in Addis Ababa (featuring Yahalem Zod Negussie on krar, Baynesagn Birhani on masinqo, Tewodros Bogale on washint, Zeriyun Girma on drums, and directed by Adugna Chekol):
This is a representative of only a small sampling of the most popular scales in Ethiopia from the northern and central regions. In the eastern area of Ethiopia, such as in the city of Harar, the scales sound similar to scales used in the Middle East. In the southern part, the Dirashe utilize the diatonic scale.
The late Dr. Ashenafi Kebede, an Ethiopian ethnomusicologist and composer, was one of the early scholars to standardize the kignits of northern and central Ethiopia. For more information on kignit and their theory, Ezra Abate, music professor at Addis Ababa University’s Yared School of Music, wrote an excellent paper discussing music from all around Ethiopia available at the following link: Ethiopian Kignit: Analysis of the Formation and Structure of Ethiopian Scale System
*** Special thanks to Adugna Chekol and the YOD Cultural Band for their contributions!