There has been little scholarly documentation on rhythms in Ethiopia. I managed to write down a very few iconic rhythms of some different regions during June 2015 and documented a few more during my trip this summer. In the meantime, if anyone has additional transcriptions or audio of rhythms that they would like to see added here, please let me know!
Of course, professional musicians working in the cities often embellish these rhythms and add fills, especially if they are playing on the drum set or using presets on keyboards or drum machines, but they still maintain the primary rhythm to the point that a discerning listener can identify which region a song is from within a few bars.
One of the most popular rhythms of the Tigray region (in the far north of Ethiopia) is in 5/8.
Traditionally, this rhythm is played on the kebero (ከበሮ), a double-headed drum, although the cultural bands in the theatre houses and in restaurants in Addis Ababa have moved to using the drum machine. You can probably hear this rhythm by searching “Tigrigna traditional music” on YouTube and clicking on practically any link you see, but, to save you the trouble, I found this nice music video for you:
Another iconic rhythm that I encountered is from Oromia. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, with several subgroups that have their own songs and musical characteristics. This particular rhythm is identified with Oromo residing in the Shewa (or Shoa) region, which is in the center of Ethiopia and is where the capital Addis Ababa is located.
You won’t find many recordings of this one online, but I heard it frequently in Addis Ababa (which is unsurprising due to the fact that Addis is located in the center of Shewa region.) This is an excerpt of a recording I made featuring this rhythm (with the very excellent Ermias Terefe on the drums):
Gonder (Amhara region)
Another popular rhythm throughout Ethiopia but especially identified with the Amhara region (in northern and central Ethiopia) is a very fast 3/8. Most of the songs that I have heard from Gonder (may also be spelled Gondar; in Amharic ጎንደር) use this rhythm.
And, yes, in case you were wondering, this video was filmed on-site: that’s the city of Gonder you’re seeing in those shots, which boasts some pretty cool architecture dating back to the 17th century. Emperor Fasilides founded the city, which served as the capital of the empire at the time.
The Gurage people live predominantly in the Southern Nation, Nationalities, and Peoples Region of Ethiopia. This is one of their more popular rhythms:
(Be sure to check out those dance moves around 2:46!)
The Anywaa (also spelled Anuak or Anyuak) people of western Ethiopia have a lot of great rhythms, and we even have an entire post dedicated to it on the research blog (see Anywaa Drumming). To save you the trouble of loading yet another web page, however, I’ll be nice enough to include a brief summary of it here.
This first one is performed with the obeero (see Anywaa Church Music for an explanation of the obeero and agwaa-ga genres).
This is typically played on two different size drums. Here’s a demonstration of that by our friend and research associate, Ojho:
The agwaa-ga and okaama genres both require three drums in order to be performed. The small and medium drums (called aneedo and odoola, respectively) are played with these rhythms:
The rhythm for the third and largest drum (called buul) varies depending on the genre and the structure of the individual song and should really have more research and documentation done before any transcriptions are attempted. In the meantime, you can listen to this particular example of an agwaa-ga that I recorded in Gambella:
An “All-Purpose” Rhythm
I’m not sure how to classify this rhythm, as I’ve only heard it performed in Addis Ababa so far. Usually, it accompanies Amharic songs, so it might be an Amhara rhythm or at least from somewhere in the Ethiopian highlands. Or, it might just be commonly used in the city. Or, it might be something else entirely, but here it is anyway (ignore the timestamp):
2 against 3 (hemiola)
Another common rhythmic pattern I have heard especially in religious ceremonies and church services (both Ethiopian Orthodox and Protestant) during my time in Addis Ababa is clapping in two while the song meter is in three. I failed to obtain a quality recording of this, unfortunately, and so far not found one online. But, rest assured, the search continues!