The Amhara people are the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and Haile Selassie heavily promoted Amhara culture during his reign from the early 20th century until 1974. Thus, Amharic is still the most widely spoken language throughout the country and is the official working language of the state.
The Amhara use an indigenous writing system derived from the ancient liturgical language, Ge’ez, and even have their own music notation system in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Ethiopia, particularly Northern Ethiopia, has interacted with the Middle East and North Africa, and there are some similarities between Middle Eastern music and Amharic music, including an emphasis on text and melody and a heterophonic texture (heterophony, for those who don’t know, refers to all instruments playing the melody simultaneously but each individual varying and embellishing it differently).
Their scales are primarily pentatonic, including tizita (ትዝታ), bati (ባቲ), anchihoye (አንቺሆዬ), and ambassel (አምባሰል) (for more information on these, see Kignit.) Most of the meters are compound, and you often hear people clapping along to the dotted quarter.
Indigenous musical instruments include the krar (ክራር), masinqo (ማሲንቆ), washint (ዋሽንት), kebero (ከበሮ), and begena (በገና). The begena is almost exclusively used for religious meditation among the Ethiopian Orthodox (see Instruments.) Usually, instruments double the melody of the singer, with some variations and additional embellishments. Before Selassie’s nation-building project, most of these instruments were played on their own or as a solo accompaniment to a singer. In the 20th century, however, institutions such as Hager Fikir Theatre and other music groups such as Orchestra Ethiopia began adapting the instruments and tuning them so that they could play together in a group.
Scholars such as Ashenafi Kebede have noted that it is the song texts that are the most important component of Amhara music, and melody and instrumentation always serves a subservient role. I have also heard speculations that this may have grown out of the primacy of biblical and liturgical texts in the Orthodox music traditions.
Music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Many Amhara musicians tell me that their traditional music was born in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and church services and religious celebrations continue to be a prominent part of musical life for Orthodox Amhara. The church chants are termed zema (ዜማ), and St. Yared is credited for composing and compiling these songs in the sixth century A.D. under divine inspiration. These orthodox chants has have their own notation system, and documents have been discovered using this type of notation dating back to the 16th century. Church musicians, dabtara, are specially trained within the church to perform liturgical music and dance, learning from the indigenous notation and from oral transmission. Of course, in the context of church services and holidays such as Timket, there is ample participation in the music from all church-goers.
Here is a chant in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Church.
For a sampling of Orthodox mezmur (Amharic for a religious song), this playlist should keep you occupied for a very long time (240 videos!):
Visual elements of these videos are also quite important in addition to the music, as iconography is a significant component of worship. Some of the videos also demonstrate shibsheba, the religious dance (distinct from chifera, which connotes secular dance.)
Music is also an important part of religious celebrations, including Timket (or the Epiphany), which celebrates Jesus’ baptism and usually falls in late January. The following is (an extremely poor-quality) video I took of a Timket celebration in 2014 in a neighborhood of Addis Ababa.
No discussion of Ethiopian music would be complete without some mention of the azmari. Azmariwoch (pl) are Ethiopia’s minstrels, singers who accompany themselves on the masinqo. They are especially adept at improvising lyrics and are famed for their use of wordplay. The technique, known as seminna werq (“wax and gold”), uses double entendre to sing one thing while meaning another. (In other words, they are masters at making very sophisticated puns.)
To take an example from Donald Levine’s book Wax and Gold:
On the surface, the poetic line Tallat sishanu buna adargaw enji can be translated, “When seeing an enemy off, serve him coffee.” However, buna adargaw, “serve him coffee,” sounds remarkably like bun adargaw, which means “reduce him to ashes.”
The azmariwoch have used seminna werq to make social and political commentary throughout Ethiopia’s history, making them a target for persecution in the past by authoritarian governments and the Italians during their brief occupation in the ’30s.
Azmariwoch have served in a variety of contexts throughout Ethiopia’s history, from praising royalty to rallying armies into battle to wedding celebration to beer houses (known as azmari bet).
One of the distinctive song genres of the Amhara that has also become popular in the cities is the shilela (maybe also be spelled shilila, shelela, or with any or all the l’s doubled in either case…such is the nature of trying to transliterate from a different alphabet). The shilela are war songs, meant to incite patriotism and/or motivate soldiers to fight in battle (and overall boast about how awesome Ethiopia is), usually with exaggerated statements and bragging. According to Ethiopian ethnomusicologist Ashenafi Kebede, the shilela developed as an important genre during the Muslim invasions and has resurged at various points during local and international conflicts.
Now, these songs are also performed for entertainment in the cities, even for tourists. The Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopians defeated the Italians in late 19th century, is a popular topic.
Usually, shilela are sung by men, but I recently came across this music video with a male-female duet (ladies represent!)
Here’s another one by Alemayehu Fanta, a well-known musician and now teacher at Yared School of Music who actually specializes in this genre: