Ethiopian music

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 3 16:47:34 MST 1999

You know, I've been so anxious to focus the list discussion on Ethiopian
politics, I've completely forgotten about my passion for Ethiopian music.
I'd like to say a few words about it, followed by some untutored
observations and questions about Ethiopian culture.

I first heard Ethiopian music on my way to Tanzania on Ethiopian Airlines
back in December 1989. It was an altogether strange experience in keeping
with what was going on in my head and around me. I had spent the day in
London, making connections to the Africa flight, but had not had any sleep.
I must have been up for at least 24 hours when the plane was midway over
the Indian Ocean. I sat in my seat drinking high-powered Ethiopian coffee
and reading a powerful but disturbing book on the search for the legendary
Quetzal bird in Guatemala by a left-wing ornithologist named Jonathan
Maslow. Titled "Bird Of Life, Bird Of Death: A Naturalist's Journey Through
a Land Of Political Turmoil", it describes his frustration with trying to
find the beautiful but nearly extinct bird of Mayan myth. All he can find
are the ubiquitous buzzards, which symbolize the devastation facing
Guatemala's peasants at the time. Since I believe in getting my money's
worth out of air travel, I decided to take advantage of the scheduled
movie, Burt Reynold's 1973 classic "White Lightning". Now the only way to
watch a movie like this is without the sound, since it is far more
interesting to watch cars smack into each other without hearing idiotic

But to make sure I was getting full advantage out of my flight, I decided
to listen to music while the movie was going and while I read my book on
buzzards in Guatemala, drinking Ethiopian coffee. So I decided to listen to
the Ethiopian music channel on the headset. Good lord almighty!!! I never
heard anything like it in my life. It was a mixture of what sounded like
night club dance music and the most offbeat harmonies that I really
couldn't place. It was not like anything I'd ever heard from the Congo, nor
did it sound like North African music like Rai from Algeria. It was
*different*. When I got back to NYC, I could only find 2 Ethiopian artists
in the record bins. One was the great Mahmoud Ahmed, whose "Ere Mela Mela"
has never appeared in CD. The other is Aster Aweke, who is about as much of
a crossover success as anybody singing such uncompromising music can be, I
suppose. I strongly recommend Aweke's latest CD, "Ebo", which while making
the expected concessions to Western tastes, really rocks. Apparently she
fled Ethiopia in disgust over the Derg's excesses and now lives in
Washington, DC which has a very large émigré community.

I think the best description of Ethiopian music comes from the Rough Guide
"World Music":

"The special characteristic of Amharic music is the use of a five-note
pentatonic scale with large intervals between some of the notes, giving an
unresolved feeling to the music, like missing your foot on the stairs in
the dark or waiting for a stone to hit the bottom of a well, and not
hearing it."

The only other memento I have from Ethiopia was a beautiful Coptic cross
that I purchased at the airport in Addis Ababa. Although I am of Jewish
origin and like all good Jews espouse atheism today, that Coptic cross
remains on the wall above my bed.

Which leads me to some questions about Ethiopian culture. Am I mistaken in
thinking that of all the countries in Africa, Ethiopia has been less porous
than all the others in terms of being influenced by outside culture? In
some ways, Ethiopia has struck me as the Japan of Africa--not in the sense
of being an economic powerhouse obviously, but in the sense of being
resistant to outside domination. It would be interesting to study her
history of successful military defenses against would be conquerors. Even
though Haile Selassie became such a monster in his old age, I am still
stirred by Bob Marley's rendition of "War" whenever I hear it.

What about Ethiopian novelists or poets? And is there a good history of the
country that you can recommend?

Louis Proyect
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