Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 21, 2008

Ethiopian music

Filed under: Africa,music — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Mahmoud Ahmed

About 20 years ago, when I first started putting together a collection of African music, I bought a number of Ethiopique records, an anthology now available in CD. Last night I went to an outdoor concert at Lincoln Center that included Mahmoud Ahmed, one of my favorite artists. Organized by the “alternative” music FM station WFMU, the concert paired Ethiopian superstars such as Ahmed with Western bands such as the Either Orchestra. Thankfully, since Either Orchestra’s approach is to emulate the sound of Ethiopian bands of the 1960s and 70s, the so called Golden Era, there was no clash between singer and instrumentalists.

To get a handle on Ethiopian music, a good place to start is the WFMU blog entry on last night’s concert, which includes some mp3’s.

I was planning on writing about Ethiopian music anyhow, but was additionally motivated to do so after seeing that Lenin’s Tomb’s latest post involved Ethiopia:

The very logic of centralisation and homogenisation – under which Emperor Haile Selassie would later repress regional demands for autonomy and quash the Ethiopian-Eritrean federation, and which validated the destructive centralism of the Derg – would have important consequences for the emergence of Ethiopian nationalism partly as a result of the victory at Adwa. On the one hand, it created a predatory state in which the martial class was at liberty to appropriate from the peasants even during peacetime. It also threatened to undermine the basis for national unity precisely through its repression of regional identities. On the other hand, though a relatively powerful army had been built, the Battle of Adwa was notable for being a popular war.

Before getting into Ethiopian politics, I should say a word or two about Ethiopian music. Unlike just about all other Sub-Saharan pop music, except for South Africa, there is no Afro-Latin influence. Guitars and drums play a secondary role, as opposed to Congolese soukous or Senegalese mbalax. About the closest cousin on the continent is Fela’s big band. But unlike Fela, whose songs evoked James Brown, his Ethiopian counterparts sing in a modal style unique to the country that sounds vaguely East Asian. Called qenet, it varies slightly from the Western tempered tuning system.

The Ethiopique anthology would certainly not have come into existence without the intervention of Francis Falceto, a French music producer who heard some Ethiopian cassettes in the mid-80s and devoted himself to making the music available to fans of world music everywhere. In a very good interview with Afropop, Falceto relates the music of Ethiopia to the famous victory over Italian colonists at Adwa:

Afropop: Fascinating. During this period, from the Battle of Adwa in 1896 up until the time when Haile Selassie reconfirms his control in the 1940s, what has been happening culturally in Ethiopia?

F.F.: It’s deeply related to the victory of Adwa in 1896. As I told you, many countries sent ambassadors to Ethiopia. And it happened that the tsar of Russia sent an ambassador to meet Menelik II. And as a gift, he sent 40 brass instruments and a music teacher. Menelik decided to use them as his royal music. In this sense, the same thing happened in Ethiopia, a non-colonized country, as was happening in the rest of colonized Africa. The European colonialist introduced army bands because they were present. It was through the army bands that modern music started. First of all, they play marching music in the European style, but then the local musicians try to adapt their own music and musical culture with these Western instruments. And that’s the way, all over Africa, modern music, meaning local music played with Western instruments, started. Everywhere, you can see the same thing. Even in many other countries, in Asia, in South America. All this modern music is linked to military music. You find this in Jamaica. The Adwa victory was also a kind of starting point for the development of modern music in Ethiopia. The repertoire of the musicians at the time was limited to the marching music, national anthems of various embassies: France, Russia, America, England, etc. The teacher was probably a Polish guy; his name was Milewski. And this guy tried to teach the Ethiopians to perform marching music.

It was quite difficult, because, in Ethiopia, to be an artist, to be a musicians, is something like to belong to a cast. The traditional musicians, known by the name azmaris are considered as a caste, as they are a bit outside of the society. An average Ethiopian will never play music, you see. Still this type of caste exists nowadays. The way that they look at a musician is a bit despising. They have a very ambivalent position in regard to them. So, they like them for the jokes they can tell, the freedom of speech they have, the way they use double meaning in their songs. But they wouldn’t like their children to get married to such a musician. To set up this marching band, it was a bit difficult to find the right people to blow those instruments. They used to invite people from the Southern provinces, considered almost as slaves; very dark, black people, whereas the average Amharan or Tigrean, who were the dominant population, were quite light-skinned.

There was this kind of racism within the country itself. We have to wait about 20 years to see the development of modern music. In 1924, Ras Tafarai, before he became Emperor Haile Selassie, went on a diplomatic tour on Europe. His first stop was Jerusalem, because for Ethiopians, Jerusalem is a bit like Mecca for the Muslims. Every respectful Ethiopian should be a pilgrim to Jerusalem one day. So before he went to France, England, Sweden, Italy, and Greece, he went to Jerusalem just to go to the tomb of Christ. And he was welcome there by a marching band of young Armenian orphans. This was a few years after the genocide of the Armenian people in Turkey. They were spread all over the region and some landed in Jerusalem.

Ras Tafari was amazed by these musicians and immediately made a deal with the Armenian patriarch in order to send them to Ethiopia to become the new royal music. And when he came back from his tour all over Europe, he took them from Port Saïd to Addis Ababa. These forty, again forty, young Armenian orphans became another royal music. Still nowadays, they are known as “Arba Lidjoch” in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, “the forty kids.” The Forty Kids had a music teacher, Kevork Nalbandian. After Kevork, other Nalbandians will come to come to teach Ethiopian musicians, and in the 50s, 60s, early 70s, the nephew of Kevork, Nerses Nalbandian, will become a core person to develop modern music.

Not long after Marxmail got started, there were a group of Ethiopian students who were subscribers. In all honesty, I thought that their politics had more in common with the “anti-globalization” protest movement of the time, but was very happy to have them aboard despite some occasional friction.

To satisfy my own curiosity about Ethiopian history, I spent about a month reading up on the subject from the well-stocked Columbia library. Here’s a brief excerpt from what I wrote:

Ethiopia has the distinction of being the only great African nation that was organized around Christianity, although of a highly distinct character. It must be understood that the world’s great religions have emerged out of commercial and financial exigencies. Just as Protestantism was catapulted into existence through the power of peasant rebellions in Great Britain and Germany, at an earlier time divisions between Islam and Christianity had more to do with trade routes and commercial opportunity rather than soul-searching.

Furthermore, the religious component of the modern day Ethiopian state shares with Israel mythological foundations in the Old Testament, as distinct to the New Testament foundations of both Protestant and Catholic states. The modern day Ethiopian state began to emerge in the 15th century under the rubric of the Solomonic dynasties. Its foundational myths have much more charm for me than the territorial aggrandizing myths of the Zionist state, since they are based on Eros rather than war.

In the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon in order to soak up some of his wisdom:

“When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan–with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones–she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her.” (I Kings)

In the Ethiopian version, Solomon seduces her and she becomes impregnated with Menelik I, the legendary founder of the Ethiopian state. Since the Ethiopians become so enamored with Jewish wisdom in the presence of Solomon, they decide to steal the Ark of the Covenant to bring it back with them. Jehovah tells the Ethiopians that the larceny was okay with him. So it’s okay with me as well. In the PBS documentary on Africa, the boorish Skip Gates keeps pressing modern day Ethiopians to show him their holy relics like a tv talk show host asking guests to show the audience their tattoos.

The most interesting thing about all these legends is that they reflect the importance of Ethiopia in North African trade going back through the millennia. If the Queen of Sheba actually traveled to Solomon’s Kingdom, it was probably to barter goods rather than sop up wisdom. From the biblical era to the time of the emergence of the Solomonic dynasties in the 15th century, Europe enjoyed no particular advantage over the rest of the world and was merely one of a series of regional commercial centers that interacted with other commercial centers through well-established trade routes. It was only 1492 and the subsequent looting of the New World that allowed Europe to leapfrog over every other regional center and consequently destroy their economic viability as well.

During the heyday of the Solomonic dynasties, Ethiopia’s economy was connected to the regional network organized around the Red Sea and the Nile valley. Within Ethiopia, slaves and gold were exchanged for coffee. The market for Ethiopian beans grew considerably in the final quarter of the 17th century, as Yemen, a major trading partner, sought increasing amounts to satisfy the habit in Europe. Ethiopia, like 20th century Colombia, thus enjoyed a modicum of commercial success as it helped a gloomy Protestant population with jolts to its central nervous system.

The Ethiopian empire emerged in a fashion quite similar to comparable empires throughout the world which were also based on feudalism. In every instance, one band develops superior war-making skills and conquers less-endowed bands. In the New World, the Aztecs and Incas were the best known empires while the Mughals and various Chinese dynasties developed in the same fashion. Economically, these feudal kingdoms or empires were based on what John Haldon calls the tributary mode of production, more about which presently.

In the case of Ethiopia, the Amharic-speaking and Christian peoples of the northern highlands became the dominant band or nationality. Like the Aztecs and Incas, they were constantly battling to bring unruly subject peoples under control–alas, a pattern that did not disappear after the country was “liberated” by the Derg.

One of the better-known imperial subjects, besides the Eritreans, were the Oromo based in the south, a Cushitic-speaking pastoralist people. Their pastoral economy led to a loosely structured, egalitarian society led by officials who were elected by village councils. When competition increased for grazing land in the south, the Oromos retreated to the eastern plateaus of Ethiopia where they were constantly beset by the emperor’s troops. During the 17th century, they managed to consolidate territory under their control and held the central government at bay. According to Ethiopian monk and historian Bahrey, their success was related to the elan of the socially homogenous Oromo warriors, who took advantage of weaknesses in the feudal hierarchies of their enemy, which lacked the internal resolve to mobilize its resources completely. One must wonder if Ethiopia’s difficulties today in Eritrea and with other “lesser nationalities” is to some degree related to earlier cultural and social patterns. Isn’t it possible that the revolutions that cleansed Ethiopia of both Haile Selassie and the Derg retain certain of the feudal structures of the past, including chauvinism toward lower-rank peoples?


  1. Informative and interesting reading. Thanks.

    I’ve been dabblingly noticing African music for years, starting with King Sunny, then Ali Farke Toure, then Issa Bagayogo, Orchestre Baobab, Tschala Muana, Femi Kuti, Alpha Blondy… I was exploring some Bill Laswell when I discovered Ejigayehu Shibabaw’s voice (Gigi), and this led me into Ethiopian music. I find the Ethiopique Volume 4 recording of the tunes and arrangements by Mulatu Astatke wonderful. I’ll certainly look into more of the Ethiopique volumes.

    Comment by Larry Davis — August 24, 2008 @ 2:28 am

  2. I see that Gatatchew Mekuria & The Ex also played at that Lincoln Center concert. Last fall, I having dinner in an Ethiopean restaurant around the corner from my house, and my dinner companion recognized the CD they were playing: a recording made by Ethiopean sax player Gatatchew Mekuria together with the Dutch band The Ex. Great stuff. There is a bunch of clips on YouTube:

    Comment by Colin Brace — August 24, 2008 @ 8:53 am

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