Ethiopian Music Cultures

By: Hannah Purseglove

Like many other African countries, Ethiopia is a multi ethnic state. The diversity of the country transfers over into the music of Ethiopia today. The diversity in the music comes from the various ethnic groups, each being associated with a unique sound. As well as each group having a unique sound they also have a very distinct music culture and traditions. One of the most defining traditions that separate the groups are the various ethnic dance moves. The outline below examines the groups, locations, and dance style (Astatke).

Ethnic Group Location Dance Style Video
Tigryanas Northern Ethiopia Circular dance routine with smooth neck and shoulder movement
Amharas Central Ethiopia Rapid upper body movement. Also dominated by neck movement.
Oromos Central/Southern Ethiopia Full body dance movements characterized by a jumping style and strong neck movements.
Gurages Southwest Ethiopia Acrobatic dance style consisting of a high level of body coordination

Some of the musical and dance aspects seen the in the videos above that are shared across all of the groups, such as the distinctive hand-clapping and solo drums comes directly from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which has influenced traditional Ethiopian music greatly (2010).

In the past the Amharic-speaking people from the central highlands of Ethiopia dominated popular music, but today things have changed. Today the long-dominated music of the Amharas now competes with the neotraditional styles of the Tigryanas, Oromos, and Gurages. One thing that has stayed consistent with each ethnic group throughout the years and even up to today is the strong tradition of singing and dancing. Music has always played an important role in Ethiopian cultural life being used in recreation work, spiritual belief, and even politics (Bekele). Singing often supplements agricultural activities, religious festivals, as well as birth, marriage and death festivals.

Additionally, Ethiopian music has 3 main forms. First being textual or vocal music, which is also most common. Often times this vocal music is largely improvised. It is not uncommon for audience members to shout out versus and the performers to skillfully incorporate them into their music on the spot. The second form of music consists of music accompanied by mime or expressive dancers. Over time, this form of music has been used to share the folklore of different tribes and cultures. The last form of Ethiopian music is instrumental. Mulata Astake made instrumental music famous in the 70s. He brought a new light to Ethiopian instrumental music by combining his Jazz and Latin music interests with that of traditional Ethiopian music. He focuses mainly on the use of the vibraphone and conga drums, both of which are used prominently in popular Ethiopian music (Astatke).

Although popular music of modern times is often recorded and listened too, the traditional music is what has held strong through the years and interests most Ethiopians. This is what ultimately makes Ethiopia a very musically traditional country.



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Astatke, Mulatu. Red Bull Music Academy interview

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2010.Traditional Ethiopian Music and Ethiopian Culture.
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