Guest Bloggers Around the World: Music Renaissance in Ethiopia

Afropop is pleased to unveil a new series of guest posts from bloggers around the world, offering coverage of music scenes by writers who know them best. Our second installment comes to us from Arefaynie Fantahun, an expert on the scene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

Ethiopia has long been highly regarded for its once-rich and vibrant music scene. It struggled with the official censorship of the ’80s and the sluggishness that plagued it afterwards, but now the contemporary music scene is finally taking off, fueled by live performances, the impact of FM radios and the Internet, and the return of exiled musicians who are reassuming their role as creators.

Many Ethiopians still fondly recall the music that was produced in the ’60s and ’70s, the classic period called the Golden Age, when major artists such as Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessese, Alemayehu Eshete and Bizunesh Bekele experimented with and adapted sounds according to their own creativity.

Teddy Afro

Teddy Afro Live

Even though some of the musicians that emerged from this era are still active, the 1980s and ’90s saw the decline of the whole scene, linked perhaps to the demise of live music and emigration of musicians. The big bands that provided experimental sparks disappeared and the small groups that emerged did not seem to have the staying power of their predecessors.

In the last two decades, however, a number of factors came together which set the stage for a welcome change. Concerts and live bands have become more prominent. Playing light, melodic songs or energetic rock, soft reggae beat or folklore music, the new stars are making their mark on the popular music scene, with different grooves, shoulder shaking, ululation and handclapping mixed with the modern style.

Teddy Afro has remained the dominant force in this change, possessing unique performance power. Beginning in 2001, when he became a household name with the album Abugida, his popularity has persisted. He strikes a chord with a mass audience because he invokes the nostalgia of Haile Selassie years and the symbols of the Lion of Judah, aspects of the Ethiopian history which many people feel are ignored by the current regime.

Another positive development is the number of Ethiopians in exile who have returned home. Abegaz Kibrework and Teferi Assefa, who returned from the United States, represent the new generation of musicians leading the budding pop scene in Addis. Producer, composer, arranger and teacher, Abegaz is behind the success of many of the musicians in the local scene.

Alongside the development of the new music, there has been a revival of older styles and interest in the Ethiopian musicians of the bygone era. Groups such as Express Band are reworking folk and pop songs from the ’50s and ’60s. Formed in 1994 and spearheaded by such icons as saxophonist Feleke Hailu and lead guitarist Kibret Zekios, the Express Band is fast becoming one of Addis’s busiest and most popular live groups.

Express Band Ethiopian Instrumental Music (Yehiwote Hiwot)

Addis Ababa’s status as a center for cutting-edge music has surged in the past couple of years with the opening of top-tier clubs such as the rejuvenated Belisima Club in the Ghion Hotel, and Jazz Amba in the historic Tailtu Hotel, hosting the Zemen Band, Abysinya Sound and the Express Band, who cater to a variety of audiences. The Selam, Acacia and Tizita Music Festivals have also become key annual events of the city.

Photos by Sisay Guzay and Mario Di Bari

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