Ethiopia has known much isolation since its rise from the dust of the Axum kingdom in 500 B.C. Already a Christian land when Islam swept through northern Africa, Ethiopia survived a bout with Portuguese colonialism only to descend into civil wars after forcing the conquerors out in the 19th century. The Emperor Haile Selassie came to the throne in 1930, intending to modernize the country. Though his rule survived World War II-era domination by Italy, it ended in failure in 1974, when the repressive, "Marxist" Mengistu regime once again cut Ethiopia offespecially from the Westuntil 1991. This history of suffering finds expression in achinoy, a melancholy quality treasured in Ethiopian music.
Though the country hosts 75 ethnic groups, the Amharic-speaking people from the central highlands around Addis Ababa have mostly dominated popular music. Since ancient times, Amharic azmari musicians have recited oral histories accompanied by the krar (lyre), masenqo (one-string fiddle) and washint (flute). In the '20s, the young Selassie brought in Armenian refugees from Jerusalem to form the Bodyguard Orchestra, and well into the '70s similar military-brass bands accompanied recording artists like the poetic Tilahoun Gessesse, his successful protégé the "Hindi-styled" Neway Debebe and the ultimate best seller, Mahmoud Ahmed. From the start, these pioneers diversified, singing both traditional and popular repertoires, working with a variety of bands, and playing the grand halls as well as the tedjbets (beer halls) of Addis, where dancers shake shoulders, heave chests and snap their heads back in the customary iskista dance. Fashioning a unique, sensuous pop tradition, these singers honor the old tchik-tchik-ka rhythma fast, lopsided triplet beatbut arrange their smooth, quivering voices in call-and-response with trumpets and saxophones and hike the music's emotional pitch to rock 'n' roll levels.
Tilahoun Gessesse has a powerful, snaking voice, and he often sings over loping, horn-driven grooves that are ornamented by the plucked rhythms of the krar. His music's slinky feel suggests a Latin tinge and a taste of soul. Dark pentatonic scales, unfamiliar even in the palette of North African music, convey desire, remorse and forbidding.
When Mengistu came to power in 1974, a 10 p.m. curfew drove musicians into studios, where session bands like Roha Band, Wallias Band and later Ethio Stars developed. Producer and talent scout Ali Tango exploited the dawn of cassettes in 1978 to boost typical sales from 3,000 LPs in the old days, to as many as 100,000 tapes. Private parties lasted until 5 a.m., when the curfew ended. Despite these constraining circumstances, some 50 male and female singers maintained recording careers.
Mahmoud Ahmed, who started out as a shoeshine boy in Addis, emerged as a top star, fitting his highly melodic approach both with the old-fashioned Imperial Bodyguard Band, and the up-and-coming Roha Band, which, with over 250 releases to its credit, has now dominated Ethiopia's pop scene for over a decade. Singing with Yohannes Tekola's Wallias Band, the soulful Alemayehu Eshete evoked James Brown and Little Richard. Also with the Wallias Nand, Netsanet Mellesse applied her sweet, choirgirl voice to suggestive electric pop. The era's third great backing band, Ethio Stars, formed in '81, bringing in rock and reggae, but staying loyal to the old pentatonic scales and the tchik-tchik-ka rhythm that's essential to the Ethiopian sound.
Much has changed since the Mengistu regime fell in 1991. Finally able to travel, established stars toured frequently to play for exiled communities who were long denied direct contact with their favorite singers. Meanwhile in Addis, a new generation, eager to jettison reminders of a depressing past, turned their ears to Kenyan pop and to American rap and reggae. A star while still in his teens, Hebiste Tiruneh heads up a new stable of pop singers that now also includes Yihuneh Belaye, Chache Tadesse and Hamelmal Abate, the country's top female singer at present. The Abyssinia Band, led by Davit Kassa grew popular, even though it radically altered the sound of local music by introducing the seven-note Western scale. Though now defunct, Abyssinia's inventive arrangements pioneered the use of international pop formulas previously off-limits, like Zairean soukous guitar. Keyboard player and arranger Abegassu Kibrework Shiota has worked with stars Aster Aweke and Tilihoun Gessesse. Now working and studying in the U.S., Abegassu plays in the Admas Band.
Perhaps the biggest change in Ethiopian music is that long-dominant Amharic music now competes with neotraditional styles from regions like Tigray, Gonder and Oromo. Tigrayan Kiross Alemayehu spent four years in Mengistu's prisons for his songs about democracy, which were accompanied by hand clapping, krar and masenqo. Now he and fellow Tigrayan musician Zerihun Wedaho enjoy freedom and celebrity. The fast, rootsy gurague style has produced at least two modern stars, Mohammed Awel and Wabi Abdrehman. As a group like the Tukul Band plays successful pop on electrified traditional instrumentskrar, masenqo and washintthe more mainstream Abyssinia Band responds by using "camel-walk" rhythms in their pop constructions. This newly invigorated environment suggests that the best of Ethiopian pop may lie ahead. Banning Eyre, Courtesy Afropop Worldwide: www.afropop.org