Ethiopian Jazz: Thrilling Music That You Should Hear

Contemporary Ethiopian musicians reinvigorate traditional jazz stylings for new audiences in America and Addis Ababa.

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Politics and geography contributed to the music’s late U.S. arrival. In the 1950s and 1960s, jazz was considered an American art form, except among Latin jazz fans. Much of the history of jazz in Africa focuses on musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Oliver Nelson, who toured the continent for the U.S. State Department, rather than on Africans creating a parallel jazz movement.

Another reason specific to Ethiopia was the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by a communist military junta. Until that group was ousted in 1991, Ethiopia’s popular music was censored, nightclubs were shuttered and only patriotic songs could be recorded. A generation grew up with scant memory of folk music, the root of Ethiopian jazz.

Today’s jazz revival in Ethiopia can be attributed to the success of the Éthiopiques series and the popularity of the Addis Acoustic Renaissance Group. Led by guitarist Girum Mezmur, 35, the band performs in Addis Ababa weekly at the packed Club Alize. The group’s mission when it rearranges Ethiopian songs from the 1950s and 1960s is to invigorate “a new generation of Ethiopian club goers with melodies of the past.”

Members of the band also play traditional instruments like double bass, accordion and mandolin, as well as the kebero, a type of drum, and clarinet to make the old new.

The group, a mélange of novelty and tradition, consists of U.S.-trained Ethiopians, like the smooth double-bass player Henock Temesgen, as well as musicians from 1950s and 1960s, like the mesmerizing Shaleka Melaku on accordion and Ayele Mamo on mandolin. Now Ethiopians can relish a musical tradition that was nearly lost at home, and barely acknowledged in the West.

This music is no passing fancy but a spellbinding style that deserves the critical attention it now receives in the U.S. and Ethiopia. Whether you listen to the curated Éthiopiques or live music in Ethiopian nightclubs in Addis Ababa, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles, you’ll hear a transcontinental exchange of melody, history and culture, and discover one of jazz’s greatest innovations.

Want more? Watch and listen to a range of music and a playlist of Ethiopian music videos, and check out the Roha Band‘s modern approach.

Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the nonprofit organization A Long Walk Home, Inc. Follow her on Twitter.

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