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Ethio Jazz and the Circular Nature of African Folk Music

by Miles Brown on April 28, 2015

The birth of Ethiopian jazz, begins with the defeat of the Italians at the battle of Adwa in 1886. Under the reign of Emperor Menelik II, Ethiopia began to receive gifts from many countries seeking to build diplomatic relationships after hearing about this impressive victory. Nicolas II, the Tsar of Russia during this period, sent a gift that would become the catalyst for Ethiopia’s modern music evolution. This gift was actually several gifts, and they were the essential Western instruments needed for a full brass band. While at this point in time Ethiopians were very against Western expansion, they had no idea how radically these gifts would change their music.

The wheel truly began to turn in 1924 when Ras Taferi, before he became Emperor Haile Selassie, embarked on a diplomatic tour through Europe. He first stopped in Jerusalem to view the Tomb of Jesus Christ, and upon his welcome he encountered a marching band of 40 Armenian orphans: Arba Lijoch (orphans of the Armenian genocide that took place in Turkey, 1915 – 1918). Impressed, he ended up adopting all of them, in the hopes that this would become the foundation for his new royal music group. He would also bring along their Armenian bandleader, Kevork Nalbandian. Nalbandian would go on to compose the first Ethiopain National Anthem and along with his successors foster the cultivation of modern Ethiopian music.

After a nominal Italian rule during the Mussolini era (1935 to 1941), Ethiopian modern music truly hit its stride in 1955, so much so that this period is now referred to as the “golden age” of music and creativity. Singers in military bands and state-owned theatre orchestras such as the Haile Selassie and the Hager Fikir were creating new compositions at a prolific rate. All contributed to the rapid growth in the number of Ethiopian pop singers, instrument players, lyric writers, and music arrangers. From the 1960’s onward private bands flourished. A creative trend appeared; Ethiopian folk tunes fused with Western music styles. Big band jazz was one of the biggest influences, but rock n roll, R&B, and soul also stirred in the melting pot. The undisputed father of this new music—referred to as “Ethio Jazz”—is Mulatu Astatke.

Astatke almost went down a much different path while studying aeronautical engineering at Lindisfarne college, an English college residing in Wales. He realized his true calling after observing his fellow Nigerian and Ghanaian classmates fuse jazz with their traditional music. Switching academic lanes, Astatke would become the first Ethiopian (and in a broader context, African) student of the Berklee College of music in Boston, at the time the only jazz school in the world (“A Brief History”). There he figured out how to combine the unusual pentatonic scale-based melodies of traditional Ethiopian music with the 12-note harmonies and instrumentation of Western music. Astatke’s “Tezeta” is an essential example of Ethio jazz aesthetics.

Ethio jazz is now enjoying an Indian summer. Some of the best-selling instrumental jazz records of the last few years have been from Ethiopia. Why is this? What makes Ethio jazz unique amongst the plethora of jazz-folk hybrids available to the common jazz fan? Francis Falcetto, head of French label Buda Musique and passionate curator of the much-celebrated Ethiopiques series has an idea: “Unlike any other African country, it has been independent for 3,000 years, apart from the six years the Italians were colonists”1. In other words, Ethiopia’s resistance to Western expansionism allowed it to produce one of the truest forms of an Afro-Jazz hybrid. Truest because, unlike Congolese (Rumba) and Cuban jazz, Ethiopia’s isolation has kept it from being influenced by Western musical aesthetics. This raw aspect lends a sublime quality that can’t be reproduced by other African cultures that were heavily colonized by Western countries.

It’s cyclical in nature how jazz took to shape from African musical aesthetics in the Euro-American context of New Orleans, and then re-filtered itself through the different cultures of Africa, Ethiopia being the most unblemished of the African folk styles. With the popularity shift of jazz swinging towards the European landscape, it’s nice knowing that Ethio jazz is claiming stake and representing the African elements of the form in the mercurial axioms of transatlantic jazz.


“A Brief History.” A Brief History. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <>.

“Éthiopiques: Mulatu Astatke and the Story of Ethiopian Jazz.” Peter.culshaw. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. <éthiopiques-mulatu-astatke-and-story-ethiopian-jazz>.

“In The Company of Emperors: The Story of Ethiopian Armenians.” In The Company of Emperors: The Story of Ethiopian Armenians. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <>.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Amber Scurry May 1, 2015 at 5:14 pm

This article about Ethiopian Jazz is really interesting. It is a shame that many other countries are not put in the limelight about the effect of European Colonization and its effects on the cultures. It is interesting that the czar of Russia has gifted instruments to the newly-freed country. Also, it is interesting when talking about colonization. Most of the focus is on countries is England, France and Spain. Countries that were also involved aren’t really talked about, such as Italy.


Ben Colvin April 30, 2015 at 9:10 pm

This article is fascinating because it explains how Ethiopian music has remained a truly distinct African art form. Ethiopia’s independence has kept its original music authentic while still borrowing western instruments as a vehicle to develop its own jazz hybrid. I’m a huge Mulatu Astatke fan and it was interesting to learn about his time at Berklee and how he used some western techniques/harmony to mold his own Ethiopian roots into an entirely different sounding take on the jazz asthetic. The Ethiopiques compilations are some of my favorite recordings that seem timeless, similar to the way jazz is a timeless music. I love how this music has such a distinct sound, especially as a western jazz musician myself. I never knew that Ethiopia was one of the only countries in Africa that has remained truly independent-it’s fascinating. I also found it interesting that the peak of this music was during a politically tumultuous time period, right after World War II. The catalyst for this music, being the delivery of western instruments as a gift for political gain, happened in response to a political issue as well. Ethiopia still remained true to its own culture and music despite the force of the politics and military of the West.


Matthew Chase April 30, 2015 at 1:31 pm

The moment I heard my first “ethiopiques” recording (sitting at the bar of The Admiral in West Asheville before it became the swankiest of dive-bar restaurants) I was immediately taken in by the amazing blend of sounds was hearing. I asked the bar tender what we were listening to, and went on to find a number of amazing records. Ethiopian “jazz” is some of the most unique music I’ve ever encountered and it’s nice to get a brief history of it here. I never would have imagined that Astake went to Berklee! It’s also interesting to think about Ethiopia’s impact on the music of Jamaica and hence the world. This is another topic altogether, but I can’t help thinking of it when Haile Salassie comes up. Ethiopia is a powerful place. It took Mussolini years to gain victory over Ethiopia despite that fact that his modern army was fighting men armed with spears.


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