Is Modern Ethiopian Music Failing the Test of Time?

By Seble Teweldebirhan


JazzambaAddis Ababa, November 19, 2012 ( - Every night, Jazzamba lounge at Taitu Hotel entertains audiences with some of renowned musicians of the country. The first hotel in Ethiopia built in 1898 by the Wife of Menelik the II Itegue Taitu Betul (1851-1918) went through several evolutionary stages and the area has become the center for the expansion of modern lifestyle in Ethiopia. Now the hotel adds one additional credit to its name by becoming the place where the Ethiopian jazz has revolutionized with a motto of ‘let the good times roll’. The project is now led by the esteemed Ethiopian musician and producer Abegaze Kebrework Shiota and several other contemporary significant names in the music industry. The band brings the authentic Ethiopian Jazz especially from the golden age of Ethiopian music which is the 1950s - 70s.


Every Wednesday Jazzamba presents Alemayehu Eshete, the music icon whose voice and style is as unique and refreshing as it gets, stands in the small hall of Jazzamba and shows his incredible talent that is not affected by age at all. Alemayehu, with his famous passionate appearance and voice – a voice that makes him unique and outstanding and a style that is engaging and absolutely entertaining for the audience – plays his timeless music pieces.


AsheteAnyone who appears to enjoy this exceptional show at Jazzamba can understand that the generation of Alemayehu was incredibly talented and committed to music. Lyrics that actually make absolute sense under any circumstance by creating new emotions in people and a music that is classical in every sense of the term are a simple defining factors of the show. In fact, it seems it is hard to find a sound made with a commercial intent but for the love of the music.  The musicians of Alemayehu’s generation had gone beyond the society they were living and found original and new voice and a message of their own and not simply the sound of the mob.


The show also makes one to question what really happened to the Ethiopian music of the last two decades. Why is a generation decades back still defining the music of modern Ethiopia? This question is very relevant especially when one witnesses the reaction of the current generation to the old Ethiopian music’s. In most clubs, restaurants and other public spheres, music by Alemayehu Eshete, Tilahun Gesesse, Aster Aweke, Mohammud Ahmed, Tamerat Mola, and so many others who belong to that generation are still dominant. Young musicians and new bands play the old music and they seem to get more acceptances as a result.


“I feel so proud and at the same time sorry for that amazing generation,” said DJ Yonas after attending Alemayehu’s concert at Jazz amba on Wednesday night. “They created something my generation enjoys and obviously timeless, but was unable to collect the fruit and at least get the deserved recognition. Only the singers, to a very limited extent got what they deserve. Imagine those who wrote the lyrics, the melody and did the music and make it the way it is. I can’t even imagine the talent and commitment they had,” he said. Yonas says in the clubs that he has been working, old Ethiopian music are often played. “You can’t play contemporary music repeatedly mostly because people get bored easily. When you play Alemayehu or Tilahun it is guaranteed that the reaction is wild. The young generation loves them very much”


It is surprising to see that talents as big as Alemayehu still belong to the small Jazzamba Hall, while some of twaddle musicians have concerts with thousands of people in bigger and modern halls. “I think it is a mistake promoters are making today,” said Liya who said she is a regular at Jazzamba. “Alemayehu is an idol and with a little promotion, it is possible to make him a lot bigger than he is. The problem is we don’t use these icons while still alive. We lost many of them without exhausting their potential. I am afraid the same thing will happen and we will regret it later,” she said.


Today music has been commercialized beyond words. Though the fact that the industry has grown financially is great news, it is disappointing to hear dominant opinions that says the growth came at the expense of the very quality of the art. Most of those engaged in the music industry remain populists (more like how everything function in the contemporary Ethiopia) who seem to lose creativity of their own. The most celebrated musicians who actually manage to be wealthy out of the music industry (unlike the generation before them) are to for the most part business people than artists. Their ideas for the music comes directly from knowing what the public wants to hear. As a result, they have become an industry who simply manufactures a product that is wanted by the people. The product usually serves only temporary emotions and it is more like use and throw.


“I think today’s generation of musicians have tried to correct the mistake of the past by making sure they get what they deserve financially. That forces them to focus on commercialized sounds” said Hanna who owns a music store in Addis. “It is obvious that most of the music done today does not have the potential to pass the test of time and serve the coming generations. For example, when a new album comes out it is sold immediately, but after a few months no body comes to ask for it. You can take Teddy Afro as a best example. His album was sold almost overnight. But now I have several copies in my store and no body comes to buy them. However I always sell the 70s and 60s music and that is actually the sound my store depends on. Especially Tilahun Gesesse, Aster Aweke, Tessema Kassa, Mohammud Ahmed, and Alemayehu Eshete, are always in demand. I even sell music from the 1950s and before that by Bezunesh Bekele and Mary Armede,” she said.


In fact, the current musicians might not be expected to care about timeless music and knowing the mentality of today’s generation (which is brainwashed by capitalist ideology) most probably wish only to make a good living out of it. However, when talking music, coming short of examples for a sound that will pass to generation is indeed scary news for the industry.


Many suggest that the balance between commerce and music seems to have been lost. In fact, in Ethiopia, there is no genuine critic that evaluates the music from artistic and creativity point of view. Though the country has relatively old music school (Yared Music School) that manages to train some of the greatest musicians in the country, today it seems unable to have an actual effect on the music industry. As a result, for some of the top musicians of our time the row materials of their product are not the talent they have as an artist but the emotion of the public. Promoting our history (sometimes without even checking the facts), social issues like immigration, and other wounds that will leave no choice to the public but to react, they sell a version of music. Mostly they use the lyrics with emotional touch so that it will cover the poor quality of the melody and the rhythm.  Sometimes, for listeners outside those emotions, the music does not really make any sense.


The problem here is we are talking about music which by very definition is an art and is all about pushing boundaries. Music is at times about making people hear what they don’t know that they want to hear and may be a sound that did not exist in their mind before. That is where the creativity and the talent fit exactly. It is about inspiring society in a way they couldn’t figure out by their own. That is what makes music an art and not a pure commercial commodity.


“A Music critic who genuinely evaluates the value and degree of excellence of the music is as important as the industry itself,” said Seifu. He says he is stuck with the old Ethiopian music and cannot tolerate the contemporary sounds. “Musicians must know that they will not get away with a poor quality art just because it got temporary acceptance by the public. The problem here is that we have to differentiate between musicians who have the talent and the capacity to create new art from those who try to reflect the emotions of the public just to make money. The latter might be entertainers or may be activists (social or political), but that doesn’t mean they are qualified musicians in the strict sense of the term. That is how I see it,” he said.


“It scares me to think that the next generation might ask what we have been listening as music in our time,” said Tegu, who says he always comes to Jazzamba to listen to the old music. “What they will find impressive might be the sound from the generations before us. Of course there are a few talented and original musicians of our generation like Abegaze, and from singers like Zeritu Kebede and Michael Belaynehe. Still as a generation, this sample is very small.”


Seble Teweldebirhan



Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for She can be reached by sending email through this form.



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