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Kay Kaufman Shelemay at Harvard office (Eyre-2006)

Kay Kaufman Shelemay is a professor of music and African and African American Studies at Harvard.  She is author of A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey (University of Illinois Press, 1994  Kay is currently doing research on the Ethiopian community in Washington, DC..  Banning Eyre met with her in her office at Harvard for a wide ranging discussion about Ethiopia and its music.  This is Part 2 of that conversation, a companion to the Afropop Worldwide, Hip Deep program “Ethiopia: Diaspora and Return.”  Click here for Part 1, “Ethiopia: Empire and Revolution.”

B.E:  Francis Falceto, producer of the Ethiopiques CD series, makes much of the duration of the Dergue régime.  18 years.  That means that people who were young in the so-called "swinging Addis” period, were quite old by the time things opened up again.  And young people of that time had no memory of it.  For him, that sort of radical disconnect partly explains why young musicians are having a hard time matching the level of creativity that existed during that era. 

K.S:  There surely was disruption and, and there was death and dying, and terrible pressures on all the musicians.  But Mulatu Astatké survived the revolution and continued working through it.  Others survived in diaspora.  And there is a new generation that has emerged, who were born in Ethiopia during the revolution, some of whom then came to the States in the ‘90s, actually after the revolution, and now have gone back.  So this is by no means a musical wasteland.  I think every generation has its music, and I would find it odd if the new generation simply replicated the music of the sixties and seventies.

B.E:  Oh, of course.  And I don't think that's what Francis is looking for either.  What he is missing in the current music is simply a level of creativity.  For him, most of the artists seem quite happy to just go into a studio, turn on the drum machine, have nobody playing any instruments at all, and the audience is satisfied with it.  Because the market is small, that's all that can be afforded, so people just accept it.  I am simplifying his critique, but that's the essence. 

Mulatu Astatke in New York (Eyre, 2005)

K.S:  Well, I see creativity in a number of different domains.  One does not see the big band style to the same extent.  That is true.  But one doesn't see that internationally to the same extent.  Musical discourse has changed, and the whole relationship of the African musician to music internationally has shifted.  I would say that the stakes have gone up appreciably.  And young Ethiopian musicians, especially those in the post revolutionary context, in the last 15 years—who are almost 15 years out from the revolution now—they are making international careers.  They are traveling back and forth, and some of them are commanding huge audiences.  Teddy Afro, for example, is a very creative musician, heavily influenced by reggae.  He has a new CD out called Yasteseryal.

B.E:  Tell me about Teddy Afro.

K.S:  He is from Addis, but he is now centered heavily in Atlanta.  He is doing tours all over North America, Europe, Ethiopia.  And his work is very interesting, songs about healing, but with a very heavy connection to reggae.  I'm seeing a whole generation of bicultural musicians, or musicians who span the Ethiopian homeland and its many diasporic communities, and they are very creative, so they are singing to a different audience.  But, yes, the big band tradition that grew out of the fifties and sixties, and was sustained in a very lively way into the seventies, it was truncated by the revolution.  Although many if not most of the musicians did survive it, in the process, in the interim, the world has changed.

Yastaseryal, 2005 release from Ethiopia's Teddy Af

B.E:  Francis says that for Ethiopians, musical arrangements, great voices, great instrumentals or melodies—all that comes second to lyrics.  Would you agree?

K.S:  I'm not sure that's the case.  I would hate to characterize Ethiopia in music in a unitary way.  I think it's all these things, and it's the melody, and it's the rhythm.  And it's the dance.  And it's the words.  It is the totality that explains it.  And I think, especially today in the diaspora—where some young people don't know Amharic, but are listening to songs in that language—for them, I would probably think that it's the sound.  I don't mean to disagree with Francis.  I think Francis is fabulous, and I think Ethiopiques is such a gift.  It is incredible, and I'm so thankful that he has done this, because this is a domain that I didn't get into until very recently, and then very tangentially.  You know, ethnomusicology has changed, and each of us as scholars has changed in these intervening years.  So I'm interested in different things now.  I wish I had been interested in the Golden Age when it was still going.  But I wasn't even in Addis much at that point.

So Francis has done so much good, and also Amha Eshètè [of Amha Records, which produced most of the “golden age” recordings], who is just extraordinary.  He is the record producer who originally made most of these recordings.  I met with him several times in June [2006].  He is now back in Addis after 20 years in the states.  He too spent 20 years in the states.  You see, you have had a musical world in transit ever since the revolution began.  And now, it is seriously in transit because everyone is traveling back and forth.  People are moving back.  This is Ethiopia unbounded at this point.

B.E:  Tell me about your recent visit to Addis.

K.S:  Well, for me, of course, there was the personal journey of not having been there for many, many years.  I could have gone back during the past 10 to 15.  I have not.  I was involved in other things.  I found that Addis Ababa has quadrupled, quintupled in size.  It is estimated at 4 to 6 million.  It is a massive, overwhelming metropolis now.  One sees the impact of the outflow of population too, especially of a middle-class, and educated middle-class, from the country to the diaspora.  One tends to have more distance between the very rich and a very poor, with not a lot in between.  One sees the impact of investment from Saudi Arabia.  One sees a growing Muslim presence.  And one sees a country struggling with continued conflict with Eritrea, with economic challenges, with all the usual challenges of life in Africa.

Admas band's 2000 release, Indigo Sun

One of the most interesting tales I can tell about my recent trip to Addis Ababa, is I went to hear a very popular, young azmari, [Adanèh Tèka] who sings a wonderful song about Bob Marley.  He is on one of Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques recordings, I think the second in the series.  I went to hear him at Yewedel, which is the azmari house that he always plays in.  And I arrived very excited, only to find out that he had left for Washington DC!  Luckily, I did hear another very good azmari that night.

B.E:  Was he just visiting Washington?

K.S:  Well, he's been there for a few months.

B.E:  What about some of these musical figures to have returned to Ethiopia, someone like Amha Eshètè?

K.S:  Well, Amha Eshètè is at a later point in his career, and is surely very knowledgeable about the musical scene, but not as engaged in musical life at the moment.  But what is phenomenal is the return of people like Abegasu Shiota.  Abegasu is a young musician, 40-ish, born in Japan of a Japanese mother and Ethiopian father, grew up in Ethiopia, spent some time from the mid-nineties through the beginning of the 2000s in the United States.  He went to the Berkeley College of Music, here in Boston.  And he lived in New York and in Washington, and did wonderful production on many of the recordings of the musicians that we've been talking about.  Abegasu has been involved with Gigi, and with many of the musicians who are recording today.  He has produced.  He performs on keyboard.  He is an honestly creative force, and he has a sound studio now in Addis Ababa.  He is involved in teaching young Ethiopians at the Yared School of music in Addis.  So he is an example of someone who is, I think, living his life as a musician both in Ethiopia and abroad, and has been both places and might be anywhere at any moment you choose to call him.

2006 release from Ephrem Tamiru

Henock Temesgen is another wonderful Ethiopian musician who lived in the States, and who also returned to Addis.  There has been a return in the last several years of a number of Ethiopian musicians who were pursuing very active and lively musical careers in diaspora.  Seleshe Damessae, the wonderful krar player who went to the University of Vermont and lived in Washington, played all over the states and is now back in Addis Ababa.  I missed him when I was there because he was doing good works up in Gondar.  But he has been instrumental in beautifying the Addis Ababa landscape.  He has actually been responsible for new gardens in the center of Addis Ababa.  So you find musicians there very active in musical life, and you find them also traveling and spreading Ethiopian music abroad.  There are people like Ephrem Tamiru, an Ethiopian singer who has a big new album out this fall.  I heard him play for Ethiopians students in Watertown Massachusetts about a –year-and-a-half ago.  So these folks are in transit.  They are moving across boundaries, and their music is at home and abroad.

B.E:  Do you think I will have to any trouble finding CDs by people like Teddy Afro and Ephrem Tamiru?

K.S:  Well, Teddy Afro’s big album Yastaseryal is everywhere.  [Editor’s note: In fact I had trouble finding a place to buy this on line.  You can order it from Dukem in Washington, D.C.  202-667-8735.]  Go on his web site.  You'll get his whole concert schedule.  Teddy Afro is everywhere.  He's traveling constantly.  Ephrem Tamiru had a wonderful song that has been very popular in the diaspora since the mid-nineties called “Hagerei,” one of my favorites, “My Homeland.”  It's a lovely ballad about Ethiopia and nostalgia.  It is of the tizita type, if you like.  It’s in the tizita mode.  Ephrem Tamiru, when I was in Addis, there were big billboards of this latest album up on Bole Road. 

Dukem Billboard, Bole Road, Addis Adaba (K. Shelem

I think the clearest statement about the connection of Ethiopia and its many diaspora communities, and the musical life was that on Bole Road in Addis Ababa when I was there in June, a huge billboard that had been up for sometime advertising Dukem, which is probably the leading Ethiopian restaurant and nightclub in Washington DC.  It also has a branch in Baltimore.  But on Bole Road, there's a big, big beautiful billboard featuring Dukem, and “come and visit us in Washington and Baltimore.”  And this is where a number of the best Ethiopian musicians in Washington DC perform, both traditional music and more popular music styles.  Dukem is the name of the restaurant.  It is named after a town between Addis Ababa and Debre Zeit, going I think to the southeast of Addis.  It's named after a very small town, kind of the truckstop along the road. 

B.E:  Was Abegasu Shiota involved with the Admas Band, that US based Ethiopian Band we met a few years ago?

K.S:  Oh, Abegasu Shiota was the Admas Band.  He and Henoch Temesgen.  They are both back in Addis, and they are performing, recording, producing, and teaching.  They are very engaged with the musical scene.  I suggest that you might want to play the song “Chiffera” or “A Prize of Peace” from the album Indigo Sun.   This album is all about reconciliation and peace. 

Film soundtrack

B.E:  Yes, I know this album.  We interviewed Henoch for our Ethiopia Reconsidered program.  I’m curious, though, in terms of sound and style, is this album pretty much continuous with assorted music that they are making in Addis Ababa now?

K.S:  I would say yes.  I mean, one always finds differences, but yes, they are very much engaged in the world of popular music.  They use synthesizers, but they draw out Ethiopian melodies and use Ethiopian texts.  And there are some very creative arrangements. Abegasu Shiota is a really marvelous producer and arranger, as well as a performer.

B.E:  I know that you are doing ethnography in Washington, DC now.  I’m wondering how you feel about the Ethiopian music being recorded there these days.

K.S:  I know that there are a million sound studios in Virginia and Maryland and Washington DC metropolitan area.  There is a very active nightclub life.  Dukem and other restaurants, for example, have Ethiopian musicians.  There is a lot of activity.  I think when one is dealing with the newly established, diasporic community, there is a need to wait and see.  These are people who are trying to reestablish their lives, rebuild, or build new institutions, everything from community welfare organizations to new churches.  They are reinventing themselves and their lives, and producing their own music is part of it.  I think that the Ethiopian diaspora has been very active musically.  There are networks.  For example, with the sports events, the big annual soccer event, which was in L.A. this year, has a big musical component.  There are concerts all around.  There was a concert here just a few weeks ago with leading Ethiopian musicians.  There is an Ethiopian cultural life and musical life that is very, very lively at weddings, and homes.  That it has not yet broken through in the commercial domain is probably to be expected.  Also, look at Mulatu Astatké’s music in Jim Jarmusch’s from last year, Broken Flowers.  Very, very major appearance of Ethiopian music.  Then there are the recordings of Gigi, the recordings of Aster.  These have commanded a very wide audience.  And they are as much a product of diasporic living as they are of the Ethiopian homeland.  So I'm not quite sure what one expects of these new communities at any point in time, but what I see is a vibrant musical culture.

Dukem, 12th and U St, Washington, DC (Eyre)

What I see is all sorts of possibilities emerging, and I'm watching with great interest.  There is a lot of creativity in the domain of Ethiopian Church music.  There is a lot of energy and club life, not just at Dukem, but in other places in Washington DC.  It is so lively that there has even been a move by segments of the Washington community to rename U Street Little Ethiopia.  That has been problematic because it is historically an African American musical performance arena, and there is concern that that would be supplanted.  But I think just the suggestion that this happen indicates that there is a lot going on musically.  I guess the bottom line is I see the glass half full, not half-empty, more than half full.

B.E:  And there's a rap too, right?

K.S:  Oh, the rap is extraordinary.  I mean, you have all over Africa and in other places in the world now, big hip-hop initiatives.  This is part of it, but it is particularly lively in the Ethiopian diaspora.  This, in part, I have learned about from my own students who are engaged with hip-hop, and with Ethiopian diaspora.  For instance, there are the recordings by Burntface Media, a multimedia collective for hip-hop and alternative music.  This is diasporic, but it's both.  In other words, that distinction is really blurred.  One track is “Mela Mela,” and it features The Profit, one of the performers. Profit, not prophet.  Again, one sees this kind of subtle plays on words here.  Not exactly wax and gold, but somewhere warm.  And they have a web site, by the way,

Hana Shenkute at Dukem in DC (2006-Eyre)

B.E:  When we spoke about the nostalgic song “Tizita,” you said it endures in part because longing for the past is something that Ethiopians at home and in diaspora share.  You also said that that Aster Aweke’s version is a favorite for you.  Why is that?

K.S:  Because it spans worlds.  And on that particular album, Aster (Triple Earth), it is one of the couple of numbers that are accompanied by a traditional, Ethiopian instrument.  And Aster’s vocal style is rather traditional.  It's a very deeply felt song, and she sings it as a woman living abroad, longing for her homeland.”

B.E:  Let's talk about women in Ethiopian music.

K.S:  Well, one needs to be careful, because I know the singer Gigi had aroused some controversy at one point for talking about the roles of women in Ethiopian music.  But I would say, surely, Ethiopia is a patriarchal society historically, and women's place was very much at home.  This has changed in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Ethiopia.  It surely was changing in some professions even before that time, and one has always had, for example, female azmaris, who sang, although they did not usually play the musical instruments.  In the past, there were among aristocratic women in Ethiopian, Christian society, who played the baganna, the 10-string lyre, although not so many.  Ethiopian women were not on the forefront of public musical life until during the revolutionary period in the Church when young people were unable to congregate in any other context.  They began to come to what were called Sunday schools, and in the eighties, during the Revolution, there developed a new genre of Christian hymns in Ethiopia called "Sunday school songs."  These are very much involving women, as well as men, and this very quickly translated and was transported to the diaspora, and today, one hears in almost all Ethiopian churches in the US Sunday school songs, and they are sung by choirs.  They may be choirs of young men and women, but in some of the churches I've gone to, they are sung entirely by women.

Hana Shenkute at Dukem in DC (2006-Eyre)

Women have also started playing the kebero, the Church drum.  They play both to accompany these choirs, and in some cases, I have seen them accompanying liturgical performance, which formerly, no women participated in.  In fact, historically in Ethiopia, women used to have to enter the church from a separate door entirely.  There are female nuns, just as there were female monks in the Ethiopian Church, but women were not Church musicians.  However, this changed during the revolution.  And for example, singers like Gigi talk about the impact of singing in the Church on her popular music.  Aster has spoken about that.  So a lot of the more recent generation of Ethiopian singers have been influenced by gender change and participation by women in Church rituals. 

B.E:  That's very interesting.  I remember both Aster and Gigi talking about that.

K.S:  And, surely the church music has influenced compositions in performances of all Ethiopian musicians.  Some of Mulatu Astatké’s most interesting compositions are based on melodies are modes from the Church.  For example, he has a wonderful piece called "Lent Time," which is inspired by Ethiopian Christian Lent chants.  So there is a lot of synergy, and there is a dialogue between the music of the Church and that of other domains.  But I think it is important to note that one cannot just partition off these worlds.  If they are part of a person’s experience, it moves into their music as well.  But we are seeing big changes in the participation of women in Ethiopian music in the popular music domain.  And this is particularly interesting and something I am exploring as part of my own work.  There are a lot of female singers, and there have always been female, azmari singers, but so far, I have not seen many doing musical, instrumental performance.  While in the Church, women both play the instruments and sing, they are mainly just singing in the popular domain.

Menale Dagnew on krar, Dukem in DC (Eyre)

B.E:  As I recall, Aster told us that she left Ethiopia because she felt constrained as a woman.  She felt that she was being attacked for singing the way she wanted to, incorporating the influence of R&B singers, and that sort of thing.  Gigi is younger, and has a somewhat different story.  But I wonder, are they now widely accepted in Addis?

K.S:  Oh, I think they are very accepted in Addis.  They are very popular there.  It's a very different situation, absolutely.  And there are other, newer Ethiopian singers, women who are popular, like Hana Shenkute, who sings at the Dukem nightclub.  She is terrific.  She has CDs out.  And she is an excellent musician who can work with in other styles, as well as singing really wonderful, traditional Ethiopian music.  All these folks are back-and-forth, absolutely.  I was startled in June to see the extent of the cultural flow.  I mean the sign on Bole Road for the Dukem restaurant really says it all.  People are moving back-and-forth, and music is moving back-and-forth.  I think one is finding things that are conceived in Addis, perhaps recorded in Virginia, published in a third place, and travel throughout Ethiopian diaspora communities around the world.

B.E:  That is exciting.

K.S:  It is economically tough for these musicians.  But it's tough for most musicians.  It is perhaps particularly tough for these new immigrants, who are trying to establish themselves, build families, homes, and lives, and also make music.  So one should not under estimate the challenges of pursuing a musical career as an immigrant, let's say, to the U.S., or wherever they happen to be.  This is not an easy assignment, but there is a lot going on.

Aster Aweke � Jack Vartoogian

B.E:  Tell me a little more about Hana Shenkute.

K.S:  Hana Shenkute is a young Ethiopian women living in Washington DC for some years.  She performs across the musical spectrum.  She does traditional songs, popular music.  She is a really dynamic stage performer.  She has collaborated with the many musicians in Washington, and with the Either/Orchestra.  She tours widely among Ethiopian expatriate communities, sings in Ethiopia.  Her song “Imye Ethiopia,” “My Mother Ethiopia,” is a ballad about the country, kind of an up-tempo, rousing song.  She has an interesting arrangement of it.  You have the traditional masenqo playing, as well as a band, and a very catchy chorus.  This song surely was sung in the eighties during the Ethiopian revolution, and I am actually not sure who composed it.  But it's here in a recording made by Hana in the late 90’s, and published in the states.  It's about my Mother Ethiopia.  It's a patriotic song.  She sings, "It's my country, my land."  And so on.

B.E:  What about Gigi?

K.S:  Gigi is really a very interesting figure.  She is both well-known in Ethiopia and in the diaspora.  She lives in New York.  She is married to the very well-known producer in musician, Bill Laswell.  And her work ranges from the traditional to really upbeat, new, hybrid works.  I particularly like her song "Ethiopia" from her Abyssinian Infinite, Zion Roots album.  It has a very nice vocalise, where she has a wordless, almost improvisatory section, which is very much based on a tradition in Ethiopian vocal music of wordless vocal portions of songs.  Bill Laswell is actually playing on this, acoustic guitar and keyboards.  And I should tell you that the wonderful washint (flute) player Melaku Gelaw is playing here, and Abegasu does the production and keyboards.  There's another wonderful song on here, speaking of the different modes.  Her first song on this album is "Bati Bati,” and that is one of the major tuning systems, categories of the melody in Ethiopian sector music.  So if you want to hear Bati, this is a great place.


B.E:  Let's talk about the diaspora in Israel.

K.S:  You have many places today in which Ethiopians are living outside of Ethiopia.  Sweden, for example, has a very large Ethiopian population, heavily Eritrean.  You have Ethiopians everywhere from Rome to London to Toronto to multiple American centers.  There is a large Oromo community in Australia.  So this is now a global Ethiopian community.  One tends to find clusters of particular Ethiopian ethnic and religious groups in certain areas, the Oromo diaspora, for example, in Minneapolis and areas of Australia, and other communities in other places.  In some cases, there are divisions among Ethiopians of different religions and ethnic backgrounds, in places of worship and so on.  In other places, they are much more cohesive.  For example, a major Ethiopian observance for Mesqal, the Festival of the True Cross, in Cambridge Massachusetts in late September will bring together all three Ethiopian churches in the area, and cut across people of various ethnic communities who are Orthodox Christians in the Boston area.  And this happens in other places as well.

You also have one large and very lively Ethiopian community in Israel.  Now this is interesting.  From the perspective of Ethiopia, there is an Ethiopian diasporic community in Israel made up of people now known as the Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel, formerly the Falasha of Ethiopia.  From the perspective of that community, they are now at home in Israel.  So again, one has different perspectives on homeland and diaspora, and this is a particularly complicated one.  The Ethiopian Jews were an indigenous Ethiopian people who acquired Jewish traditions, and over time identified very, very closely with Jews from abroad, especially in the 19th century when they were actually in contact with Jewish communities abroad as a result of European visitors.  In the 20th century, they sought to emigrate to Israel.  They were recognized as Jews on a biblical basis, as descendents of the tribe of Dan in 1973.  During and just before the Ethiopian revolution, they were seeking to emigrate to Israel, just at the point at which the entire country, speaking of Ethiopia, basically shut down with the revolution.

The Idan Raichel Project

In the 80s, and the 90s, and finally, at the end of the revolution, almost the entire Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jewish community was transferred to Israel, where they now live and partake fully of Israeli life.  And there are ensembles of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, who play traditional Ethiopian instruments.  There have been troupes of Ethiopian musicians and dancers who have visited in the United States.  I heard one maybe a year-and-a-half ago on tour.  There are also the reverberations of the resettlement of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel.  That has had an impact on other musicians in Israeli society.  An Israel in musician named Schlomo Gronich started a group called the Sheba Choir, 10, maybe 15 years ago.  He composed and performed with a group of young Ethiopian immigrant children.  They have recordings out, the Sheba Choir. 

And more recently, Idan Raichel, who is a popular musician, has produced several best-selling CDs in Israel, some of which draw on Ethiopian musicians, melodies, or instruments.  One song actually incorporates tracks of an Ethiopian masenqo, the one-stringed Ethiopian violin.  This is part of a more global engagement with Ethiopian music, the sort of thing one sees in the case of the Either/Orchestra in Somerville, Massachusetts, a really fabulous jazz band founded and directed by Russ Gershon.  Russ heard recordings of Ethiopian music, probably those published by Francis Falceto, and began playing arrangements of Ethiopian music, and he also has moved into collaboration, Russ Gershon and the Either Orchestra with Mulatu Astatké and other Ethiopian musicians, and concert and in recordings.  So what is happening now in Israel is not unique.  One sees it in other parts of the diaspora.  But it has become very popular within the Israeli musical scene.

Idan Raichel Project at BB King's, NYC (Eyre)

B.E:  You spoke about the emergence of musical notation after the Islamic invasion of Ethiopia in the 16th century.  That practice probably accounts for a certain consistency in Ethiopian musicality worldwide.

K.S:  Yes.  A great deal.  Now, surely there are differences in sound over time.  You also have within the Ethiopian Church different monasteries in different regions who promulgated different styles of singing.  The styles are alive and well, some of them, today, and some of them even in diaspora.  So it has been a great challenge for Ethiopian Christians to sustain the musical traditions of the Church in diaspora because it depends on such erudition, such expertise, and musicians trained for many, many years.  It is very hard to duplicate that training, impossible in diaspora.

The way in which Ethiopians responded to the crisis of the Islamic invasion in the 16th century was to restore and perpetuate creatively the tradition that had almost been destroyed, and invented, for example, a new system of music writing.  I would draw a parallel to the period we are now seeing, post Ethiopian revolution, which was cataclysmic for many people and lives within Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.  We are in a very short period since then, and I think we are seeing the creative response, the bouncing back from the period of the cataclysm.  Actually, they are really kind of similar, almost in their length of time: a decade, decade-and-a-half of crisis, and then watching the period afterwards in which the people reconstitute traditions from before and move forward with new traditions.

B.E:  Thanks so much, Kay.  This has been fascinating.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay-Ethiopia: Diaspora and Return

Interview by Banning Eyre

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.



Idan Raichel Project singers, BB King's, NYC (Eyre

Wagderass Vese and Idan Raichel (2006-Eyre)