10 Songs That Tell the Story of Ethiopian Music

Aster Aweke performs at Central Park SummerStage , New York, 1992.

Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns via Getty.

10 Songs That Tell the Story of Ethiopian Music

Featuring tracks from Aster Aweke, Mulatu Astatke, Alèmayèhu Eshèté, Seyfou Yohannes, Hailu Mergia and more.

This selection of Ethiopian music encompasses new and old: the now world-renowned Ethio-jazz sound of the '70s and '80s as well as subtler, understated sounds and music born from Ethiopia's enduring relationship with its neighbor Sudan. Given recent events that have tested this relationship, it's an important reminder that cultural boundaries need no borders, soldiers, no incursions, no conflict.

Aster Aweke 'Anteye'

Born in Gondar, Ethiopia in 1961, Aster Aweke, one of Ethiopia's leading artists, now resides in Washington, D.C. A prolific star, she has nearly two dozen albums, singles, and recordings to her name and has produced new music as early as 2019. Perhaps her most famed single, "Anteye," also remains her most coveted, selling for as high $800 for a single copy. In 1997, Aweke returned to Ethiopia for the first time since leaving her home to perform to a rapturous audience of nearly 80,000. She has worked with both independent labels as well as heavyweights in the US like Columbia Records. It wouldn't be a stretch to say many are eagerly awaiting a new recording.

Alèmayèhu Eshèté 'Telantena Zaré'

This past month, the world collectively lost four African heavyweights: Sudan's Abu Obaida Hassan , Nigeria's Sir Victory Uwaifo , Senegal's Barthelemy Attiso , and Ethiopia's Alèmayèhu Eshèté . "Always a rebel," his Guardian obituary reads, "Eshèté was also the first to defy the authorities by recording for a then-forbidden independent label, at a time when the government authorities officially held a monopoly on all music sales." Hackneyed nods are made to Eshèté being the "Ethiopian James Brown," but we shouldn't entertain facile comparisons that are unnecessary and wholly inaccurate. Alèmayèhu Eshèté was Ethiopia's Alèmayèhu Eshèté and he should be remembered as such. There is an endless list of his songs to choose from, each one better than the last, but the first you hear of an artist always brands the mind in a special way.

Seyfou Yohannes 'Tezeta'

More so than the artist, the track itself here is a pillar of Ethiopian music. "Tezeta," or "Tizita," is a song form not dissimilar to Brazilian saudade or Cape Verdean morna, telegraphing nostalgia, longing of memories and time past or lost. In Amharic, "Tezeta" roughly translates to "My Memory." While almost everyone to have graced a mic on a stage in Addis Ababa has trialed their unique take on "Tezeta," Seyfou Yohannes' is arguably the most haunting.

Hailu Mergia 'Muziqawi Silt'

Perhaps the most enduring relic of a fabled age of Ethiopian music, Hailu Mergia , also of DC acclaim, would waltz into the shortest of curated Ethiopian music lists. Since there is an endless catalog of press about his resurrection from cab driver back to instrumentalist extraordinaire, a more personal anecdote is in order. I met Hailu in New York's East Village years ago after one his first live performances for many decades. After introductory formalities, humble as ever, the first thing he asked was, "How's my sound?" with a genuine interest in hearing an answer from a complete stranger. "Muziqawi Silt" remains one of the most stunning compositions in human cultural history. Not just the pinnacle of Ethiopian mastery and musicianship but a track deserving some sort of United Nations world heritage recognition, if that is ever extended to individual songs. It should be.

Mulatu Astatke 'Munayé (My Muna)'

It would be remiss to not mention the Ethiopiques series, still the most formidable and accessible catalog of Ethiopian music. Buda Musique's contribution to global cultural history set off a global reaction that remains the goal of anybody trying to introduce new music to the world's ever sharpening ears. Today, bands imitating the Ethiopian sound can be found from the United States to India to Japan. The masterpiece in the series remains the compilation of purely instrumentals and "Munayé" by the legendary Mulatu Astatke , "the man who created 'Ethio jazz'" , is the sweetest of ear candy.

Alèmu Aga 'Abatatchen Hoy'

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world and both its music,and its beer, named after patron saints, are some of its most attractive legacies. This track, one of several renditons, is a classic Ethiopian church hymn performed by Alemu Aga using a begena, a harp instrument referred to as the Harp of David. The song's lyrics end with "Forgive your dear child. Forgive us all our sins. We beg you to save us."

ሙሉቀን መለስ = እቩሩሩ በሉት Muluken Melesse 'Ishururu Belut'

Muluken Melesse is a stalwart amongst the pantheon of '70s greats who's widely beloved. The tone, pitch, and cadence of his voice is like a mildly spiced honey and this tune in particular finds him in his finest form. A song that wouldn't have been out of place in '90s Brooklyn, Bronx, or Queens, the arrangements are perfectly raw, a sort of musical equivalent of kitfo . To convert the uninitiated, play them "Ishururu Belut."

Yishak Banjaw 'Libey Ma'aduley'

European and American record labels have been setting their sights on Ethiopia for decades. It still remains the most coveted of sounds, ensuring successful, high volume releases, touring for artists, and great press response. It takes a dexterous ear to identify a truly unique Ethiopian sound in a heavily crowded space. The good folks at Teranga Beat have done just that with this stellar release by Yishak Banjaw . A smooth, delightful, hypnotic sound chamber of synthesizer keyboard madness that should constitute one of Ethiopia's finest musical hours. In the label's own words: "Love Songs Vol.2 was recorded in 1986 at Yishak's house, while he was working for the Police Band in Eritrea. It was released by an Eritrean label on cassette and was also distributed in Ethiopia. However, due to the shaky political situation, Yishak was forbidden to travel anywhere outside his country, including Ethiopia. Consequently Love Songs Vol.2 remained a very obscure and neglected musical experiment. Yishak chose to play everything on a small Casio PT, 'a keyboard for kids' as he proudly mentions. He recorded the whole album live, directly to his tape recorder."

Abdel Aziz El Mubarak 'Na Nu Na'

The story of Ethiopian music wouldn't be complete without mentioning or involving Sudan. Right next door, Sudan and Ethiopia share a special bond, expressed to its maximum via music. Ethiopian musicians lit up Khartoum and Sudanese musicians repaid the favor in Addis Ababa. But learning and performing each other's songs, and doing it damn well, was the ultimate love letter between the two countries. Here is the late Abdel Aziz El Mubarak , who I had the honor of sipping milky tea with at his home in Khartoum and had a long conversation about his life. While he said playing in Japan was his fondest memory, Ethiopia might've well been his second home. He performs a classic Ethiopian tune that brings the crowd into hypnosis. Relish the footage as much as the tune.

Abinet Agonafir 'Talga Eldunia Fareha'

And equally, Ethiopians till today continue to rework and cover Sudanese songs. Abinet Agonafir is a contemporary artist who tips his hat to his neighbors with a parting tune in this concise 10 chapters of the Ethiopian music story.

Introducing 'Crossroads: Ethiopia' by OkayAfrica

This article appears as a part of OkayAfrica's Crossroads, a special series examining Global Africa at critical moments. For our first package, we will dedicate 4 weeks of coverage to examining the lands of Ethiopia through a deep dive into music, politics, and culture.