Gospel and religious music in Ethiopia

By Elias Gebreselassie

This text provides an overview of religious music in Ethopia, particularly Christian gospel - often referred to as mezmur in Amharic - but also including Islamic music, known as manzuma. It outlines its historical background before providing examples of some of the main artists in the country today.

The choir of the Zetseat Apostolic Reformation Church in Mekelle. Photo: zetseatchurchmekelle.wordpress.com
The choir of the Zetseat Apostolic Reformation Church in Mekelle. Photo: zetseatchurchmekelle.wordpress.com

The Ethiopian Orthodox church, with a followership of about 44% of Ethiopia’s population, has a long tradition of gospel music. However, over the years its dominance has been challenged by the emergence of various other religious factions. Today Muslims make up an estimated 34% of the population and Protestants an estimated 18%. Nevertheless, any keen listener will notice that the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox church has an influence on most Christian music in the country. Though at times claiming to be “revolutionizing" local gospel music, the music of the largest Protestant denomination, namely the Ethiopian Evangelical (Mekane Yesus) church,  tends to be quite similar to that of the Orthodox church.

Background

While no one can say exactly when mezmur emerged in Ethiopia, according to Alemayehu Fanta, a deacon and teacher of Ethiopian traditional instruments at the country's oldest music school Yared, Saint Yared who lived in the sixth century was the first documented case of a sacred musical tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Ethiopia's system of musical notation. Yared was born in Axum in northern Ethiopia, the seat of the Axumite Dynasty that lasted until the 10th century. This was the first kingdom in the region to accept Christianity, giving Saint Yared the opportunity to learn and document the musical tradition of the church, including chants recorded in the Geez language, which is considered to have given rise to two of Ethiopia’s most prominent languages: Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language and Tigirnya, a northern language related to Amharic.

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia and its subsequent occupation from 1935 to 1941 was a seminal moment for gospel music in Ethiopia. Gospel music was no longer confined only to the church. Instead gospel singers moved beyond the jurisdiction of church ceremonies and ventured into resistance songs Ethiopian patriots tried to drive out the foreign invaders, often with the encouragement of the gospel music of the time.

It wasn't until the 1950s that gospel music started to be recorded. Alemayehu explains of the earliest gospel recordings: “The first ever case of recorded musical traditions of the Church only happened in the 1950s, by the Ethiopian Radio, with the assistance of an Orthodox priest named Mere Geta Lisanework.”

There are different accounts that attempt to trace the genesis of gospel music in Ethiopia. Addisu Worku, one of the early mezmur singers who used to sing on Misrach Voice Radio and in the Mulu Wongel church that began in Addis Ababa, is said to be among the pioneers of Amharic gospel music in the late 1960s. However, since the Mulu Wongel church didn't have foreign support, it's members often faced persecution. After the church was closed down by the government, members attending other churches influenced them not only in faith but also in music.[i]

Two choirs, the Mulu Wongel Choir and the Tsion Choir, continued to develop and sing uniquely Ethiopian songs across the county. Later, in the early 1970s, the Meserete Kristos Church Choir was established. Some members from the Mulu Wongel and Tsion Choirs joined this newly established choir and Meserete Kristos continued developing gospel songs in Ethiopian languages. Soon more gospel groups emerged, like the Bethel singers.

Gospel in Ethiopia today

The Mulu Wongel and Meserete Kristos choirs are regarded as two of the earliest gospel performers in Ethiopia. They had up to Choir E and F, with each releasing eight or more albums. Some of these church choirs in other cities stopped using single letters for choir names, and applied new names instead. Solo vocalists soon developed out of these and other church choirs. Addisu Worku, Dereje Kebede, Tesfaye Gabisso, Eyerusalem Teshome, Tamerate Haile, Tadesse Eshete, Gizachew Worku, Dr. Atalay Alem and Shewaye Damte are some of the Ethiopian gospel artists who started early.

Tewodros Tadesse, popularly known as Teddy Tadesse, has been a gospel singer for the past 10 years as well as a member of the Baptist church. He says when he started there were few artists performing gospel music and he had no established artists to give him direction. This has now changed, and he says he generally sees positive trends in Ethiopia's gospel scene, with more singers emerging all the time.

However, Tadesse believe that Ethiopian gospel music still faces generational and cultural challenges, with gospel singers from the 1960s, 70s and 80s still utilizing musical instruments largely derived from traditional Ethiopian Orthodox Church music, including the sistrum, harps or drums. “At most these gospel singers used to utilize accordions, box guitars or grand piano, shunning synthesized music for fear that it would sound much more like popular music,” he explains, adding that believers who have deep roots in the Ethiopian Orthodox church (especially from northern Ethiopia) typcially frown on new musical innovations. In contrast, southern Ethiopia has had a longer history of evangelization and their music (both secular and religious) is typically more modern and uptempo.

Tadesse further notes that Ethiopia’s relative isolation from the rest of the world (compared to other African countries) and the country's failure to see gospel music as a distinctive musical genre has been a challenge in promoting the local gospel scene.

Among Teddy's recent releases are ‘Liyu New Selame’ (my peace is unique), 'Alezengahutem' (I haven’t forgotten it) and 'Haleluya'.

 

Millions of Ethiopians have in recent years converted to Protestantism, many of them coming from an Orthodox background and attracted by its comparatively less rigid and hierarchical structure. Some are also attracted by the music of the Protestant church, which typically uses modern musical instruments played by a full band.

Partly as a result of this, modern gospel music in Ethiopia has experienced a shift in perceptions. In the past, Ethiopian gospel artists were expected to live an austere life. Today this is slowly changing and it is no longer frowned upon for a gospel artists to earning from their craft. 

On the media front, however, the church in general stilll has some way to go. Religious groups are not allowed to own broadcast media houses. However, there are few satellite TV channels that broadcast religious sermons and music. Africa TV caters for an Islamic audience, while El Shaddai TV targets protestant churches. Religious groups are allowed to have their own print media and are therefore able to advertise new albums in public.   

One of the best-known gospel artists in Ethiopia at the moment is Sofia Shibabaw, the sister of popular singer Gigi Shibabaw. Loved by many for her extraordinary voice, to date Sofia has released two albums: Sema Belew (tell Him to hear) and Fikir Kemeqabir Belay (love beyond the grave). She has also collaborated with many Christian artists on their own albums. Many people laud Sofia for her unique approach to gospel music. For example, her 2015 hit ‘Zeraf Le Geta’ (hail to my lord) uses traditional battle cries (Shilela), war song melodies, traditional Ethiopian costumes and weapons to depict the war against the devil (in the video symbolized by young people smoking). While many appreciate Sofia’s creativity, critics of her work disapprove of the 'battle' analogy.

 

Another popular gospel act is Zema for Christ, a band founded in 2007 by four young Christians who attended the Mekane Yesus School of Jazz Music. They wanted to do something to contribute to Ethiopia's gospel scene, instead of standing by and criticizing its shortcomings. In April 2012 the group hosted one of the largest open air gospel concerts at Misrak Meserete Kiristos Church compound. Their debut album is entitled Bemamene Bicha (only because I believe).

 

Dagimawi Tilahun, popularly known as Dagi, is another popluar Ethiopian gospel artist whose music inspires many. He has released various albums, including Kalina Gebre in 2009 and Tichelhalehu (I’ve left all for you) in 2012. He has released singles such as ‘Yenee Geta Wodhalehu' and 'Yalef Yalefewo' which are full of praise for the many wonderful things that God has done.

Dawit Getachew meanwhile infuses elements of jazz into his gospel songs. A singer, arranger and producer, Dawit is regarded as Ethiopia’s best and most influential artists in Christian jazz music. He not only sings but also teaches music at the Mekane Yesus School of Jazz Music. He is also a member of the Zema for Christ gospel band.  His album Ethibekehalehu (I will wait for you) has earned him a loyal following of fans.

Other prominent artists of gospel music in Ethiopia inclde Jossi (Yosef) Kassa, Hana Tekle and Rozi Kashay.

 

Islamic music

Outside of Ethiopia's Christian music scene, manzuma is the name given to a poetic chant often associated with Muslim artists[ii]. Currently the best-known manzuma performer and poet in Ethiopia is Mohammed Awwal Hamza. Born in Kombolcha in Wollo, he currently lives in Addis Ababa.  He performs in Amharic as well as Arabic.

 

Mahammadnuur Mahammad is another manzuma performer who sings in Oromo, one of the biggest Ethiopian languages in terms of native speakers. Although there were other manzuma poets chanting in Oromo, Mahammadnuur's popularity has in recent years grown beyond his own ethnic group.

The diversity of music on offer and the rise of new artists suggests that religious music of all kinds - Christian and Muslim - is on the rise in Ethiopia and shows little sign of slowing down.


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