The recording industry in Ethiopia

By Brook Adu

Ethiopia was a hot spot for jazz in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this period Addis Ababa was known as “swinging Addis” and the music scene was on fire. But all that changed in 1974 when a military dictatorship toppled Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime and imposed a curfew, stifling artistic expression until 1991. The flourishing music scene was destroyed overnight. This overview text looks at the Ethiopian recording industry over the years.

Ethiopian artist Elias Negash. Photo: www.tadias.com
Ethiopian artist Elias Negash. Photo: www.tadias.com

Historical background

While the Ethiopian music industry was vibrant during Haile Selassie’s reign, the recording of music was done directly from live performance stages and there were no studios in which to record. The establishment of the Imperial Bodyguard Band and Police Orchestra[i] is one of the measures by the imperial regime that indicated the interest and commitment that the Emperor had for the growth of the country’s music. For the wider teaching and establishment of modern bands in the country, Haile Selassie brought 40 Armenian citizens who expanded the recording and performance of music in Ethiopia.

The country saw the birth of many bands and new musical instruments were incorporated into their performances. Renowned artists that recorded their music with the new technologies introduced at the time include Hailu Disasa, Lemma G. Hiywot, Melkamu Tebeje, Tamirat Molla, Tatek G. Wold and Menilik Wosnachew.

Earlier on, in 1969, a man named Amha Eshèté started a small record label - Amha Records - and began recording everyone who was making music in Addis. At the time of establishing his recording company, a 1948 edict that declared that music could only be recorded by a government agency was still in force. Headed by Hagere Fiker Maheber[ii], the association, an arm of the Ethiopian National Theater, did not produce a single record of modern Ethiopian music, ignoring anything modern and therefore leaving the burgeoning local pop scene all to Amha. Amha risked imprisonment to start producing modern Ethiopian music. The first artist recorded by Amha was Alemayehu Eshete. In five years, Amha Records had recorded about 250 singles[iii].

While the growth of Amha Records at first frustrated Maheber, the company’s overwhelming popularity eventually led to the removal of the 1948 edict. Amha Records’ success inspired the creation of two other highly influential Ethiopian record labels: Philips Ethiopia Records and Kaifa Records, founded by Ali Tango. Kaifa is said to have released 53 records between 1973 and 1977.  

When the military junta took over Ethiopia, Eshèté was exiled to the USA, where he lived for the next 20 years. The fate of Amha Records was ultimately entwined with the Mengistu regime's crackdown on the Tigrigna-speaking peoples of Tigray and Eritrea. These Northern provinces comprised a former Italian colony granted autonomy after World War II but annexed by Emperor Sellassie in 1962[iv]. The Mengistu government brutally repressed any manifestation, real or imagined, of the efforts of the Tigrigna to win their independence. Despite having been cleared twice by government censors, Amha Records' final release never saw the light of day because singer Tèklè Tesfa-Ezghi was of Eritrean origin. Tesfa-Ezghi and Eshèté's father were imprisoned for alleged pro-independence sentiments.

Most Ethiopian records were produced between 1969 and 1978. These records represent the golden age of Ethiopian music. Leading names from this period included Tilahoun Gessesse, Bezunesh Bekele, Hirut Bekele, Mahmoud Ahmed, Ali Birra and Alemayehu Eshete. Instrumental music’s key figures included Mulatu Astatké, the sole exponent of 'Ethiojazz', and Getachew Mekurya.

Record labels and producers

While technology has made recording easier, the present-day industry has not attained the professionalism that is witnessed in other African countries. Recording in Ethiopia is not done in an institutionalized manner. Artists still create their music in their homes or small studios, which makes them vulnerable to critics who feel that the artists are yet to gain the same quality that will enable them compete on a global scale. Additionally, many artists living outside Ethiopia continue to create Ethiopian music.

Outside Ethiopia, AIT[v] a US-based recording company, specializes in Ethiopian music. AIT produces Ethiopian both contemporary and traditional music, including instrumentals. Since 1989, AIT has sought to shine a spotlight on Ethiopia's unique culture, offering Ethiopian performers the opportunity to showcase their talents and share their country’s history with the global community. Founded by Aman Adinew, AIT also provides artist management services and has managed celebrated Ethiopian artists including Abegasu Kibrework Shiota, Henock Temesgen, Fasil Wuhub, Dawit Mellesse and Girma Wolde Michael.

The local industry continues to witness exceptional talents who are venturing into new genres of music. For example, Mikael Seifu[vi] is an Ethiopian electronic music producer and performer. He fuses both the secular Ethiopian music of nomadic folk musicians (known as Azmaris) and the sonics of Tobia and his own sound, which he calls 'Ethiopian electronic'. Mikael Seifu was once tempted by the gleam of the West. Born and raised in the Ethiopia, the producer spent his adolescent years downloading 2Pac and Master P songs. Spurred on by his businessman father as well as an idealistic drive for mainstream musical success, he enrolled in New Jersey’s Ramapo College, where he studied music production and the music industry. While attending a conference for music stakeholders in Manhattan, he realized how the industry has so many subsectors. His debut EP, Yarada Lij, draws from a long list of musical influences, including Ethiopian and African folk, the Addis Acoustic Project, Ben Neill, Burial, Zion Rebels, Air, Röyksopp and reggae.

Abraham Wolde[vii] is a successful Ethiopian music producer, author and actor. In 1997, Abraham turned his attention to music and left Ethiopia for the USA to study music engineering in Atlanta. He mastered his craft and became the mastermind behind the number-one selling album in the Ethiopian music history, Balageru. The success of this album earned him respect among the music industry fraternity. Wolde has an ability to understand his audience and his great talent is recognised as he has been able to combine both comedy and music on his Chewata CD. Abraham also came back with Balageru 2, a tribute to strong-willed Ethiopian peasants. In September 2007 he released Balageru 3. In early 2008, Abraham Wolde signed to RCE/Konvict Muzik (internationally reknowned artist Akon's record company) as a producer. He has opened a new state-of-the-art record studio in Addis Ababa.

Another significant record label is the Selam Sounds[viii], which was founded in 2006 with the vision to promote and produce exciting and captivating music from around the globe, while introducing new artists with a genuine and unique expression to the public. The label's latest production is by the Ethiopian folklore group Ethiocolor. Selam Sounds is run by Selam, an independent, non-governmental, non-profit culture organization with offices in Stockholm and Addis Ababa.

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