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Ethiopia, the only nation in the African continent to have never been colonized, holds a unique musical identity.

The languages we proudly call our own, the beautiful chants resonating within our Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, the captivating sounds of our traditional instruments such as the begena (harp), krar (lyre), and masinko (fiddle)— and of course, our globally celebrated Ethio Jazz genre— all weave a rich tapestry of freedom, resilience and courage in who we are.

To claim Ethiopia as my country of origin is a profound honor.

The origins of many religious hymns and chants of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are written in Ge’ez.

Ge’ez, which translates to ‘Window to Wisdom’, is an ancient Semitic language that dates back to the 4th century. Although no longer spoken as a native tongue, it lives as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. Even today, secular Ethiopian music incorporates elements of Ge'ez, drawing inspiration from religious melodies.

One of the most revered instruments in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the begena. Begana, a ten-stringed box-lyre, holds a deep spiritual significance in religious ceremonies, prayers, and meditation. Its soothing and meditative melody creates a contemplative state of mind, making it a vital instrument for worship. It also serves as a cultural symbol, connecting Ethiopians to their religious and musical heritage–I love the begena!

The purpose of the begena is to invoke mindfulness. Below are collections of begena songs that encourage deep introspection and spiritual connectedness to faith, nature, and one’s own sense of self .

As we move on to explore secular Ethiopian music, I’ll start our journey with Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a globally recognized Ethiopian composer, pianist, and nun. Her music blends traditional Ethiopian melodies with Western classical influences, resulting in a unique and mesmerizing sound that has captivated audiences around the world.

She’s truly an emblem of Ethiopia’s cultural richness and its ability to evolve while staying rooted in its vibrant traditions.

Here is The Homeless Wanderer by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.

Secular Ethiopian music is derived from religious melodies and rhythms, incorporating elements of spiritual chants into traditional, contemporary, and popular music genres.

Secular Ethiopian music is characterized by a fundamental modal system called Qenet, which consists of four main modes: tizita, bati, ambassel, and anchihoye.

Tizita, which translates to nostalgia, is the soul of Ethiopian music. The tizita scale is often used in Ethiopian music to convey a sense of longing or melancholy. This scale is often used in slow, emotional songs, and is played on a variety of instruments, including the krar, and the masinko.

Typically, tizita songs reflect on the presence of love, or the lack thereof. And sometimes, captures a deep longing for love and to be loved. Depending on the type of nostalgia the music is trying to invoke, however, tizita can either be melancholic or not.

There are so many tizita songs sung, written, and composed throughout Ethiopia’s musical history. Although the lyrics can be different, because of its distinctive scale, it’s easy to recognize a tizita song.

This is probably one of my favorite tizita songs. The melody is so subtle, with lyrics describing memories of love in a tangible way.

Asnakech Worku, also known as the ‘Queen of Kirar’ singing a tizita song while playing the kirar, a five-or-six stringed bowl-shaped lyre:

Tizita instrumental by Mulatu Astatke, the pioneer and father of Ethiopian Jazz. Despite it being an instrumental, it still invokes a deep feeling of nostalgia and home.

It instantly takes me to Ethiopia.

Tizita, sung by one of Ethiopia’s musical icons, Mahmoud Ahmed. Although the lyrics are melancholic, the melody and rhythm is more upbeat.

“As for love, I’ve bid it farewell and escorted it out my door | ” He says.

“But what I couldn’t get rid of is its lingering memories.”

And lastly, here is a tizita song accompanied by the masinko, a single-stringed fiddle instrument:

The bati scale is a variation of the heptatonic tizita scale, with the addition of a minor third and a minor sixth. The bati scale is often used in faster, more upbeat songs, and is played on a variety of instruments, including the krar and the masinko.

In my personal opinion, bati songs are great for eskista, a traditional Ethiopian dance characterized by its distinctive and intricate shoulder and upper body movements. Everytime I hear a bati song accompanied by the masinko, I have to get up and dance a slow eskista! It’s irresistible.

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