The Golden Age of Ethiopian Music (1969–78)

Modern Ethiopian music started taking shape in the 1940s. Mussolini’s Italian fascist troops, in the country attempting a coup, had finally been banished with the help of US peacekeepers. The emperor Haile Selassie started the first state-controlled brass bands.

These included the Imperial Bodyguard Band, the Army Band, the Police Band, the Municipality Band and the Haile Selassie Theatre Band, which all operated under the watchful eye of the Ethiopian government. The official brass bands started out by exclusively performing marching music but soon enough their repertoire started to get broader. The bands arranged traditional Ethiopian compositions for Western instruments, usually with the guidance of professional Armenian musicians. These brass bands, their instruments and the mentoring of top international musicians arranged by the Ethiopian government laid the foundation for modern Ethiopian pop music.

Since the late 1940s, the Agher Feqer Theatre started to present programming featuring various singers. The vocal craze caught on and soon after the other brass bands followed suit and started using vocalists. Virtually all of the key Ethiopian vocalists of the 1970’s have come onto the scene through these ensembles, as being part of an institutional orchestra was basically the only way for musicians to stay active at that time.

The 1960s changed everything in youth culture – not just in Ethiopia. But also there, the global tidal wave of modernism ranging from architecture to music swept all over the country’s number one city Addis Ababa.

In the early 1960s, thousands of young, mostly African-American men came to Ethiopia as peacekeepers. Although officially “Western” music was forbidden in the country, the influx of Stax and Motown records brought in by them quickly spread amongst Ethiopian musicians. By the end of the 1960s, the atmosphere was so different that James Brown was playing freely on the country’s radio waves, and the first independent bands had come into the picture, next to state-run bands. Initially, these bands became known to be called by hotel names as the hotels hired the bands to perform regularly, and in return, the groups promoted the hotels’ brands.

In the 1960s, Haile Selassie’s successful politics placed Addis Ababa as the capital of the African Union, leading to embassies from all African countries being opened in the city. One could imagine that this kind of progress and extensive cooperation between different states would have left their mark on the development of modern Ethiopian music as well. However, young Ethiopians felt closer to American and European music, and modern Ethiopian music has no discernible influence drawn from, for example, the rhumba of Zaire or the Nigerian Afro-Beat.

Like most young people in Addis Ababa, Amha Eshete was very passionate about music. In the late ’60s, Amha started hearing all sorts of interesting things on the radio that made the local record shops’ stacks seem somewhat inadequate. At that time, for example, the record supply of Asmara, the capital of neighboring Eritrea, was significantly ahead of Addis Ababa, not least because it was a site for an American military base. To fix this, Amha decided to set up his own record store, Harambee Music, in Addis Ababa, Piazza. Amha was on point with his stock selections and the records sold like hot cakes. The business worked. In addition to American blues, funk and soul, Sudanese music, especially Mohamed Wardi’s recordings, also sold well.

“Why not Ethiopian music as well,” Amha thought. However, the state had monopolised releasing records and the threat of sanctions was too high for anyone aspiring to break that rule. Amha was not worried about risk taking, but the real problem was finding musicians to take part. The first recordings were made with Alemayehu Eshete, a singer also known as the “Ethiopian Elvis”, at the turn of 1968-69. The duo played the single hot off the press on the speakers in front of the Harambee store, and stunned the listeners outside, who now heard Ethiopian modern pop music for the first time. The local people gathered in large numbers to witness this miracle. Some people even started to dance. Amha’s role is essential in the development of Ethiopian music. He provided significant support to budding artists who later made long careers. He also paid his recording artists salaries good enough to compete with what the state-run bands had to offer. In later interviews, Amha has regretted not promoting more female artists. In particular, he regrets the failure to publish the music of Bezunesh Bekele, often described in Ethiopia’s counterpart to Aretha Franklin. Bekele released a total of 15 singles during her career, most of which have been released by the Philips Ethiopia label.

Vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke (born 1943) is a unique character in Ethiopian music. For a long time, he was practically the only Ethiopian musician to have studied abroad extensively. Before Astatke, the pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (born 1923) had studied piano in Switzerland, but in the realm of popular music, Mulatu was the only one to study abroad, namely in London and Boston. In 1966, Mulatu recorded the albums “Afro Latin Soul” volumes 1 & 2 in New York. Both of the LPs had strong influences from latin jazz, American funk and jazz, in addition to the strong presence of traditional Ethiopian music. Astatke called this new blend “Ethio Jazz”.

The remarkable scope of Mulatu Astatke’s musical education made him a popular figure in Ethiopia already during the 1960s and ‘70s. However, his music was a bit hard to take for the local music fans due to its latin jazz influences which were unusual at the time. Astatke’s music still stands out in the narrative of Ethiopian music, but at the time of its release, it received a rather lukewarm response.

Mulatu Astatke is nowadays considered to be the number one composer in Ethiopian music, but the most productive of the “Golden Age” composers in Ethiopia was actually Girma Bèyènè. His style was closer to Anglo-American pop music: Simple, straight ahead songs – nothing too complex or exotic. One of Bèyènè’s compositions, “Muziqawi Silt”, is the composition with the most renditions to its name in all of Ethiopian music.

Even though the singer Tlahoun Gessesse (1940-2009) is not very well known outside of Ethiopia, for locals he is, simply, “The Voice”. His mother is of Oromo tribe heritage, and his father comes from Amhara background. These are two of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia and this combined background already gave Gessesse a head start in becoming a national icon, someone with a very wide audience. His career began in state-run bands in the 1950s and in the early ‘60s, he recorded the song ’’Altchalkoum’’ (“I Can’t Stand Anymore” in English), which was a protest song criticising Haile Selassie’s government disguised as a love song. This hidden double meaning led to Selassie’s government paying extra attention to Gessesse’s activities and he was reportedly even detained for questioning for a couple of weeks. The problems with the rulers of the country, however, only made the people of Ethiopia love him even more. Gessesse continued his career until his death in 2009. His funeral was a major event that was televised nationally and many of the locals I have met have told me they cried that day. 

Since the days of Tlahoun Gessesse and Mahmoud Ahmed, all of the major Ethiopian pop stars always had two set lists for their performances. One for modern pop music, one for more traditional music. Amongst the listeners, both stylistic approaches usually received equal focus and interest.

Vinyl records produced in Ethiopia were released in 1969-1978, when some 500 7” singles and 30 LPs. Most LPs were pressed in quantities like 300-400 copies while the single pressings were around 700-800 copies per release. Some hit singles received larger pressings, around 2000 copies at the most. Amha Records scored their biggest hit in 1972 with “Tezeta” by Getachew Kassa, with sales of 5000 units. These Ethiopian vinyl originals are now sought-after rarities among collectors, and the records often fetch a three, or even four digit prices in online auctions and other vinyl marketplaces.

When discussing the golden age of Ethiopian music, the period after the 1974 revolution is often omitted. The political upheaval which started in 1974 took an unexpected turn. Many people had false hopes regarding the communist party’s seizure of power after the country had been displaying the signs of the upcoming revolution for a long time. The counrty’s university students saw communism as a step forward and hoped that the new government would bring forth some long overdue changes. Amha Eshete of Amha Records, when interviewed by French musicologist and producer Francis Falceto, has said that he thought the coup would change things for the better. Eshete was among the first to bring flowers to the troops who saw through the revolution. However, Eshete, among many others, was in for a grave disappointment, when the optimistic expectations failed to materialise. Instead, the revolution turned things in Ethiopia only for the worse.

The era, which began very fruitfully on cultural terms, took a turn for the worse quite quickly after the communist Derg regime took power in 1974. During the Derg period, censorship and pressure from the government continually shut down cultural projects. If you wanted to record a song, it had to be first approved by the Ministry of Information, where the lyrics were carefully scrutinised. Everything had to be in line with the government’s agenda. For example, Amha published a recording of Eritrean music that was labelled as “hateful anti-government propaganda” and banned. Under the pressure of the Derg junta, Amha Eshete was forced to shut down his record business and leave the country in 1975. In the same year, the government’s grip became harder. Both emperor Haile Selassie and the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch were executed by the Derg regime. The years 1976 and 1977 in Ethiopia are called the ”years of Red Terror’ (Qey Shibir). Ethiopia plunged into civil war, and the human rights organisation Amnesty International has subsequently estimated 500 000 people killed in government-orchestrated violent clashes.

Those were horrible times in Ethiopia. During the deep freeze by the Derg regime, the Kaifa record boss Ali Tango did his utmost to support freedom of expression. Previously a mogul in the coffee business, Ali Tango was of Yemeni origin, which may have led him to see Ethiopia’s musical scene from a different perspective. He was especially interested in music from different tribes and linguistic areas, including music of Yemeni and Somali origins. This was rare in a country almost completely isolated from the outside world. Tango had an ear for promising new talent, and singer Aster Aweke and keyboardist Hailu Mergia are examples of his “discoveries”. Aster Aweke moved to the United States in the early 1980s, where he quickly gained popularity among the diaspora. Aweke is one of the most successful Ethiopian singers of the 1980s and ‘90s.

Kaifa Records, which was considered the heir of the legendary Amha Records, put out some 50 releases on vinyl between 1973 and 1977. After that, Kaifa’s releasing activities continued with a tape only focus. Ethiopian vinyl releases were initially pressed in India, then in Lebanon and Greece, and eventually in Kenya. Under the Derg regime, the country became further isolated from the outside world and doing business abroad became more difficult. The use of foreign record pressing plants in manufacturing Ethiopian releases soon became an impossible option. The last vinyl record produced in Ethiopia was released in 1978. It was Mahmoud Ahmed’s LP “Jeguol Naw Betwa”. The album was released under the singer’s own Mahmoud Ahmed Records label. By that time, other Ethiopian labels had already seized operations

With Ethiopian vinyl gone, the cassette quickly took over the music market. Publication of tapes did not require foreign partners, and the system was faster and easier in every respect. Apparently, the cumbersome bureaucracy and the culture-hostile legislation of the government did not yet extend to this new miraculous format, or they could have been made in secret more easily throughout the communist era. Ali Tango was a pioneer in tape business. He had released his first tapes already back in 1975. He had his own state-of-the-art studio for tape production.

The cassette era brought with it the possibility of distributing the music in larger quantities. Kaifa Records routinely pressed 20 000 copies of its new releases, while hit records were pressed in huge quantities, up to 100 000 copies. It is worth mentioning that Ali Tango, an enthusiastic cultural influencer and rebel-minded mega-mogul, also ran a successful video rental company in the late 80’s. The Tango Music and Video Shop brought Hollywood films to the public in Ethiopia at a time when the local television network was used mainly for propaganda by the Mengisto government.

Interestingly, the Finnish musician Sakari Kukko, known from the group Piirpauke, was touring around the country in the late 1970s and early 80s in various parts of Africa. he also visited Addis Ababa in 1976 and was involved in Sensation Band’s recording sessions as a flautist.

One of the last gems of Ethiopian music’s “golden age” is Mahmoud Ahmed’s LP “Ere Mela Mela” released by Kaifa Records in 1975. Ahmed had begun earning his living as a shoe shiner – still the most typical job amongst youngsters who have moved into the city from the countryside. Mahmoud Ahmed had emerged from poverty to become an admired singer, a national hero.

The backing band on the “Ere Mela Mela” is Walias Band, one of the first independent bands to start out in Ethiopia during the 1970’s. Other orchestras of the same era were either under the strict control of the Haile Selassie administration or hotel-hired bands who practically played for commission only. In terms of the spirit of the time, the Walias Band was almost revolutionary due to its independence. The band owned their own instruments and self-determined the material they performed. Their constant performances with various singers at the Hilton Hotel ensured a steady livelihood for the musicians in the group. The lively nightlife of Addis Ababa, previously described to live up to metropoles such as London in the 1970s, faced tough challenges in 1978 when the Derg administration declared a curfew on the city streets between midnight and 6 am. This rule, too, could be worked around by some, and there were various secret bars and dances lasting until the morning which made it possible for attendees to walk home during the “legal time” in the morning. One way to get around the government’s harsh screen for recorded musical content was to focus on instrumental music. Hailu Mergia of Walias Band is one example of popular Ethiopian instrumentalists, and his solo album “Tche Belew” was released by Kaifa in 1977, is now a collectible rarity, perhaps the rarest and the most expensive Ethiopian LP around in its original pressing.

Walias Band’s “The Best of Walias” was recorded in the US as part of the band’s tour in 1981. The tour marked the first time a real Ethiopian band toured anywhere outside of their native country! After the tour, many members of the band decided not to return to their homeland to avoid persecution by the dictator Mengistu. When the Walias Band disbanded, it also meant tough times in terms of music making for Hailu Mergia who opted to stay in the US. Like many Ethiopians living in the United States, Hailu Mergia started working as a taxi driver. During his breaks, he played the synthesizer stashed away in the trunk of the his taxi. In 1985, he released the tape “Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument” which was, in his own words, “inspired by loneliness”.

In Ethiopia, the music industry today is far from its old boom. Many music stores have stopped or switched their focus on selling clothes or smoothies instead. New Ethiopian albums are currently being released on a pace of less than ten per year, often during major holidays, to ensure that the public would be available to listen to new sounds instead of being busy at work. Outside Ethiopia, however, there is a growing interest in Ethiopian music, especially in the releases made during its “golden age”.

The first Ethiopian LP to be reissued in Europe was Mahmoud Ahmed’s masterpiece, “Ere Mela Mela”, released in 1986 by the Brussels, Belgium based Crammed Discs label. The album challenged the prevailing stereotypical notions of Ethiopia, generating great interest around the world. More than 100 newspaper articles were published in over 20 countries related to the release, and the New York Times included it on its list of top releases in 1986. There were even plans for a major European tour due to the huge interest, but it had to be canceled at the last minute as the Derg regime refused to grant visas to Mahmoud Ahmed and his group.

In 1987, the French producer Francis Falceto began working with Amha Eshete to introduce Amha Records’ extensive catalog of Ethiopian music to new audiences who had heard the reissue of “Ere Mela Mela”. It took another decade before the paperwork was in order and the lost master recordings had finally been successfully located in Greece. The first release of the “Ethiopiques” series finally saw the light of day in late 1997. The release was also big news in Ethiopia, and soon Falceto began receiving proposals for collaboration from Ethiopian musicians.

With the success of the several volumes of “Ethiopiques”, Ethiopian music has found new audiences around the world in the 21st century. Mulatu Astatke’s music played a significant part in the award-winning film “Broken Flowers” by US film director Jim Jarmusch. The film won The Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, and the film’s soundtrack, heavy on “Ethio-Jazz”, received a lot of enthusiastic attention. With this new interest, many musicians from Ethiopian music’s “golden age”, such as Girma Bèyènè, Hailu Mergia, Ayalew Mesfin, have returned to stage and to recording studios.