Ethiopian Dance and Music

Music has always played a prominent role in Ethiopia’s history. Form religious services and festivities to preparations for war, from rites of passage to communal agricultural work, music has always been a natural accompaniment to the rhythms of Ethiopian life.


Oromo Dancing Besides popular music there is the formal music of the church-hymn singing and chanting, which goes back to the beginning of Ethiopian Christianity in the early fourth century. There is also the singing and poetry of wandering minstrels, like the troubadours of medieval Europe, who for centuries traveled the length and breadth of the land.

A night in an azmari-bet is the perfect introduction to Ethiopian music and dance which incorporates both Middle-Eastern and African influences. Employing the background of an African drum, the music is based on a pentatonic scale, as used in Asia and the Middle-East, but relatively unknown elsewhere. The northern people living on the highland plateau use and abundance of musical instruments, both in the church and in secular activities. These include the masenqo or one stringed fiddle, which has a wooden skin-covered sound-box, and is played with a bow and tightly stretched horse hair and the krar (six-stringed lyre), from Kambata and Kaffa, with its circular sound-box, made of wood, metal, or in one case-from konso, in the far south, made from the shell of a tortoise.


The sweet tones of washint, one of the country's most popular wind instrument. The people of Konso are particularly renowned for their singing which is polyphonic, combining many sounds in harmony. The masenqo and krar are both widely popular, and are played by minstrels at many different festivities, notable at country weddings. Prominent among the Ethiopian string instruments is the much larger begana, or string lyre, often finely carved, which stands almost as high as its player. Associated with the harp of the Biblical King David, this instrument was also reputedly played by former Ethiopian kings and nobles. It is depicted in Ethiopian manuscript paintings of the ancient Jewish monarch. Plucked either by hand or with plectrum. The begana produces a solemn sound traditionally considered appropriate for Lent, and other serious occasions.


The negarit, or flat kettledrum, played with a wooden stick, served in the old days to herald royal proclamations or decrees. The kabaro, named after the world for “honourable” is used in church services. Long and cylindrical it is often strapped around the shoulders of the player, who with each hand strikes at one or other of the kabaro’s two ends.


Another type of drum is the atamo, a much smaller instrument, the sound-box of which is made of bake pottery. This little pot is held under the arm or between the knees of the player who beats it with the palms or fingers of one or two hands.

The extensive use of the head and shoulders in the Eskista dance, dominating the central highlands, has many possible origins. South east of the desert, the people here are mainly of Oromo, Harari and Somali origin and their dance and music is strongly influenced by links to Arabia and to Islam. Commonly used is the washint (a simple flute). The music and dance of the southern peoples correspond more closely to those in the rest of East Africa-they mostly use drums as opposed to stringed instruments and the dancing concentrates on the lower, rather than the upper body.  The dances of the Afar are testament to the hostile conditions within which they have to survive. The knives they carry in their waistbelts are pulled out when they dance, cutting the air above their heads as they leap.