Gospel and religious music in Ethiopia (2022)

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 beenchallenged by the emergence of various other religious factions. Today Muslims make up anestimated 34% of the populationandProtestantsan estimated18%.Nevertheless, any keen listener will notice that the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox churchhas 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, namelythe Ethiopian Evangelical (Mekane Yesus) church,tendsto be quite similar to that ofthe Orthodox church.


While no one can say exactlywhen mezmur emerged inEthiopia, 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 wasborn in Axum innorthern Ethiopia, the seat of the Axumite Dynasty thatlasted until the 10th century. This wasthe 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 consideredto have givenrise 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 to1941 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 ceremoniesand ventured into resistance songsEthiopian patriots tried to drive out the foreign invaders, often with the encouragement of the gospel music of the time.

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It wasn't until the 1950s that gospel music started to be recorded.Alemayehu explainsof 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 earlymezmur singers who used to sing on Misrach Voice Radio and in the Mulu Wongel church that began in Addis Ababa, issaid to be among the pioneers of Amharic gospel music in the late 1960s. However, since the Mulu Wongel churchdidn't have foreign support, it's members oftenfaced persecution. After thechurch 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. Theyhad up to Choir E and F, with each releasingeight or more albums.Some of these church choirsin 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 whostarted 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 hesays he generally sees positive trends in Ethiopia's gospel scene, with more singers emerging all the time.

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However, Tadesse believe that Ethiopiangospel music still faces generational and cultural challenges, with gospel singers from the 1960s, 70s and80s 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 byits comparativelyless rigid andhierarchical structure. Some are also attracted bythe music of the Protestant church, which typicallyuses modern musical instruments played by afull band.

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

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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 newalbumsin public.

One of the best-known gospelartists in Ethiopia at the moment is Sofia Shibabaw,the sister of popularsinger Gigi Shibabaw. Loved by many for her extraordinary voice, to date Sofia has released two albums: Sema Belew (tell Him to hear) andFikir Kemeqabir Belay (love beyond the grave). Shehas 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 ofthe 'battle' analogy.

Another popular gospel act isZema 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'sgospel 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 entitledBemamene 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 2009andTichelhalehu (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.

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Dawit Getachewmeanwhileinfuses elements of jazz into his gospel songs. A singer, arranger and producer, Dawit is regarded as Ethiopia’s bestand most influential artists in Christian jazz music. He not only sings but also teaches music at theMekane 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 toa poetic chant often associated with Muslim artists[ii]. Currently the best-known manzumaperformer 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.

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

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

[i] http://muluwongelnetwork.org/index.html[ii] www.kezira.de/manzuma-popular-muslim-chants-in-ethiopia


Why is religion important to Ethiopia? ›

It is generally considered to be the traditional religion of the land, and is closely correlated with the national identity. For most Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, faith is deeply important to their day-to-day life as well as their identity.

What religion is Ethiopia? ›

More than two-fifths of Ethiopians follow the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. An additional one-fifth adhere to other Christian faiths, the vast majority of which are Protestant. Islam was introduced in the 7th century and is now practiced by about one-third of Ethiopians.

What was Ethiopia called before? ›

Ethiopia, formerly Abyssinia, is a landlocked country in the East of Africa. It shares one of its borders with Somalia, to the East. Sudan to the West, South Sudan to the South West. Kenya to the South and Djibouti to the North East.

What is the language and religion in Ethiopia? ›

The Ge'ez language is an important historical element in Ethiopian culture and still used today in Ethiopian Orthodox services. In terms of music, much of the country's art is faith-based. Lastly, Ethiopia's two major religions are Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, or Tewahedo, and Islam.


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