Ethiopian jazz is a fusion of sounds and styles from different parts of the world—West and East, North and South—that is rooted simultaneously in tradition and musical innovation. Its intoxicating melodies evoke nostalgia, harkening back to and drawing upon the tizita, a ballad form of Ethiopian music that deals with themes of love and longing.
Modern Ethiopian music was, arguably, born in 1924, when the man who would become the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, traveled abroad as the country’s regent. Ras Tafari Makonnen, as he was then known, traveled to cities including Alexandria, Paris, Stockholm, London, Brussels, Geneva, and Jerusalem.
While visiting the Armenian quarter and St. James Cathedral in Jerusalem, Tafari encountered a marching band of 40 boys, orphans of the Armenian genocide. Impressed by their skill, the prince, after speaking to and receiving approval from the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, adopted the group. He brought them back to Ethiopia and provided them with an education, housing, and a stipend. Those boys became known as arba lijoch (“40 children” in Amharic) and would go on to help popularize brass instruments in a country that had previously relied mostly wood and string instruments. They eventually organized into the Royal Imperial Brass Band of Ethiopia and performed at state events. Kevork Nalbandian, the band’s musical director, even went on to compose the country’s national anthem, which was unveiled at Selassie’s coronation in 1930 and used until 1974, when Selassie was deposed.
Nalbandian’s nephew, Nerses, carried on his uncle’s musical legacy after he retired, leading several major Ethiopian musical institutions. Nerses even composed the anthem for the Organization of African Unity, the organization that preceded the African Union.
All of this laid the groundwork for the father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke, to develop the unique genre, recording Afro-Latin Soul volumes 1 and 2 in 1966 and Mulatu of Ethiopia in 1972. Astatke, who originally studied aeronautical engineering, trained as a musician at London’s Trinity College of Music, then in New York City and Boston, where he enrolled at Berklee College of Music. A prolific and highly influential musician, Astatke fused the traditional five-note pentatonic scale with elements of Ethiopian Christian Orthodox music, creating a new and futuristic jazz that soulfully and seamlessly called upon the past.
“I used the Ethiopian structures to create melodies, but instead of using cultural instruments, I used Western instruments like the piano and the contrabass,” Astatke told Pitchfork in a 2017 interview. “I somehow created ways to use the Ethiopian modes, being very careful not to lose the feeling.”
Decades later Ethio-jazz experienced a resurgence. In 1998 Francis Falceto’s Buda Musique, a Paris-based record label, dug deep into Ethiopia’s musical catalog of the 1960s and 1970s and released albums including Éthiopiques volume 1, Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969–1975. The compilation series, of which there have been many more, includes a diverse sampling of Ethiopian songs and helped catapult the country’s music to the speakers of a Western audience. Volume 4 of the series focuses on Astatke’s music. In 2005 Jim Jarmusch’s movie Broken Flowers featured the virtuoso’s songs, further expanding the reach of his music.
Since then Ethio-jazz has traveled even further, becoming the backbone of new songs as producers sampled the tracks for their own compositions.
In 2010 musicians Damian Marley and Nas released their collaborative studio album, Distant Relatives. The first single from the project, tilted “As We Enter,” features the two artists rapping back and forth over a Marley-produced beat. The track prominently samples Astatke’s soulfully melancholy “Yegelle Tezeta.” It’s a fitting choice, considering that the pair’s collaborative album thematically touches on Africa, mentioning its idolized history, the one perhaps occasionally fetishized by the diaspora.
Nas and Damian Marley are not the first or the last musicians to have sampled Ethiopian music. Common’s Kanye West–produced “The Game” uses Seyfu Yohannes’ “Tezeta.” K’naan’s “ABC’s” samples Astatke’s “Kasalèfkut Hulu (From All the Time I Have Passed).” And the sounds of modern Ethiopian music have inspired many other hip-hop artists and jazz musicians, and musicians in general.
The story of Ethio-jazz is one of exchange, of looking outward but not forgetting to look inward at one’s own culture. From Latin jazz and its African influences to Armenian musicians living and creating in Ethiopia, Ethio-jazz has traversed national boundaries and languages, morphing from a hodgepodge of sounds and styles into a gorgeously distinct Ethiopian genre.