Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ethiopian Honey

I'll never forget the first time I heard Ethiopian music. I was in a restaurant called The Blue Nile in Tribeca around 1982 or '83, long since closed although I believe there is now another restaurant by that name in Manhattan. There was a scratchy, much-dubbed cassette playing on the sound system. The instrumentation was pure American R&B, but the vocals, well, the vocals were something else entirely. It was hard to explain but the overall effect sent chills up and down my spine. Other people have since told me that they had the exact same reaction the first time they heard these enigmatic sounds.

In 1985 I started doing "African Beat," a weekly program for WYMS-FM in Milwaukee, and through the show started to come in contact with Ethiopians living in town. Most of them described themselves as political exiles, Ethiopia at that time being ruled by a military dictatorship, the Derg, that called itself "Scientific Socialist." Of course I nagged them mercilessly for music from their homeland, and they were happy to comply. They loaned me about ten cassettes, and my love affair with Ethiopian music was rekindled.

The music industry in Ethiopia in the 1980s was in a state of meltdown. Shortly after the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, production of vinyl recordings ended, and the political turmoil of the time, with the Derg and its rivals engaged in a bloody civil war, meant a more or less permanent curfew and the resulting disappearance of nightlife.

But Ethiopian music persevered. There being no record pressing plants or professional cassette-duplicating facilities, the various music shops - Electra, Ambassel, Kaifa and the like - took matters into their own hands. Musicians were contracted with, master tapes were recorded, cassettes were dubbed one-by-one on cheap boomboxes, and distributed throughout Ethiopia by the hundreds of thousands.

Francis Falceto's Ethiopiques series on Buda is justly renowned for bringing to light the classic Ethiopian recordings of the Imperial Era. In the liner notes of Ethiopiques 20: Either/Orchestra (Buda 860121, 2005), Falceto decries the current state of Ethiopian music for its lack of adventurousness and reliance on junky synthesizers, as contrasted with the artistic expermentation and professionalism of "The Golden Years."

I certainly don't disagree with Falceto's assessment of the current state of the Ethiopian music scene, but I just can't buy his implicit dismissal of the Derg years as a musical desert. Keep in mind that it was during this era that the renowned singer Aster Aweke began her career, as did Efrem Tamirru, Hamelmal Abate, Martha Ashegare and a host of other artists. Moreover, the great singers of the classic period - Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud Ahmed and the like - did some of their most memorable work under the Derg (Ere Mela Mela, anyone?).

One of the singers who got her start in Addis Ababa in the early Eighties is Kuku Sebsebe, whose cassette Munaye (Electra Music Shop, ca. 1985) ranks as one of the greatest Ethiopian recordings ever. I would rate it, actually, one of my ten favorite African recordings of all time. Like many Ethi
opians, Kuku lived in exile in Washington, DC, and recorded several CDs there. She is said to have returned permanently to Ethiopia in 2003.

My fervent hope is that someday Munaye will be reissued in the format that it deserves, remastered from the original master tapes. Until that day I present it to you now, digitized from one of those homemade Ethiopian cassettes. I have also included three tunes by Kuku Sebsebe from the compilation tape Ambassel Bidiyona Muziqa Mdbere (Ambassel Music Shop, ca. 1985). In case you want to make your own CD, I've provided front and back covers.

Kuku Sebsebe - Benafeqote Newe

Kuku Sebsebe - Hodiya

Kuku Sebsebe - Yagere Watat

Kuku Sebsebe - Feqreh Beretabenye

Kuku Sebsebe - Munaye

Kuku Sebsebe - Bleby Gwadana (Instrumental)

Kuku Sebsebe - Bleby Gwadana

Kuku Sebsebe - Iny Webe Qonjo

Kuku Sebsebe - Sayehe Dese Yeloale

Kuku Sebsebe - Yanene Yegy Uga

Kuku Sebsebe - Dany Belewe

Kuku Sebsebe - Instrumental

Kuku Sebsebe - Ugawe Glegamy

Kuku Sebsebe - Iaregale

Kuku Sebsebe - Klete Igy Mewe Dede

Not knowing even a shred of Amharic, I transliterated the song titles from the cassette track listing (right), using a table of the Ge'ez Syllabary. The results don't look quite "right," so anybody with knowledge of the language is warmly invited to correct me.


Anonymous said...

I say Hi! from Spain!

I follow this blog day by day, working by the Spanish Ministery of Foreign Affairs... I like to learn more, so hope you and awesometapesfromafrica still teaching us!!

Thank you so much.


Anonymous said...


You never fail to amaze me! First the Somali and now this. More stuff like this, please!

Anonymous said...

munaye is incredible, one of the best pieces of music i have heard in years. thank you so much for sharing the knowledge. nic robertson

John B. said...

Nic: You wouldn't be the reporter for CNN, would you?

Anonymous said...

hello john

i used live in washington dc and spent a couple of olympics at ethiopian restaurants during the track distance finals. in between races they would play the grooviest music, of course from their home country, and i just loved it. now i'm in los angeles, and there are some places to buy cds in little ethiopia but since i can't read amharic, i have no idea what to buy! maybe i'll learn a little bit here. it's great to have an introduction though from someone who can lead the way to the good stuff. thanks! and cheers! j in la

Anonymous said...

WOW JOHN!!! You have no idea how much this means to me!!!! WOW!!!
Being a kid in the eighties in Addis (I'm ethiopian) this is my favourite album of all time!! You have no idea how long I've been looking for this for 15 years!! Asked my friends in DC and everybody I can think of and I could not find it...and bam! I stumble on your blog and voila!! All I can say is thanks and you've made my day, week, month and year.....
PS. Since my buddies are not around, I'll admit I had a couple of tears down my cheeks while listening to this a few minutes ago....
AND your analysis on this post was right on!...You know that rare moment when someone articulates perfectly what you feel..I had that kind of moment...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this!!! This is such an important part of musical history. Come visit us at, where we will soon sell legally authorized downloads of Ethiopian musicians!!! Visit....and Stay Tuned for!!!

Keep up the good work!

Luke Top said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave said...

Thanks for this beautiful ambient music.

Love Letters Journal said...


Ras said...

These songs are fantistic!! I've been listening to this constantly for months now. A fellow Danish singer put me on to it when she played one of the songs on an internet radio program.
Thank you very much for sharing and preserving this unique music!!
-Rasmus Poulsen