Ethiopian Music

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Traditional vs. Modern May 31, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — khaliahg @ 3:05 pm

There are certain elements that make a song zafan. These include dance (Eskesta), drums, instrumentation, vocals, and more. Some of these elements are missing from the more modern music, for example the masenqo, a one stringed fiddle. These modern songs, however, still should be referred to as Zafan music.

Zafan, sometimes spelled zefen, has a calm and controlled style as opposed to mezmur. Zafan is accompanied by drum and dance.  Eskesta [shoulder dance] is normally the type of dance that accompanies this music. This is a typical dance performed during songs throughout all of Ethiopia. It involves heavy shoulder and upper body movement (Powne).  The style of Eskesta has remained the same throughout the years and is still performed today during both traditional and modern performances.

The rhythm kept during zafan music is usually held by the drums (Milkias). In both “Arhibu” and “Sile Fikir” there is six-beat drumming.

Amharic is the main language that you will hear in a zafan song, both traditional and modern. The style in which songs are sung is also unique. A certain vibration or ornamentation is used with the voice and throat. This way of singing is complicated, and at times it seems that auto-tune is being used, but that is not the case. This voice instrumentation is used by both singers in “Arhibu” and by Teddy Afro in “Sile Fikir”.  Teddy, however, adds his own modern flair to the voice instrumentation. Different sounds that are not necessarily a part of the language are also incorporated into the music. For example, a loud calling of “lelelele” in Ethiopia signifies that someone is happy (Powne). This sound is often heard in the traditional music. It is is heard in both songs I am comparing.

The theme of the lyrics is also the same in both songs. Both talk of their homeland, Ethiopia, and its beauty. This is very common with zafan music.



“Sile Fikir” has some instrumentation differences, in which keyboards and a synthesizer are used rather than actual instruments.  The authentic instruments may not be physically present, but a very similar sound used. . Teddy Afro also uses the vocals typical to zafan music. There are drums, and in several of songs, people dance eskesta. Although there is tweaking as with any modernization, there is no reason why “Sile Fikir”, any of Teddy Afro songs, or other modern Ethiopian songs should not be called zafan. They retain the major and important components of zafan and the original sound and meter.



Milkias, Paulos. Ethiopia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011. Print

Powne, Michael. Ethiopian Music: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Print.


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