Ethiopian Urban and Tribal Music
Volume 1: Mindanoo Mistiru

Rounder Records (

Haile Selassie was still Emperor of Ethiopia when these recordings were made during the summer of 1971. They serve as a small sample of both time and place from a region noted for its unique and complex natural setting. Ethiopia absorbed cultural influences from inner Africa (north to the Sahara and south to Kenya) and also from the Red Sea and Arabia. Perhaps most unique for a country from the Horn of Africa, its king in the mid-4th century converted to a Coptic version of Christianity that believed in the monophysite nature of the Christian deity. The rise of Islam isolated Ethiopian Christians, creating an entirely unique body of liturgical music. Latter 19th-century expansion brought in up to a hundred languages and ethnic groups. The consequence is a nation with a music of extraordinary scope and diversity.

A simple drum dirge, followed by the song "Wub Allem" ("Beautiful World") that for a moment sounds almost Cajun, provides a hint that this music features some distinct regional flavors. These thirteen tracks demonstrate the sounds of Ethiopian folk instruments like the masenko (a one-string fiddle), the craar (a gut-string lyre), several washint (flutes), kabaros (single- or double-headed drums), and the bagana (a large 8- to 10-stringed plucked lyre. Butterfly-like melodies are produced on "Two Afar Flutes" and similarly on "Galla Song" which features the washint. One track illustrates the use of a toum (thumb piano)-a nod to the mbira's wide influence across the continent. An Afar divination chant represents the nominally Muslim Cushites in a session with an oracle seer. The plucked strings of the Nuer harp and craar captured my ear, and by the time I listened carefully to the Nuer and Konso dances that close out this collection I just wanted more. A very wonderful and brief introduction to the urban and tribal music of Ethiopia, with an emphasis on "tribal"; these are not the "urban" pop music tunes of the '70s. - Richard Dorsett

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