GUZO: Search for the Origins of Ethiopian Music

Together with one of the most famous jazz pianists in Africa, the Ethiopian Samuel Yirga from Addis Abeba, the team from the Weimar Transcultural Music Studies will embark on a search for the diversity of an archaic, multi-faceted music. In 2015 and 2016 they will be accompanied by filmmaker Dirk van den Berg. Samule Yirga describes his life project as a “Guzo” (Journey), that will take the group through a breathtaking country with three climate zones and 5,000 meters difference in altitude.

There is hardly any other cultural region south of the Sahara that has enjoyed the attention of so many western writers and scholars since antiquity as much as ancient Abyssinia. The most famous figures included the Greek philosopher Herodotus, the Phoenician-Syrian author Heliodorus, the Orientalist Job Ludolf and the enlightener Adolph Freiherr Knigge. In contrast to other African regions in which the languages of the colonial powers largely influenced the development of the culture, this factor has played a subordinate role in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was not colonized by a European nation for any length of time.

The unusual cultural density has produced great musical and literary wealth in the region. The three great monotheist religions have been represented here from the beginning. Liturgical music of Coptic monks brought Christianity to the region as early as the 4th century. In the 7th century Islam entered Ethiopia, and the presence of the Jews, called Falasha, most likely dates back to the 3rd century. The Ethiopian sacred musical ceremony connected the European sacred keys with the “modi” of Ethiopia, which still influence the style of music in several regions of the country.

Between Ethiojazz and Traditions

Since the mid-twentieth century, Ethiopia is also well known for its original urban music scene. The project “Ethiojazz” made the country’s music known around the world, especially among jazz fans. After the socialist revolution in 1974, many Ethiopian musicians emigrated to North America or Europe (particularly to France). However, Ethiopia has for the most part remained musically unexplored. The core of the new “Guzo” project is to document the historic music traditions of Ethiopia, and they are firmly tied into the course of the “Journey”.

At the same time, the dialogue with the present day will be led by Samuel Yirga, who will meet with traditional musicians, who, together with the musicologists, will examine how music instruments are made, will attend religious ceremonies, and will perform music together with musicians he and the group encounter along their journey. This performance component is fundamentally important for the film project, because during his search, Yirga will actively interact with the surroundings he is exploring. On a theoretical level, he will conduct interviews with musicologists, researchers, experts and musician colleagues and discuss methods, discoveries and results.

Musicological Mission

Along with concerts in Weimar and other German cities where Samuel Yirga and traditional musicians from Ethiopia will perform, a documentary film about an exciting musicological mission in Ethiopia will mark the end of the project. In addition, the audio and visual documentation will be added to materials from older private archives that were collected in 2014 by the Transcultural Music Studies. The software and music database, “Global Music Data Base”, developed by the Weimar department forms the technical and scholarly platform for the integration of the existing archives and the material yet to be documented. With the respective meta data, the music archive can later be easily transferred to Ethiopia.

The idea for Guzo evolved in 2014. Thanks to the support of the German Federal Foreign Office, Sammy Yirga (Addis Abeba) could be accompanied by the experts Getie Gelaye (Bahir Dar/Hamburg), Timkehet Teffera (Addis Abeba/Berlin), Francis Falceto (Addis Abeba/Paris), David Evans (Memphis)and Itsushi Kawase (Osaka) to visit the Department of Musicology Weimar-Jena in order to determine and plan the contents of the project during a one-week symposium. In the meantime there is a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Music FRANZ LISZT Weimar and the Bahir Dar University  in northern Ethiopia. According to Forbes Magazine Africa, Samuel Yirga belongs to the 50 most important African figures alive. But instead of resting on the laurels of his popularity, Yirga is determined to investigate the origins of both his own and Ethiopian music. He has found the perfect partner in Weimar.