by Jakub Pociejewski

Azmari is the name of the very unique social group in Ethiopia. This group consists both of men and women, who make their living by singing and playing music.

Name itself is an agent noun coming from Amharic verb zämärä meaning “to sing”. Due to lack of sources it’s very hard task to track azmari history back to their beginnings and get to know about the primal character of their music.

However there’s strong parallel between emerging of troubadour-like social groups (minstrels, jelis, gnawas, minnensingers, bards, skalds) and feudalization of society. By this fact some experts date their ancestry to pre-Christian times, when this kind of social structures emerged.

Another hypothesis link their performances with typically religious functions (till today a lot of azmari are ex-church school students, use church melodies and ways of improvisation), which  introduced to royal courts where sacred and secular spheres mingled, evolved into worldly music, as we know it today.

Of course azmari performances were not only restricted to royal or noble courts. People enjoyed their music in villages, at bunna bet – cafe, täj/t’älla bet – kind of pubs and recently fast developing azmari bet as well.

Azmari bet nowadays flourish even outside of Ethiopia, usually where big centres of the diasporas are. By creating of an image of wealthy and successful artists those places are also helping overcoming some negative stereotypes towards azmari, which would be listed later.

Style of life of those performers was also diverse. Some were itinerary, some resided at wealthy people courts, and some migrated periodically – working as an azmari after ending of the agricultural season. Today we can see similar pattern, when some of those living in cities treat their profession as the addition to the “normal” work.

It required lot of talent from azmari to be appreciated during his show. Not only he (or she) had to have a good voice, but also play instruments and improvise well (both music and singing), know and use double meanings (called sämnnawärq; “wax and gold”), puns, etc. and generally be able to dialogue with audience.

It was especially important, because in Ethiopia as everywhere in Africa, traditionally the boundary between performer and the audience was very thin. There was usually no stage, so musician was literally among people, who moreover were dancing, accompanying him by clapping hands, singing along and even adding their own verses.

Usually azmari played masinqo – one stringed fiddle or krar – the secular version of the begenna lyre. Interesting thing is, that instruments similar to masinqo can be found in many distant places in Africa, just to name Tuareg imzad, or Malian njarka.

Probably all of them are also somehow connected with Arabic fiddle rebab, but it requires further research.

Kirar in turn, is usually linked with Israel and Greece but similar instruments are found in North African countries as well, so ways of spreading the lyre around the region is another thing for investigation.

It’s worth mentioning that usually men tend to play music and woman were singers (it was up to particular performer, whether he/she wants to perform solo or not).

Repertoire usually consisted of love songs (some people complain that today they’re often reduced to strictly sexual context and vulgar), historical poems (for example about deeds of the past heroes) and improvised songs about the daily life (often praising or mocking somebody).

During military campaigns they also lifted the soldiers’ morale, and within village communities – sung about problems such as corruption and abusing power by noblemen and clergy.

Agricultural activities (crop harvest), Zar (possession cult) ceremonies and various feasts and occasions such as T’əmqät, New year, weddings and funerals also required presence of azmari.

Interesting thing though, was the ability to play at different religion festivals, regardless of the personal beliefs of the particular performer.

As we can see they were not only entertainers but heralds, popular tribunes and culture preservers likewise. Unfortunately it almost automatically turned them into group for extermination by the Italian invaders in 1935.

Of course technique of destroying a nation by destroying its culture was much older, but it seems to be a bitter irony of history, that in the same decade very similar situation happened again.

Ukrainian wandering poet/musicians (also of low status, wandering, singing with accompaniment, with similar repertoire – just as azmari) called lirnyks, were almost completely eradicated in ’30s by Stalin’s order.

Though we see azmaris were playing many different roles, their social status was yet at least ambiguous. To understand why their position was just a bit higher than slaves, and equal to ill, disabled, beggars, etc., we have to consider several factors.

First of all, even till today part of the Ethiopian society don’t appreciate non-church arts much, so the negative attitude towards azmari could be a result of a broader issue.

Secondly their talent of observing, commenting and criticizing which attracted people, simultaneously made listeners fear to be ridiculed, which eventually led to an aversion.

Third proof of negative attitude is found in their language. The word azmari was earlier treated as an insult, and even till today it may bear some negative connotations.

Last, but very important thing to point out, is also one of the main things differentiating azmari from their European and African counterparts (such as jeli).

Though we know, that they had the conscience about being distinct social group, and proved it by many ways (for example by creating their own argot), azmari never developed full fledged organization.

As a result, there was no-one to protect their affairs. As among other artists, the situation was worsen by inner envy and competing. Moreover because of no system of guild licensing, people without skills pretending to be azmaris destroyed their reputation even more.

Another observed consequence was lack of transmission of professional pride and knowledge (hereditary system was crucial element of building self-identity by jeli). It led to losing self-esteem and as a result respect from other people.

Eventually, hardly anyone wanted to be azmari of his own choice, and even for parents who were azmari it was difficult to accept that their child want to marry or become one.

Nowadays Ethiopia changes very fast and the same applies to her people. While one part of society still share the ambiguous view towards azmari, others (especially younger ones) seem to slowly change their attitude.

Modernization influenced azmari likewise. Part of them lost their battle against music industry, some westernized.

But not all the consequences of modernization were such devastating. Electronic media now help preserving their music (for price of taking away improvisation element) and can attract attention of people from all over the world.

Combined with constantly increasing touristic movement it may change them into one of the national symbols, and eventually lead to renaissance of this profession.

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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