Saint Yared of Ethiopia
[Abebe Kebede]
[Ashenafi Kebede]
[Belai Gidey]
[Ethiopian Music Course (FSU)]
[Northern Ethiopia]

[Exploring Africa]
[The Lost Ark]

[Ethiopian Orthodoxy]

[Saint Yared]

[Saint Yared Music]

[Ethiopian church]

[Musical Notations]

[Introduction to Qene - GE Gorfu]

[Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey 


The Amharic musical traditions of Ethiopia. Readings

Chapter 13: "The Music of Ethiopia" by Cynthia Tse Kimberlin

  • Elizabeth May textbook, pages 232-252
  • Dale A. Olsen study guide and workbook, pages 141-148
Audio/Video Examples:
  • – Tigre (1:11). Vocal solo with masinqo accompaniment. From textbook record, side 4, band 2a
  • – embilta (:26). From textbook record, side 4, band 2b
  • – Adari (:34). Vocal duet from Harar. From textbook record, side 4, band 2c

This lesson studies several Ethiopian musical instruments and singing styles of the Amharic people of Ethiopia, and studies the live of Saint Yared, Ethiopia's great musical master.


At the end of this lesson the student will be able to:

  1. identify the musical instruments featured in the textbook recordings pertaining to Ethiopia, and in the writings of Ashenafi Kebede, and
  2. identify Saint Yared and his contributions to Ethiopian music

(1) The musical instruments featured in the textbook recordings pertaining to Ethiopia, and in the writings of Ashenafi Kebede:

The Amharic people of Ethiopia (and its northeastern neighbor Eritrea) have a large number of musical instruments. Several of these are secular instruments, while others are among the most sacred musical instruments found in the Horn of Africa (the central northeast promontory of Africa). Let's examine Ethiopia's musical instruments by placing them in the following categories [notice the different spellings for Ethiopian words by comparing the following musical instrument names provided by Dr. Kebede with the names given in the May textbook by the author of Chapter 13, Cynthia Tse Kimberlin]: aerophones (embilta and washint); chordophones (masinqo, begena, and krar); membranophones (kebero); and idiophones (tsena tsil sistrum and censor).  Where indicated, many of these paragraphs were written by Dr. Ashenafi Kebede, entitled "Sharing Musics of the World," for Music Cultures of the World, which he taught in the School of Music of The Florida State University. Dr. Kebede, in addition to being a Professor of Ethnomusicology, was Director of the Center for African American Culture, College of Social Sciences, at The Florida State University.

  • Aerophones
Two type of aerophones are predominant in Ethiopia: embilta and washint. The first is perhaps related to wind instruments from Africa south of the Sahara (similar types are found in Ghana and South Africa, for example), and the second is similar to the Arabic nay (similar types are found throughout the Middle East and North Africa).

As Kimberlin describes them on page 239, the embilta is a set of individual one-tubed pipes, each of a different size and name (yima, ora, and def, from longest to shortest). As you listen to her musical example, notice how the individual notes interlock and alternate, resulting in a composite rhythmical melody whose sum is greater than the individual parts. PLAY Embilta. This type of ensemble playing will also be heard in the next lesson (Lesson 54) about Congo. Many musical groups are constructed on this principal of communal sharing and interlocking of individual notes or a series of notes in order to make a melody (see also Lessons 29 and 30, about Balinese gamelan).

The wasant (also spelled washint) is pictured on page 239 of the May textbook, and a painting of it adorns the upper left-hand corner of this lesson. This end-blown flute is like the Arabic nay (also spelled nai), which has a mouthpiece that is simply an open end. The flutist must pucker his lips in such a way as to focus his air stream against the sharp edge of the mouthpiece rim. It is a very difficult instrument to play. While washints are normally made from bamboo, they have also been made from metal tubes by men who work as night watchmen at prisons and elsewhere, where they can also use them as "billy clubs" for protection.

  • Chordophones (From Ashenafi Kebede)
Lyres are structurally distinguished from other chordophones in the following ways: they have two wooden side-posts that emerge from a sound resonator; they have a crossbar or yoke that connects the posts on the opposite side of the resonator; and their strings, stretched from the crossbar down to the bottom of the resonator, always run parallel to the face of the resonator. There are two types of lyres in Ethiopia:  begena, a box-lyre, and krar, a bowl-lyre. The term "box-lyre" refers to the types with square-, rectangular-, or box-shaped resonators, similar to the begena seen in this painting to your right. The term "bowl-lyre" refers to the types with a round bowl-shaped resonator, as seen in a drawing of a krar on page 238 in the May textbook and reproduced here in black and white to your left.

Lyres are found in many of the northeast African, Near Eastern, and Mediterranean cultures. For example, it is known as kinnor in Hebrew, kinnara in Arabic, ginera in Egypt, and lyra in Greece. Most lyres use a bridge that stands on the face of the resonator; it has slots equal to the number of the strings; its purpose is to lift up the strings off of the face of the resonator so each string can vibrate freely and produce clear tones. One end of each string is tied to the loop on the sound resonator and the other end around the yoke with the tuning twigs, or pegs. These pegs may be turned to the required intensity to tune the eight to ten strings. Traditionally, the strings of the begena were made of ox or cow gut. (Today, however, nylon strings may also be used.)

Historically, Egyptian paintings of about 2000 B.C. show Semitic nomads with lyres. It is not, however certain whether Egyptians exerted their influences on Asian, Mediterranean, and other African musical cultures. Lyres are also found widely distributed in most of the northeast and east African cultures. Uganda and Sudan are famed for their large variety of bowl-lyres. These lyres generally use a tuning-bulge on the yoke to tune the gut strings. Ethiopian lyres, unlike the Ugandan lyres, have tuning twigs or sticks. The direction of influences and migrations still remains a mystery. Ethiopia is the only country in the world where the box-lyre begena is found as part of the living tradition today. Wood from eucalyptus or juniper trees is ordinarily used in making the frame of the soundbox. It is then covered by parchment made of ox-hide. The box is sometimes made of a hollowed-out piece of wood of appropriate circumference and depth. The begena do not have rattles on their surface as some of the other African lyres do, such as the lyres of Uganda and Zaire, for example. The begena plays a semi-sacred role in the hands of the solo performer. Though completely out of the sphere of the strictly sacred practices of the dominant religions, it is not either used in the performance of really secular music. For example, it is primarily used to accompany awit's (Biblical David's) Psalms during Lent or other fasting periods of the Christian population; again, members of the Fellasha (Black Jews) use it in a similar manner. Consequently, and following oral tradition, it is nicknamed "Dawit's Harp;" it is the instrument, they say, that David played to soothe King Saul's nerves and saved him from madness. It is also claimed that the instrument was introduced to Ethiopia by the Israelites who came to Axum from Jerusalem escorting Menelik I, the alleged son of Solomon and Queen Sheba. On the other hand, the begena is found depicted on Ethiopian manuscripts of the early fifteenth century.

(Not from Kebede)  As Kimberlin describes and pictures it on page 238, the masinqo (also spelled masinko) is a bowed lute, a type of fiddle with a diamond-shaped resonator that is covered with skin on both sides. The drawing of the instrument from your book and reproduced here shows the masinqo as it would be stored, with the bridge collapsed and the bow tucked under the single string. Most commonly, a masinqo player is also a singer who accompanies himself with his instrument. As you listen to her musical example, notice how the singer plays the vocal melody in nearly perfect unison with himself. PLAY Tigre. Vocal solo with masinqo accompaniment.

  • Idiophones (From Ashenafi Kebede)
The Egyptian and Ethiopian sistrums are probably the oldest and best known idiophone types. Both are made of three or four metal rods that are horizontally drawn through a bow or U- shaped frame with a handle. They are of wood, porcelain, or pottery; the more recent standard type is made of metal. Both are equipped with movable discs, threaded on the rods, which jingle or clash when the instrument is shaken. It is interesting to note here that these ancient sistrums of African origin later spread to Greece, Rome, and other cultures around the Mediterranean as well as to other countries on the African continent. The sistrum used in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Churches as well as in the Fellasha Synagogues are known as tsenatsil. Its social function is evidenced by its popularity in many Jewish Communities of North Africa, and the Middle and Near East, where it accompanies exclusively sacred chants. It is also interesting to indicate here that the four jingling metal bars on the sistrum are linked with the elements of nature: fire, water, air, and earth. In most of the cults, the sistrum was identified with votive power. The sistra of contemporary Ethiopia are strictly religious instruments played only by male deacons and priests to accompany sacred chants. In this case, close relationships exist.
The tsenatsil is found in both Ethiopian and Jewish musical practices; in both cultures, it is played by male priests. Metallic idiophones had a universal role of protecting the bearer against evil spirits. In many oriental cultures of Africa and the Near East, for example, jingles are used in the rites of initiation and circumcision. This extra-musical roles associated and interrelated with magic and religion are by no means limited to the non-European world. It is also practiced in Europe; in A.D. 900, for example, Pope John IX ordered that bells be used in the Catholic Church as a defense against thunder and lightning. It is edifying to know the roles musical instruments play in religious, magical, and other symbolic services in societies, east and west.

Another type of idiophone is found in all Orthodox Christian Churches: censors and silver pyxes provided with jingles. Even Biblical references indicate that Hebraic priests wore metallic jingles on their robes upon entering sacred places such as the Holy of Holys. This is still practiced in many Christian and Jewish communities, including those found today in Oriental Africa and the Near East.

The names of some of these instruments are often indicative of their common origin or source. The spherical jingle, which is popularly found is known, for instance, under onomatopoeic names in Afro-Semitic languages: al-gulgul, shkelkil (Egyptian), al-galag (Sudan), and quachil (Ethiopia).

  • Membranophones (From Ashenafi Kebede)
Drums, or membranophones, play an important role in Afro-Asiatic religious ceremonies. The Sudanese Dervish sect performs its ritual songs and dances accompanied by drums; intricate dance movements and syncopated rhythms are performed simultaneously each Friday afternoon at the Hamad el Nil cemetery in Omdurman. In Egypt, drums play an important role during the religious ceremonies of the Sufi mystic brotherhood in Cairo.

In the area of Christian music, priests of the Ethiopian and Coptic Churches undertake specialized training in order to master the techniques employed in playing the drums that accompany sacred hymns sung during the year. Probably the best known of these membranophones is the Ethiopian kebero. Its name is derived from the Amharic verb makber, which means "to celebrate; to honor." Thus, its name refers to its function; it is a processional drum used to accompany the music of important religious celebrations of the Church. The kebero is also used by the Fellasha of Ethiopia (as distinct from those Ethiopian Jews in Israel who do not use it).

The Ethiopian kebero is an excellent example of a large double-headed cylindrical drum. It is made of a hollowed-out log. The interior and exterior are iron filed and smoothed with sandpaper. It is covered by hide or membrane in two ways: there are drums that are laced with leather cords, and those whose bodies are entirely covered with ox-hide. In the first case, the skins of the two faces are stretched and laced on top of the wooden body. Often, the stretched membranes are treated with animal fat oil to prevent them from breaking. The kebero is always played with the bare hands; the right hand plays on the big face and the left hand on the small side. It is often suspended horizontally from a strap around the player's shoulders.

(2) Saint Yared and his contributions to Ethiopian music:

The following essay is reproduced from materials published by the late Dr. Ashenafi Kebede, Professor of ethnomusicology at The Florida State University, and one of the teachers of this course on Music Cultures of the World for many years. It can also be found in the Internet by making the following link: History of Ethiopian Music by Dr. Ashenafi Kebede (scroll down to his site for the source of the following lesson, which is from Ashenafi Kebede's Roots of Black Music, Africa World Press, 1995)

According to gedle (biography), Ethiopia's great ecclesiastic composer, poet, and priest, Saint Yared, was born in Axum ca. 496 (Ethiopian Calendar). His father was an Amhara farmer by the name of Yisaak (Isaac). His mother, Kristina, was born in Tigre from Eritrean parents. Yared received educational and moral guidance from his uncle Gaidiwon who was then reputed to be a scholarly priest. Moreover, it is claimed that Yared was taken to Heaven where he was taught by three Holy Spirits, the arts of vocal performance, composition, poetry, versification and improvisation. Yared arranged and composed hymns for each season of the year, for summer and winter and spring and autumn, for festivals and Sabbaths, and for the days of the Angels, the Prophets, the Martyrs and the Righteous.

Saint Yared singing in front of Emperor Gebre Meskel accompanied by drums, sistra, and male priests.

Mesmerized by the music, the Emperor accidentally dropped his spear into the flat part of Yared's foot. Yared often sang for Emperor Gebre Meskel. "And when they heard the sound of his voice," his Gedle (biography) tells us, "the king and the queen, and the bishop and the priests, and the king's nobles, ran to the church, and they spent the day listening to him." And one day Saint Yared sang in front of Emperor Gebre Meskel accompanied by drums, sistra, and male priests. Mesmerized by the music, the Emperor accidentally dropped his spear into the flat part of Yared's foot. (See picture of Yared.) The Emperor was grieved by the pain he had inflicted on his spiritual friend. He said: "Ask me whatever reward thou wishest in return for this thy blood which hath been shed." Yared made the Emperor promise that he would not refuse his request. Having accomplished that, Yared asked and was reluctantly granted permission to live in solitude and to dedicate his life to prayer, meditation, and to his music. He departed from Axum and went to the Semien mountains where he lived until his disappearance. According to our recent research among Ethiopian scholars, there is a general claim that he did not die, and that he will come back in the future to perform, preach, and teach. He was sainted after his disappearance.

One day Saint Yared sang in front of Emperor Gebre Meskel accompanied by drums, sistra, and male priests. (See picture of Yared.)


begena - a lyre with a box-shaped resonator

embilta - a set of individual one-tubed end-blown pipes, each of a different size and name

kebero - a large double-headed cylindrical drum made of a hollowed-out log

krar - a lyre with a bowl-shaped resonator

masinqo - a bowed lute, a type of fiddle, with a diamond-shaped resonator that is covered with skin on both sides

tsenatsil - a sistrum made of three or four metal rods that are horizontally drawn through a bow or U- shaped frame with a handle

washint - an end-blown flute similar to the Arabic nay

Additional Bibliography:

Kebede, Ashenafi. 1982. Roots of Black Music: The Vocal, Instrumental, and Dance Heritage of Africa and Black America. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Selected Discography:

Ethiopie: Polyphonies des Dorze. Collection Musee de l'Homme. Le Chant du Monde LDX F74646.

The Music of Ethiopia: Azmari Music of the Amharas. Recordings and notes by Ashenafi Kebede. Anthology AST 6000.

Selected Webliography:

Ashenafi Kebede obituary - kebede.html

Eritrea -

Ethiopia -

History of Ethiopian Music -

Photographs of Ethiopia -

Ethiopian pictures -

Questions? Email Dr. Olsen.
©Copyright 2002, Florida State University

If you wish to add new information on this article please contactDr. Abebe Kebede

Copyright ©1997 EDLA Ethiopian Distance Learning Association. All Rights Reserved.

Last modified 17-March-99.

Copyright ©1997 
Dr. Abebe Kebede. All Rights Reserved.