Africa is the second-largest continent in the world. As such, its music is diverse. Its nations and regions have their own distinct musical traditions and sound.
One such country is Ethiopia, situated in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian musicians usually release their songs in Amharic or other traditional languages, such as Somali or Oromo. They also boldly cover relevant social and political subjects, giving further significance to their songs.
In addition, many modern-day artists have started releasing songs in English to reach audiences worldwide. So without further ado, here are 10 of the greatest and most famous singers (and one musician who doesn’t sing!)
1. Aster Aweke
Considered a legend in the Ethiopian music industry, Aster Aweke is widely known for her powerful vocals and amazing lyrics. She was born in Gondar, a city in Ethiopia, but grew up in Adis Ababa because her father worked in the capital.
She started singing when she was 13, even though her parents opposed her. She kept going despite the lack of support because the music made her happy. In fact, in her younger years, she performed in clubs in Adis Ababa along with famous bands.
Aweke’s big break came in 1981 when she moved to the United States to pursue her music career. In the same year, she released her US label debut called Aster. Her most popular single, “Anteye,” has sold millions of copies.
2. Teddy Afro
Singer-songwriter Teddy Afro was born Tewodros Kassahun Germamo. He has built a name for himself with his fantastic songwriting skills and revolutionary songs.
This talented musician grew up in Addis Ababa but didn’t have an easy journey. Both of his parents were in the entertainment industry. However, they discouraged him from pursuing music. Nevertheless, Teddy Afro released his first album in 2001.
His third album, Yasteseryal, released in 2005, was very controversial due to the political tensions in Ethiopia at the time. The governing party at the time banned four of his songs, but the album still sold millions of copies.
3. Mulatu Astatke
Our next musician, Mulatu Astatke, is considered the father of Ethiopian Jazz. He is also a composer and an arranger. Astatke grew up in Kaffa Province and was interested in music from a young age.
When he was a teenager, his parents sent him to Wales to study engineering. However, Astatke pursued a degree in music in London. He then moved to the United States and took up vibraphone and percussion at Berklee College of Music.
While in the US, Astatke released albums combining jazz, Latin, and Ethiopian music. In the 1970s, he brought a new style of music, Ethiopian Jazz, to his homeland and gained popularity over the years.
Another singer on our list is Ejigayehu Shibabaw, better known under her stage name Gigi. She is an Ethiopian famous for her outstanding vocals.
Gigi was born and raised in Chagni, a town in northwestern Ethiopia. Here she learned traditional Ethiopian songs from an Orthodox priest.
Her big break came in 2001 with the release of her album Gigi which also featured several American jazz musicians. Her album was a mix of contemporary and traditional music. It was a commercial success and generated a buzz back home.
She released other albums in 2003 and 2006, which made her famous in Ethiopia. Notably, Gigi’s voice was used in the Beyond Borders movie, where famous actress Angelina Jolie is the main protagonist.
5. Abinet Agonafir
Up next is Abinet Agonafir, a talented Ethiopian singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter. He was raised in Hawassa in central Ethiopia and was interested in music from a young age.
Agonafir had his early training when he joined multiple theatre clubs at school. Here, he learned story-writing skills, which would come in handy in songwriting. This was also where he learned to play the piano. He started singing and writing music as he became older.
Agonafir released his first album, DibikWubet, in 2003. This would become one of his best-selling albums. But it was his Wuleta album that cemented his status in the Ethiopian music industry. It was the most listened album in 2007 and 2008 in the country.
6. Mahmoud Ahmed
The 1970s saw Mahmoud Ahmed‘s rise to fame as a legendary Ethiopian singer. Besides Ethiopia, he would also gain fame across Africa and Europe. Ahmed started his singing career early when he resided in the Mercato district.
Initially, he used to be a band singer and performed with several prominent bands at the time. However, he later ventured into solo music and released several singles that made him known in Ethiopia.
His rise to global fame came following the release of his Ere Mela Mela, a collection from two of his LPs. Around this time, Ethiopia was making waves due to politics and famine. His most significant achievement came in 2007 when he won the BBC World Music Award.
7. Ali Birra
Our next Ethiopian singer is Ali Birra. He was born Ali Mohammed Musa in Ganda Kore, Dire Dawa of the Hararghe Province in Ethiopia. He is one of the few notable artists who popularized funk, jazz, rock, and reggae in East Africa.
Ali Birra was only 13 when he joined a cultural group to promote Oromo music and culture. His first singing engagement involved him singing “Birra dha Bari’e,” which gave birth to his nickname. Ali is from his first name, while Birra is from the song.
Ali Birra began his singing career in Addis Ababa after relocating from his native home. He met various nationalists, such as Ahmad Taqi, who influenced his music career. His big break came in 1971 when he released his first album, which was also the first album in Oromo music history.
8. Zeritu Kebede
Listening to Zeritu Kebede will make you love music. She is an Ethiopian singer of gospel and rock music and represents the new era of Ethiopian music.
Kebede was raised in Addis Ababa and has been interested in music since she was a little girl. She used to listen to her parents’ collection, which included prominent Ethiopian musician Mahmoud Ahmed.
Kebede started singing professionally after high school, and she released her first album in 2005. It contains the most notable single, “Yane,” which propelled the album to become one of the most famous in Ethiopia.
9. Betty G
Another renowned Ethiopian singer-songwriter is Bruktawit Getahun. She goes by the name Betty G. She grew up in Addis Ababa and attended university to study Office Management.
However, her higher studies didn’t deter her from pursuing her music career. Initially, Betty G wasn’t famous in the Ethiopian music industry. After collaborating with other notable musicians like Nhatty Man, she started gaining recognition.
In 2015, Betty G cemented her legacy when she released her first album, Manew Fitsum. Since then, she has collaborated with other famous musicians such as Teddy Afro and Zeritu Kebede. Her second album, Wegegta, received six AFRIMA nominations after its release.
10. Abby Lakew
The last musician on this list is Abby Lakew. She is an Ethiopian who sings in English and Amharic. She was born and raised in Gondar until she relocated to the United States when she was 13.
She released her first album in 2005, which was produced in both English and Amharic. She later released other albums, which include the songs “Shikorina” and “Abrerew.”
Lakew’s most outstanding single was “Yene Habesha,” which she released in 2015. The song attracted over 54 million viewers on Youtube, depicting her rise to fame in the music industry.
In 2016, Lakew was nominated for the Best Traditional Female Artist for Africa award, cementing her legacy in the music industry.
Summing Up Our List Of Famous Ethiopian Musicians and Singers
Many of us may not have been to Ethiopia yet, but we can experience its culture and music through the songs on this list.
What’s noteworthy about these musicians and singers is the fact that they nod to their Ethiopian roots in their albums and songs. They prove that there’s no limit to what one can do to mix traditional music and genres from other countries.
So if you haven’t heard of these artists before, consider adding their songs to your playlist. While you’re at it, discover what makes them unique.