A Web Site For The Young Ethiopian Professional.     Volume II   Issue II
Tuesday July 27 2021

Roots, Kwas and Reggae

by Fikru Gebrekidan

Ethiopia, a country once noted for its isolation, now constitutes an important part of Africa, politically and culturally. Emperor Haile Selassie's foreign policy has been responsible for the Africanization of Ethiopian identity at a political level. Ethiopia's cultural evolution in a larger continental context remains an ongoing process. In this essay, I will discuss the role of popular culture as a vehicle of pan-African consciousness insofar as Ethiopian interaction with the rest of Africa is concerned.

As an academic subject, the study of popular culture has made little inroad into Ethiopian studies. The impact of music and sports on the definition and redefinition of Ethiopian national consciousness is vaguely understood. Yet, it is in mass culture that the Ethiopian society has gone through one of its most profound transformations. Due to the advent of modern media, the Ethiopian urban culture has become increasingly Western on one hand, and more pan-African on the other. Names such as Mohammed Ali, James Brown and Bob Marley have become common household names throughout the country, while Afro, the African-American hairstyle of the sixties, has become a conventional word in the Amharic vocabulary.


In the seventies, artists such as Alemayehu Eshete not only composed inspirational songs in support of African freedom fighters, but also styled their stage performances after well-known Motown black artists. This syncretistic trend has since continued among younger artists such as Dawit Melese, Chachi Tadesse and Zeleke Gessesse, whose major innovations include the fusion of traditional Ethiopian music with contemporary Soukous, jazz, Reggae and rap. The impact of these artists outside the sub-region has been modest, unfortunately. Ethiopian music has not burst onto the international scene the way West or South African music has.

This is because the image of the western half of Africa as the ancestral homeland to American blacks has been commercially exploited often at the expense of other regions. While the search for an "authentic" Africa" has drawn Western promoters to certain pre-designated cultural areas, other parts of the continent are seen as artistically less complex and therefore unmarketable. Thus, notwithstanding the large Diasporic Ethiopian communities abroad, Northeast African pop-music has made no international breakthrough in the same way the Ghanaian Highlife, the Nigerian Juju or the Zairian Rumba has.

However limited the popularity of Ethiopian music outside the sub-region, Ethiopian culture has gained international attention because of Reggae and Rastafarianism. Rastafari or Rastafarianism is a Jamaican-based religious sect with which most of the Reggae artists are associated. Rastafarians use the Bible as their source of guidance but they differ from other branches of Christianity by their worship of Emperor Haile Selassie as the returned Messiah. Their sect derives its name from Ras Tefari Makonnen, Haile Selassie's pre-coronation title and family name.

Because of the intimate association between Ethiopia and Rastafarianism, Ethiopian cultural icons such as the Amharic scripts and the green-gold-red tricolors have appeared on several Reggae album covers. Amharic terms such as ras (duke), selassie (trinity) and negus (king) have also become commonplace words among Reggae fan clubs across the globe. The first Reggae group to incorporate Amharic lyrics on their album was the Abyssinians, a Jamaican-based group. Their 1969 release, Setta Masgana le Amlak Hul Gize (give thanks and praises to the Lord everyday) set a new trend in the evolution of Reggae. The song extended Reggae's syncretistic repertoire, one that many Jamaican artists found too hard to resist. Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus came up with hits such as Kibr-Amlak (Glory to God) and their own version of the Ethiopian anthem: Ethiopia Thou Land of our Fathers. The lyrics for the Ethiopian Anthem was composed half a century earlier by Arnold Ford, a Garveyite who migrated to Ethiopia in the 1930s. Garvey and his followers had used the word Ethiopia to mean black Africa, but for the Sons of Negus and other Rastas the word Ethiopia was used in its most literal appellation. When another group, the Culture, sang There is a land, far far away; it's called Addis Ababa, it was obvious the Ethiopia that Rastas had in mind was the Northeast African state of Ethiopia which they regarded as the capital of Africa.

Ethiopia's impact on Reggae and its language content is most evident in Ziggy Marley's 1988 release, Conscious Party. Conscious Party is the first album produced by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, heirs to Bob Marley and the Melody Makers. The group consists of Bob's two sons, Ziggy and Steven, their mother Rita and grandmother Cedella. It has been said that one of Bob's plans while alive was to stage a show with musicians from Ethiopia. Ziggy and the Melody Makers made the dream come true by picking the Chicago-based Dalool as their backup band. One of the popular numbers in the group's 1989 cut, Dream of Home, starts with a full recitation of Abatachin Hoy (The Lord's Prayer) in Amharic. Such is the popularity of Dream of Home that Abatachin Hoy has since become the opening chant in many of the Marleys' public concerts.


Unlike in music, Ethiopia's impact on African sports is more direct and obvious. Ethiopia's Abebe Bekila has achieved in athletics what Nigeria's Fela Kute, Cameroon's Manu Dibango, South Africa's Mariam Makeba or Zaire's Franco have accomplished in music.

In the 1960 Rome Olympics Abebe, a private in the Ethiopian army, astounded the world by running the marathon barefoot and winning a gold medal. The irony of the moment was not lost on the Italians who, only twenty-five years ago, had unleashed the world's most brutal war on Ethiopia. As reported in the Italian newspapers the next day, it had taken Mussolini's entire army to defeat the African nation, but it took one barefoot Ethiopian to conquer Rome. The victory was particularly propitious for Africans who, until then, remained sideline spectators of the international sports. Coming as he did at the height of Africa's independence euphoria, Abebe became a role model for a generation of athletes and his victory beckoned the prominent role Africans would play in international track and field competitions.

A spectacular victory in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics rendered Abebe a unique place in the games' history as the only athlete ever to win the Olympic marathon twice; and, following a similar triumph by Mamo Wolde four years later in Mexico City, Ethiopia became the first country to reign consecutively three times over the long-distance race. Abebe, who dropped out halfway through the race in Mexico due to injury, remained Africa's most popular sports' ambassador and Ethiopia's best-known international personage after Haile Selassie. Even after a tragic car accident had left him paraplegic waist down leading to an early death at the age of 41, Abebe's legend continued to inspire upcoming African athletes for decades to come.

The 1968 Mexico Olympics was a milestone in African sports for various reasons. First, African sport officials, led by Yidnekachew Tesemma, successfully lobbied and reversed the IOC's decision to readmit South Africa into the world games as of 1968. Second, the number of African countries participating in the global games grew by several folds in Mexico. Third, due to Kenyans' outstanding performance in the Latin American city, African runners won more medals that year than all the medals of the previous years combined. With better training facilities and a more conducive political atmosphere, Kenyan athletes would henceforth dominate African track and field competitions, at least until the rise of Haile Gebre-Selassie, the unbeaten champion of the 5000-meter race..

It should be mentioned here that Ethiopia's pathfinding role in African sports was not confined to Abebe's triumphs in Rome and Tokyo. In fact, the year 1992 was to African female athletes what the year 1960 had been to their male counterparts. In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia became the continent's first woman gold medalist in the 10,000-meter race. Her success paved the way for the participation of more African female athletes in international track and field contests, which in turn contributed to the historic victory by Ethiopia's marathonist, Fatuma Roba, in the 1996 Atlanta games. Although, unlike in the Olympics, African participation in World Cup matches has brought no medals, soccer remains the most popular sporting event in the continent. While Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania have produced the world's finest long-distance runners, West and North Africa have contributed the continent's world-class soccer teams. Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, Nigeria's Super Eagles and a number of North African teams have taken part in several World Cup matches, the best performance so far being the Lions' 1990 advance to the semi final. The proudest moment for African soccer to date is not in the World Cup but in the Olympics. In the 1996 Atlanta games, Nigeria captured world's attention by snatching the gold medal from the two most favored South American candidates, Brazil and Argentina.

Ethiopia and the Growth of African Football

The birth of organized football in Africa at a national level coincided with the emergence of pan-Africanism. In 1957 Sudan Egypt and Ethiopia met in Khartoum and formed the Confederation of African Football: CAF. In the matches held in Sudan that year for the first biennial African Cup of Nations, Egypt emerged the champion. The 1959 and 1962 cups were won by the host nations of Egypt and Ethiopia respectively.

By later day standards, none of these early cup contests could have been considered regional, let alone continental. The third Cup of Nations hosted in Addis Ababa in 1962, for example, attracted only five countries including Uganda and Tunisia, the newest CAF members. By contrast, when Ethiopia hosted the tenth biennial Cup in 1976, the number of contending nations had tripled despite the introduction of qualifying preliminary matches. Live broadcasting of major matches on the radio had by now spread the soccer craze to all corners of the continent and the game had become a truly pan-African phenomenon.

But African sports growth also had its setbacks. As far as Ethiopians were concerned, the late seventies marked the beginning of stagnation in their country's competitive spirit. The Derg's political crackdown, the red terror, together with civil war and famine triggered a mass flight of people to neighboring countries as refugees, a fact that in turn created a downward spiral in Ethiopia's long-term socio-cultural development.

Even in these darkest years, however, Ethiopian influence on the continent was felt through Yidnekachew Tesemma's elevation to various leadership positions in sports. Yidnekachew's football career began in his teens. In the mid 1930s, he was one of the founding members of the St. George soccer club. As a post-war government-appointed sport official, Yidnekachew helped promote soccer as a popular national pastime by helping found new teams and arranging matches in different parts of the country. His efforts paid off in 1953 with FIFA's acceptance of Ethiopia as its fourth African member after Egypt (1923), Sudan (1948) and South Africa (1952).

Having represented his country at the CAF formation conference in Sudan, in 1961 Yidnekachew was chosen as the organization's vice president. A decade later, he replaced the Egyptian Abdel Aziz Salem as CAF's president, a position he held until his death in August 1987.

For a continent beset with civil strife and political instability, CAF has since remained perhaps the only stable pan-African institution with unsurpassed administrative success. When it started functioning in the late fifties the Confederation had little governmental funding and had to depend mainly on the Egyptian Olympic committee and football association for its annual budget. Three decades later, CAF had not only grown more complex with a much larger administrative body and technical personnel, but its revenue-yielding mechanisms had made the organization self-reliant if profitable.

The best way to understand Yidnekachew's significance to African sports is by looking at what Africans outside Ethiopia have written about him. "It would not be immodest to say that apart from being one of the founding fathers of CAF, he has been the author of all the African proposals submitted to the FIFA congress several of which have meant modification of the statutes," the Nigerian Olu Amadasun comments in his History of Football in Africa. Yidnekachew, the writer continues, "championed tirelessly Africa's interest especially that which compelled FIFA to grant Africa an additional spot in the 1982 World Cup." Among other things, he passionately campaigned against alcohol and tobacco advertisements in CAF-sponsored matches and, however unpopular at first, the idea eventually caught on and was put to practice.

Yidnekachew is further remembered for his outspoken militancy against racism in sports. South Africa had been represented at the first CAF conference in Khartoum but then withdrew when confronted by the anti-apartheid lobby put up by Yidnekachew. CAF eventually imposed an official boycott on South Africa in the aftermath of the Sharpville massacre. Apartheid again became a controversial sports topic when the IOC decided to invite South Africa to the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. As Ethiopia's official spokesperson Yidnekachew called for an international boycott of the games in protest. His campaign held sway on at least forty countries and eventually forced the IOC to reconsider its decision.

Major organizations with which Yidnekachew was closely associated included the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Union of African Sports Olympic Committees Association and the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa. Yidnekachew's contribution to the development of sports in Africa has earned him international awards and recognition. In 1978, the newly introduced African Youth Championship Cup was named in his honor: Tesemma Cup. Other tributes, according to Amadasun, included an honorary medal by the African Union of Sports Journalists and a sport merit medal by the Zairian government. He was also conferred knighthood by the Ivorian government, a perfect irony for a citizen whose Marxist government espoused the gospel of universal proletarianism.

Be it in sports or music, pop culture can, in conclusion, be thought as having broadened modern Ethiopian national consciousness and made it more inclusive and more open. For a country with one of the lowest rates of literacy, sport provided a venue by which Ethiopians came to learn more about their continent and the continent about Ethiopia. Similarly, the fusion of Western and African beats with Ethiopian traditional music has created a more cosmopolitan and pan-African cultural ambiance, in turn giving rise to the Ethiopians' awareness of Africa and the world at large.