VERY OFTEN AT ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANTS, you’ll hear the culture’s music playing softly (or not so softly) through speakers sprinkled around the dining room. And while you may not realize it, some of those songs tell stories about the cuisine.
Ethiopian music has many sounds and uses a variety of instruments that are little known outside of Africa. But for the sake of music about food, the songs I’ve collected here – along with their videos – demonstrate three styles.
The oldest of them is the music of the azmari, men and women who sing traditional songs and accompany themselves on the masenqo, a one-stringed instrument, or the krar, which has five or six strings (the begena, another stringed Ethiopian instrument, has 10). Azmaris perform in bars, restaurants or wherever people want to listen to them.
“Of course, azmaris do not perform just for the love of music,” J.M. F Powne writes in a 1963 master’s thesis on Ethiopian music. “In court they expect food and keep, and generous largesse as well. In the marketplace or the inn they are given tips or drinks.” Ethiopians often refer to this as “cultural music,” and sometimes the musicians improvise their lyrics.
That’s not unlike hip-hop, which Ethiopian musicians have performed for the last few decades. Some of the rappers perform in English, but most of the biggest names in the genre sing in Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia and the country’s second most widely spoken. There are also rappers who sing in Oromo, the most widely spoken language, and in Tigrinya, the language spoken in the north of Ethiopia and in neighboring Eritrea. Young Ethiopian-Americans also rap in English, Amharic, or a mix of both.
Somewhere in between these two is Ethiopian jazz, or Ethio-Jazz, a form that emerged in the 1950s and that incorporates the sounds of traditional jazz, traditional Ethiopian music, some Latin beats, and more recently, Afro funk.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay, a noted Ethiopian scholar, wrote a paper about musicians of the Ethiopian-American diaspora. Although she talks about musical performances at restaurants in Washington, D.C., she doesn’t discuss any songs about food. Simeneh Betreyohannes wrote a 2010 paper that explores the scholarship of Ethiopian music, and Ezra Abate has analyzed the Ethiopian scale system.
Here, then, are some videos by artists who sing about Ethiopian cuisine. I’ve embedded them from their original sources, so hopefully they’ll stay put there. Before the video for each song, I’ll tell you a little about it – in some cases, what little I know because most of them are in Amharic.
LET’S START THE SHOW with some English lyrics (more or less). In What Is Wot?, Wilbur Sargunaraj treats us to a cultural lesson and some Ethiopian hip-hop – even though he’s an Indian performer who’s been dubbed “India’s First YouTube star.” He shot this playful tribute video with the children at a school and orphanage in Ethiopia.
ETHIOPIANS IN AMERICA appreciate their culture’s cuisine, and in Still Eatin’ (On Shurro), Lil Nate and his crew sing about shiro, a delicious dish made with chick peas, berbere and other spices. No Ethiopian meal is complete without it.
JUST HOW POPULAR is shiro? Here’s another song, in English, by an Ethiopian-American who loves his mother’s cooking yet who can’t escape it – the aroma of it follows him everywhere. He calls his song Smell Me.
YOU CAN’T HAVE TOO MANY SONGS about shiro, and Ashenafi Kebede has created a lively one called Ere Shiro Fela, which means “the shiro has boiled” – that is, it’s almost ready to eat. The song is performed in Amharic, Gurage and a bit of Afaan Oromo. My friend Menkir Tamrat explains that cooking most Ethiopian dishes requires finesse, but with shiro, you just add the powder to the water and let it boil until it’s ready, as thin or as thick as you like it.
THE ETHIOPIAN honey wine t’ej is one of the oldest known meads in the world, and it’s cherished in the culture. Here’s a traditional song called T’ej Bet, or “t’ej house,” the name for a bar where it’s all t’ej, all the time.
FANTU MANDOYE’S JAZZY Min T’ej Alena, which means “no quality t’ej,” begins like an MTV video, with a “dramatic” sequence of some men arguing in a t’ej bet, and for a while it looks like a duel might break out (the effect of too much t’ej, no doubt). But soon Fantu’s performance begins.
IN THE KIDS’ SONG Injera BeAgelgel (እንጀራ በአገልግል), a group of youngsters sing and dance to azmari music and traditional instruments in a song about an agelgel, a traditional animal hide basket that Ethiopians use to carry food or to hold the injera that you serve at a meal. It’s sort of like an Ethiopian lunchbox.
HERE’S ANOTHER SONG about injera, this one done in the style of Ethiopian hip-hop by an artist who calls himself “Henockalypse,” and who dedicates the song to that “mom, grandma or auntie who makes you eat even though you’re full.” He made it with his cousin Mahlet. The song is called Injera Belachu, or “did you eat your injera?”
CAN YOU EVER HAVE too many songs about injera? Here’s a tune by King Tewoflos Production – that is, Teddy Tewoflos. They use the alternative enjera spelling (more or less), but we know what they’re singing about.
NOTHING GOES BETTER with injera than – well, just about everything. In Injera be Wet, which means “injera with wot” (i.e., spicy stew), hip-hop artist Royal Ema sings about injera, shiro, siga wot and other tasty things.
WHAT THIS NEXT SONG has to do with its title, Injera, Lentils and Kale, is beyond my ken, but Ras G and the Afrikan Space Program has created a video to go with it that has lots of food. This is the Shiro Mix featuring lyrics performed by Zeroh. The artists have also recorded an instrumental version of the tune.
IF FOOD CAN INSPIRE WORDS, then it can also inspire just music. Here’s an instrumental called Enjera, composed and performed by Family Atlantica, a popular multi-cultural London band that employs a variety of sounds and genres, including the steel-pan Ethio funk of this tune. Mulatu Astatke, a famous Ethiopian singer, performed with the group in 2013, and Enjera is the lead tune on the band’s 2016 album Cosmic Unity.
HERE’S A WEIRD TAKE on Ethiopian food. The Atlanta-based Ethiopian-American artist Alex Girma has created some paintings with people dressed in outfits made of injera and dabo (bread), and someone has set images of his work to music. Guess it’s better than a real-life suit made of meat (with apologies to Lady Gaga).
THE BELOVED DISH doro wot has been the subject of many songs, and in Doro Doro Wet, hip-hop artist Henos gives it the royal treatment.
THE GREENEST VEGETABLE that you’ll find on an Ethiopian table is gomen – or as we call it in America, collard greens (although you can make it with kale as well). Tsehay Yohannes (or Yohanes) sings and dances about the staple dish that goes especially well with kitfo (raw ground meat). He calls his song Gomen Betena, or “gomen for your health.”
COFFEE CAME TO THE WORLD from Ethiopia when (the legend says) an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his flock became frisky after eating some strange little red beans. So naturally, Ethiopians like to sing about it. In the jazz tune Ethiopian Buna (that’s the Amharic word for coffee), the accompanying images vividly illustrate the country’s gift to the world.
COFFEE IS MORE than just a drink in Ethiopia. It’s a symbol of the nation’s heritage. The singer/composer Rehaset – born in Saudi Arabia to Ethiopian parents, now living and working in Toronto – is collaborating on a musical called The Buna Project that will explore her Ethiopian heritage. Here, she sings the song Buna.
BORN AND RAISED IN ETHIOPIA, where he learned English and French, hip-hop artist Rasselas moved to Montreal with his family and launched his career from Toronto, which has a big Ethiopian community. He called his 2015 album Injera Music, but only in the tune Doro Wot does he sing about food.
APPARENTLY ANYTHING that you can eat in Ethiopia inspires someone to write a song about it. In Dabo Kolo, the hip-hop group Arada Boyz rap about the crunchy snack of roasted barley often eaten after a meal or with coffee.
TOUCHES OF ITALIAN CUISINE made their way into Ethiopia during Italy’s occupation of the country in the 1930s, and one thing that stuck around is pasti – fried and lightly sweetened balls of dough (Ethiopian cuisine has no sweet desserts native to its culture). Ermias Tuka, joined by an Ethio-Swedish singer who goes by the name Addis Black Widow, recorded a song called Pasti Bet, or “pasti house,” and you can see those words (ፓስቲ ቤት) written on a building in Amharic at the start of the video. But apart from the title, the song doesn’t have too much to do with food.
ERITREAN CUISINE is the same as Ethiopian cuisine, and so is some Eritrean music. The Armed Mindz, an Eritrean hip-hop group from Oakland, Calif., sings Pass the Berbere in English and a little bit of Tigrinya, the primary language of Eritrea.
EVER THE SMART MARKETERS, the Coca-Cola company has created a series of snappy ads that play in countries around the world, each ad tailored to the culture and language of the country where it airs. Here’s one from Ethiopia, with scenes of everyday middle-class life and some Amharic sprinkled throughout, all set to the rhythm of a lively pop tune.
THIS FINAL SONG isn’t about food, but the performance does take place at a restaurant. The Krar Collective, an Ethiopian ensemble that performs traditional music, shared an intimate song at Muya, an Ethiopian restaurant in London that closed recently and whose owners now operate a catering business. And here’s the group performing at Rosalind’s, the oldest Ethiopian restaurant in Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia, where the dancing was as spirited as the singing.
University of Pittsburgh