Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Its Traditional Music

by Nebure Eid Elyas

yaredThe Beginning of Church Music

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word music as “The art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds, or both, to produce beauty or form, harmony and expression of emotion.” In this sense Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has developed in her long history her own unique music that combines vocal and local instruments virtually directed in the praise of God.

The history of music goes as far back as in the time of creation. The Angels praised God with music immediately after they were created.(Job 38:6) God has created the Angels and human beings so that they would praise His name and inherit His Kingdom, and therefore, He has created the need for music as one of the basic needs of their nature. Consequently the Angels and human beings have natural inclination to make and hear music. Even though the inclination for music is more obvious in human beings and the Angels, it may be said that all which have life love music. We know that birds have their own particular and beautiful music the sing after their own fashion. If this is the case we may say that God who is a source of all gifts has created all living beings with the needs for making and loving music. Praising God is a continuous act of the Heavenly creatures from the time of creation. (Rev.4:9, Is.6:2:4)

Music is a natural gift and spiritual food, and therefore, people have enjoyed it from the time immemorial. (Gen. 4:21) The tune and content might be different depending on the culture, but all the same people everywhere have used music for a variety of purposes for ages. In Ethiopian tradition we can broadly divide music played into five categories depending on the situation and condition each with its own unique tune. These are:

  1. Mahlet: This is the music with which God is praised
  2. Zefen: This is a secular music played at the time of enjoy
  3. Likso: This is a music people play to express grief at the time of their sorrow
  4. Limena: This is another type of music the poor play to get sympathy of people to give them alms
  5. Kererto: This is a war song played to motivate and energize people for an action such as going to war to fight the enemy

Now we have seen the origin of music and what it is we precede to the discussion of the major topic which is Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Music.

1 Music in the Pre-Christian Era


It is very well apparent that Ethiopians have worshipped, feared, and praised God in their own way even before the Jewish faith was introduced. Where there is worship there is praise which is expressed in musical tunes.

The art of religious music took shape in Ethiopia with the introduction of the Jewish faith when Minilik I came back from Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant and with it the Levites who accompanied the Ark of the Covenant. These Levites, whose major function was to preside over religious rites, brought hymn books, and musical instruments with them to Ethiopia. As the Holy Bible tells us God was praised in the time of Kings David and Solomon with music accompanied by different musical instruments, sistrum, trumpet, lute and harps, tambourines, flutes and strings, cymbals, and with ululation. (Psal. 150:1-5, 1 Chronls. 15:6, 16:4-37) The Holy Bible further tells us that the Levites who performed the religious rites before the Ark of the Covenant used these musical instruments.(Ezra 3:10)

Religious music prevailed in Ethiopia since the introduction of Judaism which has extended until our times. The Levites praised God with instruments before the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament times which was kept what is called in the Holy Bible as the in the Tent of the Presence. Thus the Levites were referred to as the priests of the Tents of the Presence, which in the Geez language is “kahinatdebtera”. The word debtera became a titular name for those who play the sacred music, and, in fact, it has been an important title given to church scholars in Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church until recently.

It may be important to note that Ethiopian Orthodox Church still uses some of the ancient Jewish musical instruments and special dress worn while playing the hymn. Among the instruments our Church uses still include drum, sistrum, flute, harp, prayer staff, and clapping of hands (Psl. 150:1-5) The dress code for the debteras are elaborate long robe, white turban or sash, mantle(gabi), and ephod(cloak)(Lev.8:7-9)

2. Music during the introduction of Christianity

Christian sacred music was played while performing spiritual rites from the introduction of Christianity in 330 A.D. as a state religion until 540 A.D. It is stated in Psalms that Ethiopians prostrate before God(Psl 71:9), and Ethiopia stretches her hands unto God(Psl.67:31). True to this prophesy of King David to whom the Psalms is attributed God has raised St. Yared from among the Axumite priests to whom He revealed the power of composing music so that He could be praised in a beautiful heavenly tune of music.

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