Ethiopia: Patriotic Songs and Dances - the Dominant Vogue in Ethiopian Contemporary Music

Whether it was a sign of good portent or otherwise, the heavy rain that fell in some parts of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa last Sunday, had brought a much-awaited period of cooling off in the temperature of this vibrant city. As many citizens who were enjoying positive vibes in this election month might testify, the sudden and heavy showers of last Sunday afternoon have brought good luck to the otherwise dark political climate replete with news of conflicts and deaths for much of the current Ethiopian year.

The rain might be instrumental in cooling down nerves that were strained by gloomy predictions of the much-feared "Election Day" and its aftermath. Nerves were strained, sometimes to breaking point, by ominous comments from the social media and baseless predictions by political quacks or emotional adherents of Facebook and its sister outlets.

The rain had also symbolic significance in the sense that it ushered in the coming three months of farming, tree planting and heightened agricultural activities. Both farmers and consumers might rejoice at the sheer falling of the heavy rain as a promise of good harvest to come probably leading to a sharp fall in agricultural commodity prices.

Rising food prices are obviously causing headaches or even migraines among the low-income citizens of the capital in particular who are thrown to the bottom of the social ladder by bad lack or bad circumstances. Deeply religious members of society might have taken the heavy rain as an act of mercy sent from the heavens that had pity on the much suffering human beings whose lives have been hit by the pandemic, sharp price rises or election-triggered high anxiety.

Around the Ras Desta Hospital where I happened to find myself as the rain battered on the house roofs and the streets where cars have already started to splash unlucky pedestrians with the annual rituals of dirty water, pubs and restaurants were instantly filled with people seeking shelter from the storm. Inside one of the drinking joints, with its narrow rooms occupied by mostly young drinkers and their older companions, the atmosphere was vibrating with patriotic melodies that instantly turned into kinds of informal national anthems sung by almost everyone in the room.

The prevailing mood was one of triumph and optimism as the young marry makers drank their beer and spirits with gusto, singing high-octave patriotic songs accompanied with music from the huge player that was put at one corner of the room. The melodies from the player struggled against the noise made by the rain as if they wanted to win over the ears and hearts of more people.

Patriotism is defined as "the quality of being patriotic; devotion to and vigorous support for one's country." In short, a patriot is a person who loves their country. This is not however ordinary love but a feeling bordering on total devotion to the "La Patrie" as the French would say. Most of the melodies that were played these days in pubs and restaurants have deep patriotic tinge about them.

This patriotism dates back to many centuries as Ethiopian history is replete with moments of patriotic resistance against foreign invaders that ended in the triumph of ordinary Ethiopians who fought against technologically advanced foes and defeated them. This patriotism has become an important aspect of the collective psyche of all Ethiopians. It is also their collective consciousness.

The current surge of patriotism is obviously caused by ongoing political developments related to the sovereignty of the country and to the sense of collective resistance against foreign bullying by some quarters whose interests are apparently in conflict with Ethiopians' deeply-held beliefs and values. One of the triggers of patriotism these days is the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) around which all Ethiopians are united to defend it tooth and nail against foreign pretenders that were always reportedly trying to nip the project in the buds.

And when this foreign conspiracy has become practically impossible to execute as the GERD is now reaching more than 70% of its projected finishing point, its detractors are resorting to threats against the site or causing much harm to stop the project before its completion. The patriotic fervor that the GERD has triggered is quite understandable. The Ethiopian people have invested everything they have in this project and any threat against it is regarded as legitimate causes for popular anger and defiance which find expression in so many popular songs.

Melodies, dances and other forms of artistic media are devoted to GERD and its significance to the people of a country who are struggling to assert their collective vision and get rid of age-old poverty. There is no force on earth that would stop people who are determined to pay whatever sacrifice it takes to make their dream into reality.

Arts have always played catalytic roles in spurring people's emotions in defense of what they consider their God-given rights such as the right to use their rivers for self-development and collective prosperity with all those who share it. This idea finds expression in many traditional songs and dances in almost all parts of the country and among young as well as old artists who usually find their inspiration for artistic expression in times of crises, whether domestic or foreign. Almost all music bands and groups are engaged in this kind of collective creativity. Songs and melodies by established as well as new artists are increasingly dealing with the theme of patriotism; defend of the motherland and its sovereignty as well as the search for collective identity.

New composers and DJs like Rophnan and established singers like Teddy Afro are all inventing new genres of music to express or revive old patriotism. Rophnan is remarkable for his new inventions and fusion of reggae beats with local jazz and traditional music in his latest album that has won him greater recognition and originality.

His lyrics have deep meaning and are more philosophical in nature while his composition verges on the Avant-guard music that departs from the usual beats and melodies that accompany patriotic dances and melodies. His new hit "Sekela" is deep in meaning while original in composition. His latest songs are also odes to being human and compassion towards one another. The music touches many sensitive chords in these troubled times and the young generation may think it has found a voice, the voice of an entire generation.

Teddy Afro is the other singer of Ethiopian patriotism of love of the motherland long before the genre has become a fad. His albums from the late 1990s are famous for depth of perspective, beauty of melodies and hi vibrant voice that has earned many accolades. He is for now the leading vocalist of Ethiopian patriotism, love among the people and different communities. He sings in different ethnic languages with common themes of unity, love and Ethiopian patriotism. Ethiopian patriotism has thus become a mobilizing idea thanks also to the artists who praise its positive nature while criticizing abusive or extremist views and events.

History and many observations have testified to the fact that nationalism may be both a constructive and destructive force depending on how it is manifested or handled by its ideologues. There is no contradiction between Ethiopian nationalism as expressed in healthy or constructive patriotism as expressed by the majority of the people and the ethnic identities of so many aspiring nationalisms.

The challenge is however to handle both carefully and in a complementary manner by respecting both as long as they are the expression of popular will. The task of arts and culture in the new political setting will therefore continue to be one of harmonizing both tendencies and allow them to find expression in music, dance, visual arts and literature in a democratic all-inclusive context. The job is started and the remaining challenge will be one of securing continuity and institutionalizing these aspirations.

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