The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 26th April 2012

The Azmari Goes Global: Ethnicity, Identity and Migration in Ethiopian-Israeli Music

Given by - Ilana Webster-Kogen

Reviewed by - Sybil A. Sheridan

Ilana Webster-Kogen, an ethno-musicologist and post-Doctoral Fellow in Jewish Music at SOAS, gave a talk at the April meeting of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society on the Azmari tradition as it has been interpreted and developed in Israel - this was the subject of her PhD thesis.

She began by describing what exactly Azmari music was and how singers would use 'wax and gold' to describe the life situations of those around them. The lyrics they used would change depending on the context, making comments on contemporary issues and lampooning individuals; both famous people and the audience at any given event could be targeted. Azmari musicians were wandering minstrels, accompanied by traditional instruments such as the masenko, whose marginal status gave them an outsiders view of what was happening.

She continued by describing Eskesta, the dancing that often accompanies Azmari music, before moving on to look at the various changes that have occurred following the move to the land and culture of Israel.

Webster-Kogen noted that about 80,000 Beta Yisrael (as the Jews of Ethiopia are called) and a further 30,000 Falash Mura (that is Ethiopians of Jewish ethnicity who converted to Christianity) along with a number of non Jewish Eritrean refugees make for a significant ethnic minority in the State of Israel today. Their migration took place partly through the dramatic airlifts of Operation Moses and Operation Solomon and partly through a steady migration ever since.

Their absorption into Israeli society has not been a smooth one; the culture clash was huge and it has been difficult for the community to adapt, while an inherent prejudice against black Jews and those they consider 'primitive' is evident among certain elements of the populace. While not Azmari themselves, the Ethiopian Israeli community has clearly felt a sense of identification with these musicians in light of the fact that they also faced discriminations and because they produce a type of music that reminds them of their homeland. Thus the Azmari bet, the café or restaurant where such music is played, has become key in identity issues which include the problems of the separation of families, the experience of a long and often arduous journey - much of it on foot - through desert conditions, as well as experiencing the homecoming in biblical terms of exodus and return to the 'Jerusalem' of their ancient prayers.

But with the migration, the music has changed. Webster-Kogen identified three distinctive streams to be found in Tel Aviv today, which reflect the ongoing changes within the Ethiopian Israeli community. The first, the closest to classical Azmari, is an adoption of the traditional music, and can be heard today in cafés and community halls around downtown Tel Aviv. While this type of music maintains its traditional modes, the lyrics have undergone a change. Rather than continue the tradition of extemporising lyrics as comments on the world around them, the words have become fixed and people enjoy the repetition of songs that are redolent of their former life. This is typical of a first generation of immigrants, who flee their homes in search of a better life, but come to look back on their former existence with nostalgia for things lost.

Another strand of musicians have taken Ethiopian song and Eskesta dance and developed it becoming significant players on the world music scene. While traditionally Eseksta meant one female dancer, today Ethiopian community centres have dance troupes which perform in groups of mixed sexes and teach to an increasingly wider public. Dance is a powerful way to express one's identity, or the 'mimetic subaltern self' as she described it. At the same time, the singers and musicians have a raised profile becoming well known both in Israel and abroad, including Ethiopia itself. These musicians become role models for the young immigrant, demonstrating the possibility of 'making it' in Israeli society. With time and success, the music strays more away from the traditional forms, using sampling and experimentation that is deeply controversial for a variety of reasons.

The third trend that Ilana Webster-Kogen sees among Tel Aviv Ethiopians is the identification with the global African diaspora and an association with the African-American experience. The adoption of rap and reggae seems a far cry from the music of their parents' generation and has far more in common with the music culture of young Israelis of all ethnic strands. Indeed much of their music is indistinguishable. However, while the music is far from the Azmari modes, rap lyrics can also be seen as a return to the 'wax and gold' tradition - the poetic form of extemporisation of the Ethiopian tradition.

The descriptions of the different developments of Ethiopian music in its new context in Tel Aviv was given with many musical examples which added colour to a comprehensive and fascinating talk, a talk that was enjoyed by all those there: lovers of Ethiopia and lovers of music alike.

First Published in News File Summer 2012

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