Sometimes, language is a prison. It locks you into hearing a sound a certain way, because you can’t divorce what you’re hearing from the meaning of what you’re hearing. I think this is why I’ve long been drawn to music sung in languages I don’t understand; the lack of understanding frees me from the chain of meaning and lets me really hear what the voice is doing without having to think too hard about it.
I especially love listening to foreign-language music played in a style I’d normally associate with English, the only language I speak well. Listening to Spanish-language boleros from Cuba isn’t quite the same, because the bolero is a style built around the rhythms and cadences of Spanish, whereas, for instance, this Alemayehu Eshete track is basic funky soul sung in Amharic.
The music, which opens with a great instrumental hook, scarcely hints at Ethiopian modes, or even the characteristic three-against-four rhythms you hear in a lot of Ethiopian popular music. You instead get a horn section and a rhythm section grooving the hell out of something essentially Western-sounding.
And then there’s Eshete, whose singing is strongly rooted in Ethiopian vocal traditions, with their attendant modal harmony and melismatic adornment, singing over the top of it. Amharic is not a similar language to English. English is written alphabetically, and this reflects the way it’s pronounced, with a fluidity between vowel and consonant.
Amharic is not written alphabetically. Originally, it was an abjad, similar to Hebrew or Arabic, in which only consonants were supplied, leaving the reader to supply the vowel sound. This reflects the way these languages are spoken, which is to say gutturally, with a sort of clip over the vowels that connect the consonants. Most European languages are spoken from the mouth; Amharic and other languages that use abjads are spoken more from the back of the throat.
Amharic has evolved away from a pure abjad over the centuries. A lot of abjads add little markings above or below the consonants to guide the reader in choosing the correct vowel sound, and the Ge’ez script, used to write Amharic, Blin, Me’en, Tigrinya, and several other languages, has adopted these markings as a permanent part of the script. Linguists call this an abugida, and each consonant/vowel marking combination represents a syllable or portion of a syllable. So the vowels are a little longer in Amharic than in a lot of nearby languages.
But Eshete is still figuring out a way to sing music that was designed for one kind of language in his own, very differently spoken language. His solution is basically to let it rip, a solution he shares with a lot of his contemporaries and one that makes Ethiopian pop from the 60s and 70s distinctive and a joy to listen to.
I don’t know what he’s singing about. Possibly girls? I’d rather not know, honestly, because not knowing allows me to dwell on the wonderful things he’s doing with his voice, an experience I don’t get to have when I know every word.
— Joe Tangari