Ethiopia’s first rock band, blending rock with African sounds

by Zelalem

Rock music is a popular genre of music that originated as “rock and roll” in the United States in the 1950s. It gained worldwide popularity and Africa is no exception.

In Ethiopia, the Jano rock band, the first Ethiopian rock band is making a name for itself. Composing and playing rock music in a very unique style by blending local styles of music in the country with Western rock and roll.

“There is five singing scales like melodies in Ethiopian music. So all of them have different feelings so when we fuse that with the rock sound, it gives it such a beautiful sound,” said Dibekulu Tafesse, the lead vocalist of the Jano Rock Band.

The vocalists sing in Amharic, Ethiopia’s main language and the keyboardist sometimes emulates the sound of a masinko, a string instrument used in music across the region.

They even incorporate their music with the “Eskista” dance,a traditional Ethiopian dance performed by both men and women that is known for its unique emphasis on intense shoulder movement.

“We were trying this Rock thing, the rock stuff, the hard guitars and heavy drums and everything. And when we were trying that out and he (American producer Bill Laswell) said like wow, that could be your next sound. That sounds really good with the traditional character of music,” said Mikeal Hailu, the musical director and guitarist of the group.

Though the musical culture in Ethiopia has experienced a rebirth in the years since Mengistu’s 1991 ouster, rock music has not developed much of a following.

When Jano began performing after two years of rehearsals, audiences were sometimes taken aback by their unconventional style.

“It was a huge risk because rock music is not so much famous here, because of all kinds of reasons, and trying to defy that and have our way of doing things, and have our own perspective of this music here in Ethiopia was a little scary when we try to put out our album,” said the musical director.

The group has been performing locally and regularly perform abroad, including in the Middle East, US and Europe.

In last year’s edition of the African Music Awards, the band was nominated for Best African group and Best group in African rock, their very first African award nomination.

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