A new book explores story of exiled Ethiopian musicians in the US | Addis Zeybe


A new book that explores a sweeping history of Ethiopian musicians during and following the 1974 Ethiopian revolution and the making of the Ethiopian Diaspora is released.

Sing and Sing On is said to be the first study of the forced migration of musicians out of the Horn of Africa dating from the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, a political event that overthrew one of the monarchy and installed a military regime in Ethiopia. Musicians were among the first to depart the region, their lives shattered by revolutionary violence, curfews, and civil war.

Reconstructing the memories of forced migration, Sing and Sing On traces the challenges musicians faced amidst revolutionary violence and the critical role they played in building communities abroad.

Drawing on the recollections of dozens of musicians, Sing and Sing On details personal, cultural, and economic hardships experienced by musicians who have resettled in new locales abroad.

The author of the book, Kay Kaufman Shelemay the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and Professor of Music and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, highlights their many artistic and social initiatives and the ways they have offered inspiration and leadership within and beyond a rapidly growing Ethiopian American diaspora.

While musicians held this role as sentinels in Ethiopian culture long before the revolution began, it has taken on new meanings and contours in the Ethiopian diaspora.

According to the statement from The University of Chicago Press, the book details the ongoing creativity of these musicians while exploring the attraction of returning to their Ethiopian homeland over the course of decades abroad.

Ultimately, Shelemay shows that musicians are uniquely positioned to serve this sentinel role as both guardians and challengers of cultural heritage.

The popular Ethiopian Canadian singer  Abel “The Weeknd ” Tesfaye is among those whose review is included in the book.

“Sing and Sing On tells the powerful story of the role musicians have played in safeguarding Ethiopian identity and growing its cultural influence in the decades since the revolution. This is a compelling story that deserves to be told,” reads a quote from Abel.

The book with 432 pages and 48 halftones became available for sale in print and softcopy versions on the University’s press website last January.


Addis Zeybe had an opportunity to have the following exclusive short interview with the Author

Addis Zeybe: What interested you about writing a book about Ethiopian musicians in the US diaspora community?

Shelemay: I have been following the growth of the Ethiopian American diaspora since its beginning in 1975 at the start of the revolution. I lived in Ethiopia during the first two years of the revolution and on my return home to the US,  met early refugees in the US.

Addis Zeybe: What did you explore about the musicians and Ethiopian music in general while writing this book?

Shelemay: I visited and interviewed musicians in about a dozen Ethiopian diaspora communities in the US, with the most time in Washington DC, Boston, and New York. My focus was on musicians forced to leave Ethiopia during the revolution and their important roles in founding communities in the Ethiopian American diaspora.  My focus was on the first generation of immigrants beginning around 1975 and the 1.5 generation born in Ethiopia but brought as children by their families. 

The oldest musicians I worked with were born around 1930, the youngest around 1980. I write about the historical background of music and musicians in Ethiopia in the first section of the book; stories of what musicians experienced during the revolution and during the process of migration and settling in the US in the middle section; and in the longest, final section, discussion of musicians’ lives and music in the US,  the creative contributions of immigrant Ethiopian musicians, and in the final chapter, the return of some prominent musicians to Ethiopia. The foreword and afterword to the book explain my use of the phrase “sentinel musician” and the importance of musicians in the lives of their communities over time.

Addis Zeybe: Who are the musicians whose stories you covered in the book? And how did you choose their story to be included?

Shelemay: I interviewed many musicians over the years and quotations and biographies of dozens of them are included in the book!   Ali Birra is on the cover; other musicians discussed at length include Telela Kebede, Bezawork Asfaw, Getatchew Gebregiorgis, Selam Seyoum Woldemariam, Yehunie Belay, Meklit Hadero, Mulatu Astatke, Abegasu Shiota, Henock Temesgen, Zedicus, and others.  Several individuals who serve as sentinel musicians in their influence who do not themselves perform musically are also included, especially Amha Eshete, Alemtsehay Wedajo, and several prominent Ethiopian Orthodox Church musicians, including Liqa Mezemran Moges Seyoum and others. 

Too many to list here, but I included musicians from across the country (and from Eritrea), of many different ethnic groups and religions, and who perform in different musical styles from popular music, to traditional music, to sacred music.

Addis Zeybe: Do you have any other published work on Ethiopian music?

Shelemay: Yes, I have published dozens of articles and several other books on Ethiopian music (Music, Ritual and Falasha History; A Song of Longing. An Ethiopian Journey;  Ethiopian Christian Liturgical Chant. An Anthology;  I also co-edited  a volume of essays Creating the Ethiopian Diaspora.

Addis Zeybe: What is your general reflection on Ethiopian modern music?

Shelemay: I discuss how Ethiopian musicians at home and abroad play a crucial role in Ethiopian and Ethiopian diaspora life. I call these musicians “sentinel musicians” who both guard and guide their traditions. I found that Ethiopian musicians were very important in helping to establish communities in North America and in bringing these new communities to life. These musicians both continue older styles from Ethiopia and contribute new music of their own.

Addis Zeybe: Thank you for your time.

Shelemay: Thank you for reaching out.


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