The music of the Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israël

A historic, liturgic and musicologic analysis of the music of the Beta Israel, inspired from the works by Simha Arom, Frank Alvarez-Pereyre, Shoshana Ben-Dor and Olivier Tourny.

It is in the early 1980’s that starts the clandestine immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The latter, improperly called Falasha (pejorative word which means “rootless” or “exiled”) flee, like many of their compatriots, civil war and famine and take refuge in Sudan. In 1984, the operation Moses organized by the state of Israel, allow to welcome 7.000 Ethiopian Jews coming from the transit camps in Sudan; shortly after, the Operation Saba (1985) repatriates 648 people; finally, the Operation Salomon succeeds in bringing by airlift 14.300 people in 24 hours.

The last Beta Israel who stayed in Ethiopia emigrate to Israel between 1991 and 1994. But in 1992 starts an irregular emigration, due to the political evolution in Israel, the Falash Mura. Between 21992 and 2013, over 35.000 Falash Mura arrive in Israel. Officially not Jewish, once in Israel, they have to start a complete conversion to orthodox judaism before obtaining a full citizenship.

The integration of the Ethiopian Jews to the Hebrew state wasn’t done easily. Poor, often illiterate and living of handicraft, they had to face a modern and high technological society.
Moreover, under the pressure Israeli religious authorities, they had to abandon their ancestral ritual practices to belong to a normalised judaism. The Great Rabbinate even tried to force them a symbolic conversion (ritual immersion, and for the men, a “recircumcision” by spilling a drop of blood), that was boycotted by most of them. Recognized today as full-blown Jews, the religious situation of the Beta Israel remains complicated. Their priests, called qessotch, got their religious and spiritual authority taken away... with the consequence of the progressive but inevitable disappearance of their rite.

The Ethiopian community living in Israel counted in 2014 around 138.200 people. Nearly 30.000 children were born in the Jewish state and followed the Israeli educative curriculum. They speak Hebrew and practice less and less the language of their ancestors. The integration process started and the days of Ethiopian ritual, and of its music, are counted.

A few notions about the liturgical music of the Beta Israel *
“ The Ethiopian liturgy is composed of spoken and sung prayers, mainly in ge’ez language – a sacred idiom, known only by the initiated. The liturgical chants are led by a priest, a true soloist, who is responded by a choir of the other priests. The soloist - traditionally the highest religious authority of the assembly – starts the prayer ; the others answer uniting their voices. (…) The response of the choir leads to an “archaic” polyphony which appears by the encounter of several voices aiming to produce a one and only melody. (…)

The chants can have different forms. The antiphonal and responsorial forms are frequently used. In a chant of antiphonal type, the choir always repeats the musical tune of the soloist. In a responsorial chant, the choir takes a part of the soloist’s musical material to enounce short responses like “Amen” or “Alleluia”. One ca also find a third type of chants that Simha Arom and Olivier Tourny qualify as “hemiola type”. The prayers of this category are characterised by a ternary distribution of the text and music, but where the binary alternation remains. (…)

Another peculiarity of the Beta Israel’s liturgy is that the modalities of performance of the prayers is not established in advance. Depending on the circumstances, a same chant can be hemiola, antiphonal or responsorial. It is the soloist who, by singing first the chant, decides which configuration it will be. In the case of solemn events, the priests use more the hemiola chants. When they are in a rush, they generally use a responsorial type of chants, which permits to accelerate the flow rate of the text, alternating different verses each time. On the contrary, when they welcome an important religious figure, the priests honour their host by repeating strictly the the textual and musical expositions, following the antiphonal form.

Sometimes, the chanting is accompanied by a drum (nagarit) or a small metallic gong (metke). The role of these instruments remains however secondary due to their prohibition on certain important holidays. (…)

The majority of the chants do not follow any regular metric structure. They are regulated by the prosody of the language. Only certain prayers, associated to dancing, are really measured. In Ethipioa, the dancing is performed by all the priests. It consists in a circular or semi-circular collective movement ; in this last case the qessotch perform rhythmed movements on the spot. They are accompanied by the feet hitting on the floor, and sometimes rhythmed panting. (…)

The chants use mainly a pentatonic and anhemitonic scale (a scale composed of five sounds, each of them distant of at least one tone of his neighbour). A few rare prayers are performed on a tetratonic scale (four sounds). The pitch of the sounds is more or less stable ; it can vary of a half-tone, or more. In fact, the general outline of the melody predominate on the absolute pitch of the degrees and the size of the intervals.

The litugical music of the Ethiopian Jews is composed of a limited number of melodic formulas which circulate through all the chants. These formulas, generally built with joint degrees, can present varied profiles ; however their global melodic outline remains easily recognisable. In definitive, the Ethiopian Jewish music is mainly built on formulas, and regulated by the principle of centonisation. This method – which consists of creating pieces from the arrangement, different each time, of a same stoch of melodic formulas – is one of the characteristics of Jewish liturgical music.”

*Excerpt of the book by Hervé Roten, Musiques liturgiques juives : parcours et escales, Coll. Musiques du monde, Cité de la Musique / Actes Sud, 1998, pp. 107-115

Learn more on the story of Beta Israel
Read the article on the CD boxset The Liturgy of Beta Israel
Listen to the radio podcast by Olivier Tourny about the liturgical chanting of Ethiopian Jews
Listen to the playlist The musical traditions of Ethiopian Jews

Listen to

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  • Yitbarek egzi’abaher - chant responsorial (Extrait)

  • Yitbarek egzi’abaher - chant antiphonal (Extrait)

  • Afqernaka - chant hémiolique (Extrait)

  • Watatfesah baba’aleka - Chant dansé de Yom Kippour

  • Bahatitu qedus qedus - Chant hémiolique tétratonique

  • Kala’ sallat - Chant hémiolique à 2 mélodies

  • Queshera - 2 prières de mariage combinant du chant antiphonal, hémiolique et responsorial (Extrait)

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