Marching Melodies History of Music in Motion in Ethiopia

A marching band constitutes a group of musicians that perform while marching. It is common to see March bands adding the element of entertainment in different occasions. Most marching bands have attractive uniforms often of a military style. Instrument typically incorporated in a marching band includes brass, woodwind and percussion. In Ethiopia, marching bands have a history of more than 75 years.. The Defense and Federal Police March bands are the most known in the country. EBR’s Hiwot Selalew consulted professionals and documents to offer this report.

They dawn public celebrations, holidays, sporting events, national mourning, and rally the troops, among others, with their uplifting brand of music performed while marching. Indeed marching bands in Ethiopia have a long history of public service and have witnessed and served as the sound tracks for major national events. Emotions of crowds of people hit the highest notes as marching bands play the national anthem and galvanize senses of patriotism.

The two most prominent march bands in the country the Defense and Police Marching bands were established in 1940’s.

Marching bands typically consist of twenty or so members’ mainly playing instruments while marching, brass, woodwind, and percussion music instruments. One of the distinct features about marching bands worldwide is their unique sense of style often complemented with a bold uniform, heavily inspired by military uniforms.

Lieutenant Colonel Mekonen Tefera is a conductor at the Defense March Band. He also works as a trumpet instructor at Yared School of Music under the Addis Ababa University. He explains marching bands are best understood as music in motion as the melody of different music instruments comes together harmoniously as the musicians march across a given avenue. “There are instrumental classifications in a band that gives musical rhythms. Band members have the double challenge, especially those who play woodwind instruments, to hit the right musical notes and walk long distances, which can be quite a difficult task at times.” he noted.

Captain Feleckech Gebreyesus plays the clarinet, serves as a conductor and also trains new recruits at the Defense March Band. “The very first important thing to be in a March Band is to be interested. There are several women musicians playing pretty heavy instruments just like their male counterparts in the band.” she noted. “But women marching band musicians often face exceptional challenges after giving birth due to the usual heavy lifting associated with the performance”

There is a lot of training that goes into becoming a successful march band. The multifaceted training goes through personal, small groups and the whole band coming together and train to perfect a certain tune and a certain marching routine. “Each band member studies the musical notes individually first, then in small groups along their designated department, and finally collectively under the supervision of the conductor,” Lieutenant Sentayehu Lema, assistant conductor and instructor of the Defense March Band told EBR.

“Every band member has to train well to play his/her instrument and ensure that he/she is in an acceptable physical fitness to play while marching.” Mekonen noted. Training is a serious business at marching bands. Every member receives at least two years worth of training before they are full members.

The military music department is credited for the popularity of modern music in Ethiopia. The famous Yekibur Zebegna Band, which hails its genesis from the army barracks, opened the door for other bands in the police force, navy and air force during the reign of Emperor Hailesillasie I. Civilian marching bands had also flourished in the country with the Mazegaja band being the most notable one.

The contribution of marching bands in Ethiopia goes a long way, not just as a band, but as individual members of these bands takes their expertise elsewhere in the country. Several musical institutions, theatres and bands have benefited from the experience, creativity and expertise of musicians who cut their teeth in marching bands.

Notable personalities from the Defense March Band include Colonel Asefa Girma, Tesige Feleke and Lieutenant Amare Belate who have excelled both on local and international musical stages.

The Federal Police March Band is one of the oldest bands in the country. Since its inception in the 1940’s, it has captivated the attention of crowds in different public gatherings. “The Band has over the years performed in several events including international events, conferences, holidays, awareness creation programs and sports activities.” Tewelde Woldegabriel, administrator of the music and theater department of the March Band said.

Famous Ethiopian musicians like Hirut Bekele, Muluken Melese, Ayalew Mesfin, Girma Negash and Abiy Belete, among several others, gained widespread popularity worked with the Federal Police Music Department.

In addition to incubating raw talent into national musical sensations, these marching bands continue to train entire marching bands in the country. The Federal Police Marching Band, for instance has trained the Amhara, Benishangul, Afar and Harari marching bands. The Defense Marching Band trained the Tigray and Somali marching bands.

Falling popularity among music audiences and budget cuts have been the major challenges of marching bands in Ethiopia. Some marching bands in Ethiopia perform their music on a hire basis. And the cost could reach as much as a hundred thousand Birr for a single show.

Speaking on conditions of anonymity, sources in the business told EBR that dwindling budgets have made such endeavors to expand where the income generated through these schemes is used to supplement in financing the bands. “Expensive musical instruments are hard to acquire or maintain with a thinning budget from the host institutions of the march bands.” the sources revealed.

The genre is also facing falling popularity in today’s music generation. As people’s, particularly young people’s music taste is constantly evolving, the demand for more funky and pop music has significantly eroded the popularity of marching bands in Ethiopia.

Despite the emerging challenges, however, marching bands still remain admired in the army and the police force. With the number of similar bands spreading across the nation, the future for marching bands looks stable as they continue to be the primary musical maestros to rally the troops in Ethiopia.

6th Year . December 2017 . No.56

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