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The Ethiopian Armenians – Their Contribution to Ethiopian Modern Music

Posted on 04 April,2017

Nerses Nalbandian was an Ethiopian a musician and educator of Armenian descent. “Stateless Armenian”, he gained Ethiopian nationality in 1959.

Nerses Nalbandian was born into a family living in Syria who had escapes the Armenian Genocide in Turkey in the early twentieth century. Nalbandian’s uncle, conductor and composer Kevork Nalbandian, composed the Ethiopian national anthem, which was used from 1925 to 1974.

Nalbandian’s family settled in Addis Ababa at the end of 1930’s. There he becomes a musician and a conductor (playing the violin, piano, saxophone). With the agreement of Haile Selassie, he takes over his uncle after retiring in 1949 as the head of the major musical institutions of the country in Addis Ababa. In particular, Nalbandyan conducts the orchestra of the Imperial Guard, the Police Orchestra, the Municipal Orchestra of Addis Ababa (where he is a professor in 1946), the orchestra of Hayle-Selassie Theatre (directed by Franz Zelwecker) and the music schools and Nazret Yared.

His influence is essential in the evolution of Ethiopian music from the 1940’s, following the work of his uncle Kevork Nalbandian, which he incorporates into traditional instrumental and stylistic basis (pentatonic scale, rhythm) to infuse them with principles of Western classical music and jazz (including the use of brass), modernising without occidentaliser.

Nalbandian’s contributions lay foundation for the creation of the Ethio-jazz in the 1950’s, most of the musicians – Tlahoun Gésésé, Bezunesh Beqele, Alemayehu Eshete, Mahmoud Ahmed, Hirut Beqele, Menelik Wzsnatchew – played or sung in bands of Addis Ababa that Nerses Nalbandian led.

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