Ethiopian Orthodox Church Music ( Mezmur )

The Ethiopian Church has made her music appropriate to the spirit of her services adapting it to the nature of the religious at which it is used, to the season of the ecclesiastical year and to the solemnity of the feast, making it grand and exultant on festivals of joy, and mournful in seasons of penance and in services for the dead. Adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, sorrow, joys and triumph are found in the zema (tone) of church music.

Forms of Church Music

There are three types of Ethiopian church music. These are knwn as Ge'ez, Izil and Iraray. Ge'ez music is named after the Father, Izil after the Son and Iraray after the Holy Spirit.

Ge'ez conveys the meaning of strength. It is being named after the father to show his spiritual strength.

Izil means invulnerable. It is named after the Son because of his spiritual under supreme trials and tribulations.

Iraray conveys the meaning of kindness. It is the Holy Sprit that mollifies the hear of man.

Varieties of Church Music

There are five in number.

•  Digua Tsoma Digua

•  Miraf

•  Zimare (Chnting)

•  Mewasit

•  Musical Liturgy

1. Digua

The term Digua relates to the name of the books of music. This music was composed and sung by St. Yared in 550 A.D. Fundamentally, Digua embraces the songs of praise and sorrow and is divided into three part: Digua Yohannis, Astemiro, Fasika.

Tsoma Digua

Tsoma Digua is an integral element of Digua that serves the fasting season. It was first classed together with Astemiro in Digua. However, something radical happened to it in the 14 th century. It is said that under the leadership of Abba Ghiorghis of Gastcha, the scholars of Debre-Egziabiher and Debre Negudgad took it out of the Astemiro and placed it under a department of its own.

During the Lenten season, Tsoma Digua is being observed in prayer and in song on the basis of the hour of the day, the day of the week and the week of the mongh.

2. Miiraf

The Miiraf chant is divided into two sections. The Chant is for everyday purpose and for a time of fasting.

(a) For every day purposes

This chant is in force on a weekly basis and whenever religious holiday justify it.

(b) The Miiraf of Fasting

This is observed on Fridays and a few other prayer days. The foundation of both happens to be the Psalms of David and digua or Tsoma Digua. The lessons are studied by heart, unlike the Digua or Tsoma Digua.

3. Zimare (Music)

Zemare means a song of communal praise and prayer. This is one of the five forms of church music sung when mass is being said. It follows the mystery of the mass. The form of the mass is Ge'ez and is sung in accordance with Izil.

4. Mewasiit

This form of music is reserved for occasions when requiem mass is being said. For the rest, this form of church music is for special occasions related to the observances of Sundays and those of anniversaries regarding our Lord, Our Lady, Saints and others.

Mewasiit was composed along with the music by the great Ethiopian scholar, St. Yared. School-children are being taught this form of music by their instructors when they are receiving their lessons. Those who perfect the musical art graduate in Zur Amba Monastery, Gaint province, Southern Gondar diocese.

5. Liturgical Music

Although books of liturgical music were published regularly by various churches scholars, the source of the music is St. Yared.

Education regarding the liturgy of the church was being given together with Mewasit from the time of St. Yared in Zur Amba. People were then also graduating from that very place. In due course of time, however, this had undergone some change. The source of education in this field was for a long time now the monastery of Selelkula.

However, since the time of Emperor Menelik another addition had been made and students in church liturgy were graduating since then from Debre Abbay too. This was achieved through the instrumentality of master Gabre-Selassie. He himself had first gone to school at Selelkula. He was a great cantor. This had helped a great deal in the choice of the place to serve as academy of music.

The incantation of the music for mass is – like chanting and Mewasit – somewhat different from others. It is also longer in character.

St. Yared has given us 14 musical compositions. These are the following:-

•  Kidasse Hawariat (in praise of the apostles)

•  Kidasse Igzi (in praise of the Lord)

•  Yohannis Wolde-Neguedguad

•  Hiriakos (in praise of Mary)

•  Selestu Miit

•  Atnatewos

•  Bassilios

•  St. Ghorghorios alias Bassilios

•  St. Epiphanos

•  St. Yohannis Afework

•  St. Kerilos

•  St. Diuoiskoros

•  St. Yacob of Sirug

•  St. Ghorghorios of Armania

The following liturgy is observed before the mass is celebrated:-

•  General Liturgy

•  Kidan (testament)

•  Liton

•  Mestebekuh

•  Zeineghis (enthronement)

These forms of church liturgy that differ in the form of incantation were all composed by St. Yared. At the same time also Abba Ghorghorios of Gastcha had happened to be the spiritual son of St. Yared, whose works were inspired by the great master. This great scholar had also composed several chants known as Saetat (hourly) to be sung at night and by day. These compositions differ slightly in their musical forms. However, they are no different from Digua and the liturgy of mass.

Sources for St. Yared's Music

•  Old Testament

•  New Testament

•  Books of Scholars

•  Books of Monks

•  Literary works and others

The foregoing constitute the foundation for the church music composed by St. Yared. The lyrics were composed in such a way as to conform to the music so that there would be no fundamental change in the original structure of the liturgy. They were not certainly whimsical in character but divine revelations.


Something different from pure liturgical music is aquaquam conducted with the assistance of staffs (prayer sticks), sistra and drums. This form of religious musical performance is known as music of Mahlet, which is of ancient origin handed down to us as a heritage of St. Yared, who is the originator of the form. There are historical and graphical illustrations of the fact that he was practicing it for praising God.