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Symbolism and power of Abbay (the Blue Nile) river in Amharic popular songs

Azeb Amha

Songs referring to the Abbay

The ongoing construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Abbay (the Blue Nile) since 2011 has engendered two contrasting responses: nationally, the construction signaled great hope and inspiration for Ethiopians, who are self-financing the project via a popular crowd-funding scheme involving citizens from all walks of life and via some designated national budget from the government. On the other hand, internationally, the construction of the GERD has generated diplomatic rows with the lower basin countries, who expressed concerns about water security. The contrast is huge and the question why this particular project has such a resonance among Ethiopians, leading “even street-vendors to contribute money for its construction” needs to be raised. I contend that Ethiopians have a special cultural identification with Abbay and that this is the result of generations-long praise and reference to the river in popular songs and in poems, much more so than other great rivers of the country, such as the longest river, the Wabi Shebele.

In this contribution I develop this idea, making a preliminary analysis of the songs and based on my personal experiences regarding emotions and familiarity to the river in spite of geographical distance and before firsthand experience of visiting the area. Thus, growing up almost 800 kms away from the Abbay, this river seemed close to me. It is brought close through songs, poems and popular culture. The songs are not fully dedicated to the Abbay but the river is used in all kinds of literary allusions (metaphor, simile, etc.) in songs about love, work and other significant social realities. Family festivities such as weddings, birth of children and baptizing involved, among songs in various other Ethiopian languages, Amharic songs that made frequent reference to the Abbay, which often is personified. Public holidays of both Christians and Muslims involved these songs and dancing. For instance, during the three-day celebration of T’ïmk’ät (Epiphany), not only zema and mäzmur (religious songs) are sung, as nearly exclusively done these days, but also exuberant non-religious songs and dancing was performed, even within Church premises. My contemporaries and I knew the lyrics/couplets and songs in Amharic that referred to the Abbay from such family and public occasions as well as from radio. Looking back, I realize that family visits to other parts of Ethiopia on weddings and other occasions, reflected a similar situation. In the present contribution, I will discuss lyrics from a few songs referring to the Abbay, touching just a bit of a very rich tradition and a vibrant current use of songs in Amharic.

The original creators of the songs/poems obviously come from the areas surrounding the river Abbay, as they depict first-hand visual, sensory experiences of the river and its surrounding environment. In some cases, the original poet/artist is unknown. But the texts are passed on orally from generation to generation in different parts of the country. Also, renowned contemporary singers recycled the lyrics by using them in their cassettes and CDs. In doing so, they adapt the lyrics, thereby creating different versions of the same song/poem. For this reason, the songs are called yä-hïzb, ‘of the public’, and artists can use and reuse them without copyright issues.

The old songs analysed in the present work are not fully about the river but make references to the river and its geography as signifiers and literary allusions, e.g. as metaphors and similes in songs about love, despair or longing. I here present a few examples, classifying the lyrics according to the genre of Amharic songs, and I provide links to YouTube sources for the melodies.

Kay Shelemay (2007: 1082) notes, “…[t]hroughout Ethiopia, music tends to be closely associated with occasions on which it is performed, and is classified accordingly”. In Amharic, the following four types (or genres) of songs are important: 1) zäfän, song for entertainment:  exuberant and used at joyous, festive events, often combined with dancing. Generally, it involves (a) lead singer(s) and a large audience that repeats after the singer. The repeated part can be every stanza or just the azmach or ‘refrain’ of the song. 2) ïngurguro, song to express sorrow, which also seems to underlie a song type known as tïzzïta – ‘memories’ – which is said to be “the soul of Ethiopians”. It is a nostalgic, sad-type of song. It is typically sang solo, with or without a musical instrument. When an instrument is used, it is often the kïrar/krar, a five or six stringed bowl-shaped lyre, waʃïnt ‘flute’ or lately, a piano. 3) musho, sung at funerals by a lead-singer, with repetitions and hand-clapping from a large group of people attending. It features a mix of lamentation and warm melodic singing and generally without instrument, but in some places small drums may be used. 4) fukkära and shïlläla, praise songs that celebrate success and heroism. One or several participants take a stage, uttering the largely rhyming expressions in spoken word mode (seems like something in between a song and speech). It may feature as intermezzo in songs but in the turns dedicated for fukkära and shïlläla the sound of instruments and other singers are turned low, or completely stopped. In all forms of music, one or more instruments may be used, e.g., käbäro ‘drum’, mäsink’o ‘one-stringed spike-fiddle’, or kïrar/ krar ‘five or six-stringed bowl-lyre’. Hand clapping by audience is also commonly employed (cf. Damon et al., 2007).

In the songs I examined, the Abbay and its surroundings are used to depict the day-to-day life of the people. Various life-themes are involved. We discuss some of these in the following sections.

The Abbay in zäfän

In the following poem artist Mahmud Ahmed makes use of the Abbay in a song that motivates farmers to work. He praises them for work that is well done. He reflects on how the river keeps the household animals healthy and energetic by feeding on the lush green so that instead of resenting the heavy farm work on a muddy field, the oxen actually calls on the farmer to go to work.

Couplet in the fidäl script & (broad phonetic) transcription Line-by-line free translation
አባይ ማዶ ፊላው ስር ያለው በሬ

ና ና ገበሬ


Abbay mado filaw sïr yalläw bare

na na gäbäre

The ox that is there across Abbay[1] by the cat’s tail plant

(calls): “farmer come, come to me” (to plough the land)


Singer:  Mahmoud Ahmed; title: Abbay Mado

(0:10 — 3:18)

Cat’s tail plant

A comparable, work-related quadruplet referring to Abbay is the following from Yirga Dubbale’s song “Yäne abäba näsh yäne abäba”:

Couplet in the fidäl script & (broad phonetic) transcription Line-by-line free translation
አባይ ሲደፈርስ

ሲመስል እንቆቆ

ጋሬጣው ጎጃሜ

ገባው ባጭር ታጥቆ


Abbay sidäfärrïs

simäsïil ïnk’ok’k’o

Garet’aw Gojjame

gäbbaw baʧ’ʧ’ïr tat’k’o




When Abbay becomes turbid

When it looks like embelia schimperi

The formidable Gojjame-man

treads/enters it wearing a short

Singer: Yirga Dubale; title: Yäne abäba näsh yäne abäba

(4:00 5:00)


The lyrics depict a strong man crossing a forceful flooding/flooded river. It is praise to the strength, resilience and motivation of the farmers cultivating in the areas surrounding the river. The song also reflects the force and color of Abbay river in the rainy season, when it runs fast with flooded soil, and a simile is made between the look of the flooding water and the እንቆቆ (ïnk’ok’k’o) fruit, which is known by the scientific name Embelia Schimperi, which may be red or dark-purple when fresh and brownish when dry, as can be seen from these photos:



In the lyrics, the courage of a Gojjame man who dares to enter the river while it is in a state of turbulent rush is depicted. One is forced to visualize a tall and powerful person who would not get wet above his knees while crossing the high river—thus the a reference to his short trousers. The qualification of the Gojjame man crossing the river as ጋሬጣ (garet’a)(which otherwise has a rather negative meaning: “an obstacle”) is to denote that this person would stand his ground however fast and dangerous the flow of the river is: he would be an obstacle for the water to have an easy flow. The meaning of the lyrics as praise to a hard-working person strongly relies on the metaphorical meaning of ባጭር መታጠቅ(baʧ’ʧïr mättat’äk’) “to put on short pants” suggesting “preparedness for heavy manual work” (comparable to the English metaphor to “fold one’s sleeve”). One can make a quick association between the turbid river and the agricultural season of ploughing the fields to prepare the land for sowing seeds when the rains come (the flood waters may come before the actual rains reach Gojjam), although none of the latter are mentioned in this or subsequent couplets. The verb gäbba‘enter’ in the last line refers not only to the dangerous (and improbable) act of the Gojjame man entering the river during flooding but also to the onset of very important seasonal farm-work which needs a strong and resilient farmer. As such, these four lines’ short lyrics at once express the beauty of the river (the colors of እንቆቆ (ïnk’ok’k’o) fruit) and also the difficult life of the farmer and his resilience in managing his work.

In the following couplet we hear a desperate man conversing with his girlfriend across the river:

Couplet in the fidäl script & (broad phonetic) transcription Line-by-line free translation
አባይ ሞላልሽ

እኔ ምን ላርግሽ

አባይ ቢሞላ፤ ቢሞላ

መሻገርያው ሌላ


Abbayï mollalï∫ï, mollalï∫ï

Ine mïn largï∫ï

            Abbayï bimola

            Mä∫∫agäriaw lela



Abbay has risen, it has risen for you

(before you crossed it to reach me)

What can I do to you?

If Abbay has risen, if it has indeed risen here

Then the crossing point is another

(I know another part of it to cross over)

Singer:  Yitayaw Dagne; title: Abbay mollallïsh

(5:32 – 6:02)



The singer (male interlocuter to a female addressee as we can recognize on the inflections on the verb) points out the state of the river that makes it impossible for him to have her by his side. There is a subtle reproach addressed to the woman in using ሞላልሽ (mollalish) ‘it has risen for you’ instead of just ሞላ (molla) ‘it has risen’ which implies that she was negligent/ not committed enough and did not leave home in time to cross before the river had risen. The subtle accusation of the man reflects that they both have good knowledge of the rising and ebbing time of the river. The woman, on the other hand, reminds him of the different, narrowing and widening bends of the river and that she would go any length to find such a crossing to come to him thereby asserting her commitment and rebuffing his doubt as unfounded. Video posts of clips accompanying the singing, in which the man and woman appear, each on different sides of the river, support my analysis as sketched above.

A simile with the geography of the Abbay is frequently used to express emotions in a relationship, such as longing or despair, as the following couplet from the song of Yihune Belay denotes. In this poem the water of Abbay river is depicted as distinct from the river-bed that it has to transverse. The singer points to the difficulty the water has in flowing through multiple bends.

Couplet in the fidäl script & (broad phonetic) transcription Line-by-line free translation
እንደ አባይ ጎዳና እንደጠመዝማዛውእንደጠመዝማዛው

ናፍቆትሽ ወዝውዞ ስቃዬን አብዛው


Ïndä abbay godana

ïndä t’ämäzmazzaw,

ïndä t’ämäzmazzaw

nafk’otïsh wäzwïzo sïk’ayen abäzzaw


Like the route of Abbay

Like the zigzag (route that Abbay takes)

Like the zigzag (route that Abbay takes)

Yearning for you dangles me, making me suffer swinging moods


Singer: Yihune Belay.  Title: Ye Abbay Mado[2] Menged


A related theme is expressed in the following couplet: intense love for someone around Abbay and the lover prepared to undergo any form of suffering by transgressing the difficult terrain. In this case, the couplet refers to ‘Climbing up the hill” from where the steep fall of the gorge must begin, indicating that the singer is someone who knows the area well:

Couplet in the fidäl script & (broad phonetic) transcription Line-by-line free translation
የሚወስደኝ ባገኝ አባይ በዕለት በዕለት

ደከመኝ ባላልኩኝ ያአባይን አቀበት


Yämmiwäsdägn bagägn abbay bälät bälät

Däkkämägn balalkugn yabbayin ak’äbet


If I had found someone that would take me to Abbay every single day

While climbing the high hills, “I am tired” is never what I would say

Abbay in ïngurguro

Ïngurguro is a solo performance, involving deep emotional state of sorrow resulting from broken relations, loneliness, loss of family (cf. Getie Gelaye 2005). Notice the similarity between the noun ïngurguro and the verb goräggorä ‘poke’. Alternatively, ïngurguro may designate humming and singing soft for oneself when one is engaged in repetitive and durative manual work (e.g. weaving, mowing, spinning cotton) or when people sit idle but perhaps not decidedly sad. And, it may or may not be addressed to an audience.

The following is an example from Mary Armede, a well-known singer in the 1950-1960s. She was a daring singer, unique for her time openly using lyrics that hint to relationship with a married man, or the double-meaning poems (k’ine) whose hidden meaning points to sexual encounters. Also unique is her creaky and powerful masculine voice. In the first triplet below, Mary Armede raises two rhetorical questions: if ever there is a river like Abbay beyond Abbay and whether death and separation are the same. The next triplet presents the response that as bad as death is, it is better than separation since in death at least one knows that the separation is for good and that it is final (See last three lines, indented).

Couplet in the fidäl script & (broad phonetic) transcription Line by line free translation
አባይን ተሻግሮ፣

አባይን ተሻግሮ አባይ አለ ወይ?

ሞትና መለየት አንድ አይደለም ወይ?

ሞትና መለየት፤

ሞትና መለየት ምን አንድ አደረገው?

ያው ሞት ይሻላል ቁርጡ የታወቀው


Abbajïn täʃagro;

Abbajïn täʃagro abbaj allä wäy

Motïnna mälläyät and ajdälläm wäy

Motïnna mälläyät,

Motïnna mälläyät mïn and adärrägäw

Jaw mot yïʃʃalall k’urt’u yätawwäk’äw



Having crossed Abbay,

Having crossed Abbay, is there at all another Abbay?

Aren’t separation and death (likewise) one and the same?

Death and separation,

What makes death and separation comparable?

Better is death as there would be no uncertain anticipation of return

Singer: Mary Armedé; Title Ïndet neh?




Mary expresses the agony of insistent longing to meet the person she is separated from and the doubt that this would ever be realized, by contrasting it to her certainty that one would not find any other majestic river as Abbay. In this kind of deep thought of someone or in loneliness, or when people are down because they have lost a family member, the song type ïngurguro is used, andhere too the Abbay features.

From the late 70s onwards, many Ethiopians were forced to live outside of their country due to political reasons. In the past few decades, displacement by choice (for work, study or re-joining family) has become common. These ‘diaspora Ethiopians’ and people displaced within the country are nostalgic about their villages/home towns/cities, missing family, friends, food, and the environment that they were familiar to. From her new home, the United States-based Ethiopian artist Ejigayehu Shibabaw (Gi-Gi), a singer highly appreciated among Ethiopians, expresses her feelings and longing in a most vivid manner in her song naffäk’äɲ ‘I miss it’ that was published in 1998. In the song, it becomes clear that she is not only missing her parents, siblings and relatives as family, but she intimates also missing their particular habits and manners, the ‘culture’. For instance, when she laments sïm yälläɲïm, sïm yälläɲïm bäbete “I have no name; I have no name at my home”, one might think of neglect of her but Gi-Gi is quick to state some unique expressions of endearmentsuch as akalat ‘body part, organ’, gonn ‘side of the body’, etc. that each family member habitually used in addressing her. By so doing, the family express that the addressee is an unmissable part of their being; she is part of them, making their existence possible. In this song, GiGi indicates the irrational way memories of home affect people; the unexpected things that people miss when they are away from home, including familiar places, nature and environment around them. She for example, alludes to open spaces and domestic animals at her parents’ home; she misses her “mother’s hand that feeds and satiates ALL the people of the house”, thereby communicating fond memories of her mother’s hard work and hospitality. Interesting to our case, the singer also expresses memories of her relatives from around the Abbay when they come to days’ long feasting and visit by her family. So, she recalls a visitor whom she mentions by title and name: “Ayya Tadde” who does ïngurguro, looking back and remembering what he had left back home.  GiGi and repeats the expressions he supposedly used in reference to a specific plant that grew at the banks of the Abbay:

Couplet in the fidäl script & (broad phonetic) transcription Line by line free translation
“ከእባይ ወዲያ ማዶ ትንሽ ግራር በቅላ”

“ልቤን ወሰደችው ከነስሩ ነቅላ”


Kabbay wädia mado tïinnïi∫ gïrar bäk’la

Lïbben wässädäʧïw kännäsïru näk’la



There grew a little acacia (sp.) across Abbay

(And) it snatched my heart, uprooting it completely


Singer Ejigayehu Shibabaw (GiGi); Title:  Naffäk’äɲ – ‘I miss it’

(2:47 — 4:06)


GiGi’s nostalgic song is interesting since her own ïngurguro in the US about “back home in Ethiopia” incorporates her uncle’s homesickness to his region within Ethiopia. In the audio of GiGi’s song, one can clearly notice the transition from her own ïngurguro to the ïngurguro of “yayya Tadde” as she  imitates his low, deeply moving voice. Content wise, at the surface, the uncle’s lyric is a tall-tale, about a little acacia offshoot at the banks of Abbay: in a strange twist of agency, instead of itself being “completely uprooted, washed off” due to the force of the usually flooding river, “the little plant took the (singer’s) heart, pulling out and uprooting it completely”. Here, the understanding is that, his control over his emotions, his composure, was affected when he fell in love with a woman, represented as a precious little acacia plant on the other side of Abbay. As this example from GiGi’s song illustrates, although they comprise just two lines, lyrics in ïngurguro tell stories, big stories.  The same can be said of the genre musho, which I discuss next. GiGi has also made a complete song on the Abbay, the whole 5.10 minutes devoted to the river (cf.  15.29-20.46).

The Abbay in musho

Musho is an expressive culture peculiar to Orthodox Christians. It is performed during funerals and memorials. Depending on the place, musho poems may be created by an invited, paid professional poet, often a woman, known as alqaš ‘one who cries’, asleqaš ‘one who makes cry’ or musho-awradj ‘one who takes down musho or makes mushodescend’. Musho is a musical verbal art: it involves melody, metric, rhyming text and in some places also the use of drums. Hand clapping and rhythmic chest-beating while performing a special body movement (half-dance, half-jumping) by a large group of mourners standing in circle while at some distance, an even larger group of people watch, weep or audibly cry (see The spectators may now and then walk to the center of the circle to give presents (money) to the poet to express appreciation and encourage her/him. However, referring to musho performance, one does not use forms of the verbs mäzfän ‘to sing’ or mangoragor ‘to sing softly and in a sad, melancholic state’. Instead, the transitive, causative verb mawräd “to make descend; to take down” is used, an expression that in itself merits closer examination in understanding the social-cultural meanings of the practice of musho. The practice is increasingly endangered in cities these days as life style changes and Church teachings begin to discourage its practice. The purpose of musho is to bring the mourning family as well as funeral attendants (extended-family, neighbors, colleagues or passers-by) to a deep emotional state and to the collective expression of grief, sometimes by even invoking names or deeds of the lost family-members of some of the attendants.[3] As Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis (2013: 114) notes:

In a heartrending prose, the alqaš evokes time and memory when she asks those who had just come to pay their respect if they had lost a loved one. Many instantly jump up, charged by the memory of their own loss, their loved ones manifesting through the death of another.

The basic melody and refrain of musho may be similar from place to place but the lyrics are adapted to the circumstances of death, gender, age and status of the diseased. For example, when the diseased is a man with good record of civil and/or military service, musho and the praise songs fukkära and shïlläla may be alternated (see:  minutes: 1.12 – 3.45).

In some places, musho poems are offered by the deceased’s close family members who take turns (cf. Berhanu Gebeyehu 2002 on Gondar customs). Consider the following example, from Hiruy Wolde Silassie. (1917: 24): a woman from the vicinity of the Abbay who was married to a well-to-do person and had moved to the capital city Addis Ababa is joined by her younger brother who decided to live with her there. A few years later, the siblings set out to travel back home for a family-visit. While crossing the Abbay river, her younger brother was attacked and killed by a crocodile while she escaped. At the wulo, ‘symbolic burial, without a corpse’, the sister offered the following couplet for the musho:

Couplet in the fidäl script and (broad phonetic) transcription Line by line (free) translation

ላንድ ቀን ትእዛዝ ሰው ይመረራል

የኔ ወንድም ታዞ አባይ ላይ ይኖራል


Land k’än tïɂzaz säw yïmmärärall

Yäne wändïm tazzo abbay lay yïnorall

Surface meaning:

People complain heeding orders even for just a day

Having received orders, my brother lives in Abbay


Underlying meaning:

My brother lives with a crocodile in the Abbay river

Source: Hiruy Wolde Silassie (1917: 24)

The couplet is a good example of the k’ine genre of poems characterized by puns and layered meanings, involving an apparent, surface meaning called säm ‘wax’ and a hidden and significant meaning wärk’ ‘gold’. In our example, the hidden meaning relies in the word tazzo in line two, which is interpreted in the surface meaning (wax) as tazzo ‘he having been ordered’ (a third person masculine converb related to the noun ትእዛዝ (tïɁïzaz) ‘order in line one, and the verbazäzzä ‘ordered’). In the hidden meaning, tazzo in line two is interpreted as a noun phrase, comprising the preposition ‘with, from’ which often gets cliticized on to the noun it precedes, in this case the noun azzo ‘crocodile’: tazzo > + azzo. In this couplet the woman poetically depicts not only the cause of the death of her brother but she also activates deep sympathy on the listener by implying losing her brother at the prime of his life. The imperfective verb ይኖራል(yïnoral) ‘lives’, in the second line can indicate both a present state and a future, yet to be realized situation. In this, it is as though she is denying his death; and that for her brother there will still be a long life to be had with the crocodile.


I have shown that in all kinds of songs, involving people’s day-to-day themes of work, love and loss, the Abbay river is mentioned. Not all of the lyrics are written by professional song writers, many are created by ordinary people. Although I use the label ‘old songs’, this is not to indicate that these are obsolete songs of the past. Instead, these are part of vibrant current popular culture as the reuse or integration lyrics and/or melodies into new songs suggests.

The river Abbay is thus a powerful source of inspiration for literary imagination and creativity of Amharic speakers who live in areas surrounding the river – and beyond. Creativity was also stimulated by traditional church-education in the area that placed particular emphasis on mastering the proper recitation and writing of poems (particularly the double-meaning poems, known as k’ïne). Technologies like radio as well as movement and settlement of people in different parts of the country due to increasingly expanding government work, for service in the Orthodox Church or on personal grounds, allowed for the exchange of songs, including those that allude to the Abbay. These are sang all over the country thereby creating the feeling of affinity with the river. The Abbay is deeply engrained in the common people’s minds in all corners of the country via songs whereas other great rivers such as the Wabi Shebelle, for example, are much less so. For these reasons, I wonder whether a river equally grandiose and powerful as the Abbay would have mobilized all Ethiopians to fund the construction of a multi-billion dollar dam like the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.


Berhanu Gebeyehu. 2002.  “Musho as a socio-political discourse among the Amhara”. In Baye, Yimam et al. (eds.), Proceedings of the XIVth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, vol. 3, pp. 1907-1935. Addis Ababa: Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University.

Damon, Anne, Hugo Ferran, et al.. 2014. “Instruments, musical”. In S. Uhlig (ed.), Encyclopedia Aethiopica, vol. 3, pp. 169-173. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis. 2013. “The aural, the visual, and female agency in the mušo”. Northeast African Studies 13 (1): 101-120.

Getie Gelaye. 2005. “ïngurguro”. In: S. Uhlig (ed.), Encyclopedia Aethiopica, vol. 2, pp 305 – 306. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Hiruy Wolde Silassie. 1917. [in Amharic]: “Yä läk’so zema gït’ïm” (Songs/melodies of mourning). Addis Ababa: Ethiopia Press. (ህሩይ ወልደ ሥላሴ. ፲፱፻፲. የለቅሶ ዜማ ግጥም፡ ምስጢሩ ከመጻሕፍት ጋራ የተስማማ. አዲስ አበባ፡በኢትዮጵያ ማተሚያ ቤት).

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. 2007. “Music”. In S. Uhlig (ed.), Encyclopedia Aethiopica, vol. 3, pp. 1065-1086. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

[1] Note that “Abbay mado” translates as ‘across the Abbay river’ but the phrase also designates a neighborhood in Bahir Dar city, found east of the Abbay river which crosses the city.

[2] It seems that there is a

[3] Musho poems also serve to express socio-political critique, as is well elaborated in Berhanu Gebeyehu (2002).