A meeting with Ethiopian musician Alemu Aga and his mesmerising begena lyre

Alemu Aga
Alemu Aga © Maison des cultures du monde

Alemu Aga is an Ethiopian musician, singer, and master of 'begena'. This multi-secular ten-stringed lyre has a special place for the Orthodox Christian Amharas, who live in the capital Addis Ababa.


According to oral tradition, the begena, also called David's Harp, is the instrument given by God to King David. It is closely associated with faith and mostly played on religious occasions in Ethiopia.

During Lent, the instrument is often heard on the radio and around churches.

The instrument is also known for its meditative qualities.

"The listeners, no matter if they are old, young or foreigners, even if they don’t understand the language, the sound that comes out has the power to make them very quiet," Alemu Aga tells RFI.

The repetitive melodies of the begena are accompanied by songs, poems or prayers that are almost whispered.

"In the songs you have two messages. One is that life in this world is useless; of course from a religious point of view. [...] The other thing outside the religious thing is that the messages are sent by words that have double meanings.

"You want to say one thing but you don’t want to say it directly so you use words that have double meanings. [...] If you have any complaints to say to god or officials, you use those kind of words," says Aga.

Trained by a master

Born in 1950 in Entotto, Alemu Aga began training when he was twelve years old with a reknown master, Aleqa Tessema Welde-Emmanuel.

"My teacher came from northern Ethiopia. One day when the Emperor Haile Selassie was participating in a church ceremony, my teacher was playing the instrument.

"The Emperor told him to come to Addis and to teach this instrument because it is a traditional and very old instrument that has spread from generation to generation," he explains.

Aga taught begena at the Yared Music School for seven years, and for decades welcomed students and young musicians in his shop in Addis Ababa.

The begena saw a resurgence after the years of the Derg (1974-1991) during which the instrument was banned from radio broadcasts.

Since the early 1990s Alemu Aga has travelled to many different countries to perform with his begena and to present it to a wider audience.

He was recently invited to play in Bourges, central France, in a concert organised by the Festival de l’imaginaire where RFI met him.

The begena is the oldest of Ethiopia's musical instruments and, over the centuries, has undergone variations like the Krar, a five-or-six stringed bowl-shaped lyre, used notably by some Ethio-jazz musicians in their compositions.

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