Inspiration Music

Ethiopia’s Rising Classical Music Stars

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Text and photos by Borja Santos Porras

The sounds of classical Spain could be heard already for the second time in an unlikely place: the Ethiopian National Theatre in Addis Ababa. Onstage were the talented students of the Yared School, Ethiopia’s only institute of higher learning for music; directing them was Silvia Sanz Torre, conductor of the Metropolitan Orchestra of Madrid.

“In Ethiopia, there has not been an orchestra concert in the last 30 to 40 years purely formed by students or teachers of Ethiopia, ”

says former Yared School director Tadele Tilahun. Around for over four decades, Yared, which is part of Addis Ababa University, has become a special spot for budding musicians, often fresh out of secondary school. To enrol, candidates must all demonstrate musical talent. But aside from that, each student’s story is unique.

Eyuel Mengistu plays double bass, though this wasn’t the 24 year old’s first instrument of choice. “I used to play the krar, a traditional instrument,” he says about his primary school days. In fact, Mengistu hadn’t even realized he wanted to pursue music until he had already begun a three-year study in horticulture – that’s when he started on the keyboard and that’s what led him to Yared.

“When I got accepted, I chose trumpet. But after six months, I decided to play double bass.”

After five years, Yared students are expected to have completed their studies, earning Bachelor of Art degrees. Most students are reported to find jobs as classical musicians.

Selamawit Aragaw always wanted to be a violonist. She has been an assistant at the Yared School and … will start being a lecturer. She says:

“But apart from that, I give a lot of violin private lessons and I have a quartet with which I play in different hotels.”

Mengistu, the bassist, has yet to finish his studies. But when he does, he, too, plans to pursue teaching.

“Also, I would like to be a composer and start playing the double bass on stage in jazz places,”

he says. Until then, he is reliant on Yared.

“Me and my friends can only study in the school, because the school lends the instruments, but we cannot bring them out from there,”

he explains. Those, like Mengistu, who cannot afford the full tuition of 25,000 birr (about 1,000 euro), can take out a government loan, which they are expected to pay back once they begin working.

Former school director Tilahun notes limitations:

“The challenges are still big. The students cannot afford acoustic instruments, which are expensive and difficult to find, so it is the school who needs to provide them. Also, the manpower is limited, so the quality and quantity need to be improved in order to maintain the increase of interest in classical music in Ethiopian society.”

But if the students at Yared are any indication, Ethiopia’s new generation of classical musicians has sweet-sounding career prospects. The violinist Aragaw to-do list includes nothing less than giving solo concerts, going on tour and finally to have her own music school.


Please read more about the Yared School of Music on the website of the Addis Ababa University.

Borja Santos Porras has written a more detailed piece on El Pais, it’s in Spanish though.

Borja Santos Porras was born on January 16, 1982, in Valladolid, Spain. He studied engineering telecommunications and piano in his hometown. His relationship with photography was born with the start of his professional career of development and international relations, perhaps to  show his way of seeing the world. He currently works as an International Consultant for the World Food Program in Ethiopia. You can connect with him on Facebook and please check out his website for more great photojournalism.