Royal fanfare: Ethiopia’s 40 Armenian orphan musicians

Talk: 5 March at 7pm
Organized by: Programme of Armenian Studies and the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS
At SOAS, Vernon Campus (not the main campus)

The Arba Lijoch, photographed by Haigaz Boyajian, royal photographer of Ethiopia. Source: The Armenite
The Arba Lijoch, photographed by Haigaz Boyajian, royal photographer of Ethiopia. Source: The Armenite

Several of our students of Amharic in London have interest in Ethiopian music, and this talk promises a fascinating spotlight on a key development.

In 1924, the Ras Tafari, Crown Prince of Ethiopia (later known as Emperor Haile Sellasie), went to Jerusalem where he met with a marching band of 40 Armenian orphan boys and was deeply moved by their musical talent. He talked to Patriarch Turyan who told him of the financial strain of raising the boys and the future Emperor offered to adopt them and bring the band to Ethiopia.

The boys arrived on 6 Sept 1924 which Father Hovhannes Simonian and were officially known as Arba Lijoch (“40 children”). They formed the royal imperial brass band and played the official music of the court, forming the Royal Fanfare and the Ethiopian Government Fanfare. Their musical director, Armenian musician Kevork Nalbandian, was asked by Ras Tafari to write the first Imperial Ethiopian national anthem “Teferi Marsh, Ethiopia Hoy” (“Ethiopia, be happy”) performed for the first time by the Arba Lijoch during the crowning of Emperor Haile on 2 November 1930.

The boys had survived the genocide which began in 1915 and saw the Turkish Ottomans kill 1.5 million, forming most of the present Armenian diaspora communities. They were described as “diligent, abstemious and honest”.

Tracing the history of Armenians in Ethiopia, historian Boris Adjemian casts new light on these legendary events in the lecture. Boris Adjemian is curator of the AGBU Nubar Library in Paris. In 2013, he published La fanfare du négus : Les Arméniens en Ethiopie (XIXe-XXe siècles), Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS.

The Programme of Armenian Studies and the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS are jointly hosting his lecture: “The Kings and the Forty Orphans: Looking for Armenians in Ethiopia”. It is chaired by Erica C. D. Hunter, Head of Department for the Study of Religions and co-chair of the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS, University of London.

It starts at 7.00pm on Thursday 5 March in Room V211, SOAS, Vernon Square, London WC1X 9EW – all welcome. Please note that the lecture does not take place at the Main Campus of SOAS, but at the VERNON SQUARE CAMPUS (which is about 10 minutes walk from Kings Cross).

Musical influence

Before their arrival, prominent musical instruments were mostly wood and string although there were some brass musicians. The Arba Lijoch and Kevork Nalbandian were hailed as helping modernization as they trained other bands and performed in public. Kevork Nalbandian, with Greek and Ethiopian musical colleagues, also helped found the Yared School of Music at Addis Ababa Univeristy in 1954 and led to “a stately brand of jazz-funk” or Ethio-jazz which developed in the 1950s and reached its height in the late 1960s and Kevork’s nephew Nerses Nalbandian helped drive the genre and influenced great musicians such as Mulatu Astatke, father of Ethio-jazz.

The Ge’ez alphabet, diligently studied by students of Amharic in London in their Amharic language lessons, apparently also influenced the creation of the Armenian alphabet due to historic links said to go back to the Trojan War and well established as the Orthodox Christian Church grew in both countries from the early centuries after Christ.

Source: Ani Aslanian writing in The Armenite blog and alert mailing from the Anglo Ethiopian Society.

Commemorating Adwa victory – 1 March 1896

Battle of Adwa - St George assists the Ethiopian forces (credit: Wikipedia)
Battle of Adwa – St George assists the Ethiopian forces (credit: Wikipedia)

Commemorating the 119th anniversary of the decisive victory of Ethiopian forces against the invading Italians on 1 March 1896. Many students of Amharic are inspired by Ethiopia’s decisive victory against colonialism.

“In March 1896 a well-disciplined and massive Ethiopian army did the unthinkable—it routed an invading Italian force and brought Italy’s war of conquest in Africa to an end. In an age of relentless European expansion, Ethiopia had successfully defended its independence and cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age—that sooner or later all Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans. This event opened a breach that would lead, in the aftermath of world war fifty years later, to the continent’s painful struggle for freedom from colonial rule.” Professor Raymond Jonas.

At the Battle of Adwa, Emperor Menelik II led the Ethiopian army. It led to Italy’s formal recognition of Ethiopia’s independence.

This article in New African highlights the role of Empress Taytu Betul and warns today’s African leaders to be careful in the contracts they negotiate with foreigners (the Italian version of a contract signed was different from the Amharic version, giving the Italians pretext to attack Ethiopia). It also urges Africans to stand together and put their continent first.

Empress Taytu and Emperor Menelik
Empress Taytu and Emperor Menelik

Lessons of Adwa?
“The first is Menelik’s ability to win the loyalty of all the bickering factions in Ethiopia, who in the face of a common enemy, put aside their differences and contributed 100,000 troops. Unity was crucial in the face of a superior force on paper. The Chiefs (Ras) put aside personal animosities and fiefdoms to march in unison to Adwa. Amongst them were Ras Makonnen, Ras Tekle Haymonot, Ras Mengesha Yohannes, Ras Sibhat of Tigray, Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Wole of Yejju Oromo, and Ras Gebeyehu, who died fighting at Adwa.

“Secondly, Menelik enjoyed the unqualified support of his wife, the Empress Taytu Betul, who personally went to the battlefield in full combat gear as a cavalry commander. She turned out to be a formidable leader, and outperformed some of the male commanders. In a declaration to the Italian envoy Antonelli, prior to marching to war, she drew a line in the sand: “We have also made it known to the powers that the said article, as it is written in our language, has another meaning. Like you, we also ought to respect our dignity. You wish Ethiopia to be represented before the other powers as your protectorate, but this shall never be.”

Perhaps the most useful lesson of all is the wisdom of executing such an important treaty or contract in their native language.”

Taytu was very perceptive and strong willed. She founded Ethiopia’s capital in the late 1800s, selecting the site after coming down from the colder military site on Entoto above the city that was the previous capital, and named it Addis Ababa (‘new flower’). She spotted the Italian treaty deception and helped with battle strategy. Later she ran Ethiopia for three years after Menelik was incapacitated with a stroke.

Talk 3 March – the Massacre of Addis Ababa, February 1937

Organized by the Anglo-Ethiopian Society
At Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG time is 7:00pm.
Free but space is limited so do your bookings here:

Yekatit 12 is a date in the Ethiopian calendar (equivalent to 19 February) and commemorates the indiscriminate massacre and imprisonment of Ethiopians by Italian forces. Italian Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani had led the Italian forces to victory over their Ethiopian opponents in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and was supreme governor of Italian East Africa. He had organized an event to distribute alms to the poor on 19 February 1937 at Genete Leul Palace (now Addis Ababa University).
Two members of the crowd, Abraha Deboch and Mogus Asgedom, brought in grenades, slipped through the crowd to the steps, and threw up to 10 grenades before escaping. According to historian Richard Pankhurst, Abraha has very bitter about racist practices although he worked at the Fascist Political Bureau and was seen as a collaborator.
The grenades wounded the Viceroy, top Italian generals and Abuna Querellos but prompt hospital treatment saved the Viceroy who later claimed 250 pieces of steel had pierced him, although the overhanging balcony shielded much of the blast.
Wikipedia quotes historian Anthony Mockler on the immediate Italian response: “Italian carabinieri had fired into the crowds of beggars and poor assembled for the distribution of alms; and it is said that the Federal Secretary, Guido Cortese, even fired his revolver into the group of Ethiopian dignitaries standing around him.” A few hours later Cortese ordered: “Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.”

Italian massacres, source Yekatit 12 website
Italian massacres, source Yekatit 12 website

In three days (19-21 February), the Italians had killed 30,000 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa only, using daggers and truncheons to shouts of “Duce! Duce!” and “Civiltà Italiana, burning down houses with gasoline and lynching servants of local Greeks and Armenians.
Reprisals and imprisonments continued for weeks. Investigators found that Abraha and Mogus had stayed a while at Debra Libanos and slight circumstantial evidence suggested that the monks had foreknowledge of their plans. Graziani, who was already very suspicious of the Coptic Orthodox clergy, on 19 May cabled the local commander: “Therefore execute summarily all monks without distinction including the Vice-Prior.” The following day, a feast day of their patron saint Tekle Haymanot, 297 monks plus 23 laymen were shot, the entire population of the monastery.

Debre Libanos by Rasta Photographer
Debre Libanos by Rasta Photographer

The massacres greatly increased the scale of the resistance by Ethiopian patriots.

Picture of Ethiopian patriot troops from the memoirs of an Allied bomber pilot shot down by Italians near Gondar and sheltered and fed by patriot troops under Imperial Officers while walking 150 miles to Debre Tabor.
Abyssinian patriot troops

Ian Campbell is a development consultant specializing in East Africa who arrived in Addis Ababa in 1988 and has been studying Ethiopia’s cultural history since then. Author of “The Plot to Kill Graziani” (Addis Ababa University Press, 2010) and “The Massacre of Debre Libanos” (Addis Ababa University Press, forthcoming), he will present the findings from research he conducted over a 20-year period into the massacre of Addis Ababa – a hitherto undocumented event and the greatest single atrocity of the Italian occupation.
Ian will present the circumstances surrounding the massacre, maps showing the extent and location of the attacks on residents, rare photographs of what happened, previously unpublished documents showing that the massacre was authorised by the Italian authorities, and his analysis and estimates of the number of victims.

Anthony Mockler (2004). Haile Selassie’s War, published by Signal Books, available here.
Richard Pankhurst: Who was the Third Man? Article in Addis Ababa Tribune, published 27 February 2004.