The Armenians in Ethiopia

Ethiopia Observer
Feb 9 2025

The story of the Arba Ledjotch lives on in memory

In 1924, a group of forty children who had survived the 1915 genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turks and had formed a brass band at the Armenian monastery in Jerusalem were recruited and somewhat adopted by Ras Tafari Makonnen, the Regent of Ethiopia who later ascended to the throne as the emperor. Ras Tafari’s diplomatic tour to Jerusalem took place within a context marked by the strong ties between the Armenian Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, both of which had established monastic community presence in Jerusalem dating back to the thirteenth century.

Ras Tafari’s famous European diplomatic tour, which took him to Rome and other European capitals, occurred during a time when Ethiopia was striving to assert its sovereignty on the global scene and in the African continent that was under colonial domination. The country’s entry into the League of Nations in 1923 was celebrated with great fanfare. Accompanied by Ras Seyoum, Ras Hailu, and other minor nobles, “the picturesque entourage inspired so many anecdotes, and in the mind of the man-in-the-street Ethiopia symbolized by the bevy of Rases with their black cloaks and oversize hats, took on a certain significance,” as noted by historian Anthony Mockler. Establishing a royal band comprised of forty orphans, officially dubbed the Arba Ledjotch (“forty children” in Amharic), would serve to emphasize the image of the sovereign nation. Kevork Nalbandian, who served as its conductor, composed the Ethiopian national anthem, which remained in use from 1925 to 1974.

Boris Adjemian, a French historian of Armenian descent, explores the journey of the Armenian diaspora in Ethiopia, extending his focus to include the entirety of the community within the country and its economic and political contributions. He underscores the symbolic significance of this event in the country’s history. Initially hired to perform music for Meskel (the Day of the Holy Cross) and other occasional official events during the reign of Empress Zewditu, the young musicians quickly realized, as described by a former member of the brass band, that “They had informed us that we would accompany the Queen to church with the orchestra solely on religious days, but for Ethiopians, every day is a religious celebration, and each day, amidst the mud, we escorted the Queen or the heir to the throne to the church and then to the palace.”

Adjemian’s comprehensive and authoritative analysis of the historical realities surrounding the Armenian diaspora in Ethiopia was published in French in 2013 under the title of “La fanfare du Négus” and remains exclusively available in that language. The author adeptly captures the diverse array of activities and the success of the Arba Ledjotch, particularly in winning over the population. He highlights how the Negus’s brass band was a constant presence, tirelessly performing in all conditions, regardless of rain or shine, and enduring the relentless heat of the Addis Ababa highlands. From the book, we gain insight into how the brass band was strategically utilized to discreetly communicate Ethiopian diplomatic messages during international gatherings. This tactic demonstrated a level of proficiency that generated varying responses from foreign delegations, resulting in mixed reviews.

Except for the Ethiopian royal chronicle, the limited testimonies from European visitors undermine the portrayal of the small prodigious musicians and their adoption by the benevolent king. The few European authors who mentioned the brass band ridiculed the grotesque nature of its appearance, the mishaps, and wrong notes punctuating its poor public performances – “the cacophonous tootling of the Armenian orchestra” as well as the tastelessness of its repertoire.

(The first installment of three book descriptions to be published over the month.)