Ethio Classic Quartet - Artists in Residence
Ethio Classic Quartet - Artists in Residence
Ethiopia’s first and only all-woman classical quartet comes to the U.S. to deepen their creative practice and make professional connections as part of Center Stage’s new Artists in Residence program.
“We have rich cultures here from 80 ethnic groups and languages. We want to dig into that rich culture and make it suitable for our quartet. We want to bring Ethiopian culture to other parts of the world; we see ourselves as part of that broader world. We want to meet with other women musicians who are making their way. We want to find our own sound.” -- Selamawit Aragaw
Ethio Classic Quartet
Selamawit Aragaw Erikhun -- first violin
Meron Regassa Lemessa -- second violin
Kelemework Tekle Woldegiorgis -- cello
Yeshumnesh Taye Beyerra -- flute
About artists in residence
The new Center Stage Artists in Residence Program extends opportunities for networking and exchange to individual artists and/or artistic teams from larger ensembles to deepen their creative practice and expand professional connections. The focus is artistic process rather than public performance.
During customized independent trips lasting 10-14 day, artists
- travel to 1-3 U.S communities,
- engage with American artists and professionals in similar disciplines/genres,
- see work by other artists and share work in workshops, intensives, and other professional settings,
- build connections with peers, curators, and others in the U.S. performing arts field.
Our Own Sound: The Women of Ethio Classic Quartet Buck Expectations to Create Ethiopian Pieces with Western Classical Sensibility
Ethiopia’s first and only all-woman classical quartet comes to the U.S. to deepen their creative practice and make professional connections.
For the last fifteen years, four female musicians from Addis Ababa have gathered as often as they can to practice and compose together. They have all pursued an unusual path for women in Ethiopia, as professional musicians with European classical training. They are all members of prominent orchestras and teachers at major Ethiopian music schools. Yet despite this achievement, they are facing a male-dominated environment rife with expectations that clash with what it takes to be a dedicated, skilled artist.
The women of Ethio Classic Quartet have not let that stop them. Their efforts have led them to perform Western classical repertoire before heads of state, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Yet Ethio Classic truly shines when they dive into evocative arrangements of Ethiopia’s wealth of musical ideas and approaches. The Quartet, which includes Selamawit Aragaw Erikhun (first violin), Meron Regassa Lemessa (second violin), Kelemework Tekle Woldegiorgis (cello) and Yeshumnesh Taye Beyerra (flute), turns popular songs into elegant pieces. They make the modes and time signatures that give Ethiopia’s plethora of musical traditions their distinctive sway feel utterly at home on classical instruments.
“To play Ethiopian pieces makes sense, as we’re mostly playing for Ethiopian listeners,” explains Selamawit Aragaw, the Quartet’s co-founder and first violinist. “We have rich cultures here from 80 ethnic groups and languages. We want to dig into that rich culture and make it suitable for our quartet. We want to bring our culture to other parts of the world; we see ourselves as part of that broader world. We want to find our own sound.”
The search for their own sound will continue in the U.S., as the Quartet joins Center Stage as part of a new type of creative exchange.
U.S. Artist Residency in 2023-2024 with Center Stage Season 7
Ethio Classic Quartet will come to the U.S. for the first time in 2023-2024 as part of Center Stage, the cultural exchange program that has connected performing artists from abroad with American communities since 2012. The Quartet will participate in Center Stage’s first Artist in Residence program, bringing talented ensembles from overseas to work closely with their American counterparts, fostering deep creative interaction. Six other music, theater, and dance ensembles from South Africa, Ethiopia, and the Philippines will also make independent tours or hold in-depth residencies with the program, promoting global ties and engaging with audiences on stage, off stage, and online. Center Stage is produced through a public-private partnership between the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the New England Foundation for the Arts.
For the Quartet, it feels natural to arrange and compose Ethiopian music for the Western Classical format they love. That music is compelling for them emotionally, and that makes it easy to touch audiences. “We have unique scales that we’re proud of and love to play. It’s close to our heart. We grew up with them,” notes Selamawit Erkihun. “When you have an emotional attachment to the music, it makes much more sense to the audience. We love what we do. When you love the music, it’s easy to connect with the audience.”
The wide range of scales intertwine with a rhythmic sensibility that sways with intense precision. “We have various kinds of rhythms in Ethiopia. In the south, north, east, west, they are all different according to the culture,” explains flute player Yeshumnesh Taye Beyerra. “For example, mostly we have 6/8 rhythms in the north, but in Tigray, it’s more commonly 5/4. You have to be in rhythm, to be sharp and quantized.”
With help from Ethiopian composers and arrangers, Ethio Classic transforms golden hits from Ethiopian singers like the legendary Girma Negash into pieces that feel made for a quartet, such as the group’s lovely, almost pastoral version of Girma Negash’s “Minew Teleyeshign.” “Filega,” an original composition by Selamawit Erkihun, suggests where the Quartet’s sound is heading. It moves fluidly between Ethiopian tonalities and a fugue-like weave of voices, as strings and flute converge and drift apart in waves.
By simply making art together, the Quartet are defying expectations. They had to win over local audiences unfamiliar with Western Classical repertoire and formats. They had to scrape together the time to rehearse, compose, and perform. And they had to do this while staring down social insistence that they put female roles, their duties at home and to family, before all else.
Balancing a creative life and child rearing is never easy for women, but the balancing act can feel particularly difficult for women in Ethiopia. “We have different obligations apart from our careers, as three of us are married and two have kids,” says Yeshumnesh Beyerra. “We have to be with our families, because in Ethiopia, the pressure to deal with family matters is mostly on women.”
The Quartet has not been deterred from pursuing and perfecting their artistic vision. They have set their sights on shifting public perspective on all of these fronts, in part by adjusting their repertoire to engage local listeners and in part by persisting, showing up and giving a soulful voice to the music they love. “There is not a lot of acceptance of Classical music here,” Selamawit recounts. “To gain acceptance, we had to go through a lot of challenges. But we faced them. When we had to, we played for free. We invested a lot of time in the music, but once people accepted it, it was worth it.”
The Next Movement
If the life of the Quartet were a concerto, the next several years promise to be an intriguing next movement, filled with further development of the ensemble’s creative forces. This next phase will bring the Quartet into close contact with fellow musicians and performers, in ways they hope will lead to new ideas and collaborations.
“As music educators, we want to visit music schools and learn from that, and from other artists. We have a lot of Ethiopian pieces and we want to play those pieces with our American colleagues,” Selamawit states. “We want to play together and perform as much as possible, give concerts and workshops. We want to share our experience with other women artists and share our musical journeys, from both sides.”
Downloadable Photos, Billing, & Credits
Ethio Classic Quartet
On tour as part of Center Stage
The following credit is required on the title page in all printed performance programs. We appreciate its use wherever else it's practical: brochures, posters, ensemble-only promotional materials, press releases, advertisements, etc:
Ethio Classic Quartet is part of Center Stage, a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs with funding provided by the U.S. Government, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations. General management is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc.
Center Stage logo placement is encouraged. On web-based materials, please link from the Center Stage logo and/or written name to www.CenterStageUS.org.
High-resolution promotional photos (photographer credit is in the file name), and several versions of the Center Stage logo are available at this link.