One Man’s Attempt to Capture Ethiopian Armenians’ Dying Legacy

“TEZETA is a song form famous in Ethno-Jazz. In Amharic (the language of Ethiopia), it translates to ‘my memory,’ but it means much more. It conveys a sense of nostalgia that can be lost in translation,” describes Aramazt Kalayjian, an independent documentary filmmaker living and working in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His documentary, “TEZETA [The Ethiopian Armenians],” explores the collective memory of Ethiopian-Armenians from their own perspectives, as well as others touched by their profound legacy. He aims to reveal the contributions Armenians have made to Ethiopian culture through the narrative of music and the large role they played in modern Ethiopian jazz.

The Boyadjian family in 1921

Despite his disconnection physically and genealogically to Ethiopia, Kalayjian feels a profound connection to all Armenian communities in exile from their nonexistent homeland in Turkey. The unique history of Armenians in Ethiopia—namely, the story of the Arba Lijoch, the 40 Armenian orphans of the genocide who were adopted by King Selassie to be his imperial orchestra, and their contribution to modern Ethiopian music—ignited Kalayjian’s curiosity. “I am not a descendant of the Arba Lijoch,” he told the Armenian Weekly, “but I am a passionate and profound music lover, which is one of the factors driving me to produce this documentary.”

Kalayjian says that his intention is not to prevent the inevitable, that is, the decline of the number of Armenians in Ethiopia. “My documentary simply seeks to tell the phenomenal story of the Armenians of Ethiopia. It will describe the great historical and musical contributions Armenians have had in Ethiopia and bear witness to their current situation,” he explains. However, the bleak situation of the diminishing Armenian community is acknowledged though several examples, such as the country’s only Armenian church, St. Kevork, lacking a priest and a sermon. The deacon of St. Kevork’s is Vartkes Nalbandian, the son of Nerses Nalbandian—a jazz musician and instructor who wrote the first anthem of the African Union, and the great-nephew of Kevork Nalbandian, composer of the first Ethiopian national anthem, which was played until 1974 when the socialists overthrew the monarchy.

Corresponding to the Armenians’ rich involvement in the nation’s music scene, a few Ethiopian musicians have spoken candidly about the legacy of the Armenians, with warm words about the pint-sized community and its vast accomplishments. Alèmayèhu Eshèté, a prominent jazz singer endearingly called the Elvis Presley of Ethiopia, gave glowing praise to his mentor, the aforementioned Nerses Nalbandian, whom he considered as his “second father.”

Unfortunately, Eshèté remains in the minority. “Most Ethiopian lay people, as well as Armenians outside of Ethiopia, are simply unaware of the incredible contributions of Armenian Ethiopians on Ethiopian culture,” Kalayjian disappointedly notes. “Some Ethiopians see an Armenian and assume they are either European, American, or any other ‘Faranji’ (literally meaning ‘French,’ used to describe a foreigner, or ‘odar’ in Armenian). Armenians see this as a nuisance because in their heart, they feel Ethiopian and have lived [in Ethiopia] all of their lives. The only difference is the color of their skin and many people on the street won’t assume their generational presence in Ethiopia,” the filmmaker says.

Kalayjian seeks to “herald and preserve the great contributions Armenians have impressed on the cultural, musical, and historical landscape of Ethiopia” through his documentary, which stands a tough chance of being broadcasted.

In order for the documentary to meet its budget for production, Kalayjian needs to meet his fundraising goal of $10,000 by this Thurs., Aug. 9. Contributors may pledge varying amounts, with different prizes at each benchmark, on the project’s personal webpage, where preliminary interviews for the documentary are also posted. For more information about TEZETA and the Kickstarter fundraiser, visit and type “Armenian” in the search bar, or follow this link:

Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Her writing focuses on the confluence of identity, diaspora and language – especially within the global Armenian communities. She has a master’s degree in Human Rights from University College London and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Boston University, where she served on the ASA Executive Board. She is currently working on her inaugural poetry collection.


  1. Hi, I am a 38 year old Ethiopian and I know what Armenian Ethiopians contributed to our country and I am grateful. Ethiopian Armenians are part of us and our history. I wish them all the best whereever they are. I hope the current goverment understand their contribution to Ethiopia and return all the properties the previous goverment took from them.

    • Ethiopians listen well . I have been to more than 40 countries.. but as Armenian i find that the Ethiopian people are the closest to us …

  2. In mid 80′ my elementary school located at the site where Ghion Hotel is the then “Bete Mengest Timhrtbet”adjacent to the national palace.I think they closed it and expanded the hotel guess where they moved us to the Armenian school.The thing we enjoyed most was the playground facilities and it was a bit more accessible for kids of Arat killo so let me use the opportunity to thank the Armenians for shaping part of my childhood.

  3. Wow!!! I am an Eth 42years of age never her this before, but I knew our country was a home to 80 languages and close to that of Tribes/Nationalities.

    Difersity is always good.

  4. “King Selassie’s” proper name and title are Emperor Haile-Selassie I, and, whatever one may think of him, he deserves the respect of being given his full name (“Power of the Trinity”, not just “King Trinity”). It was he, as Ras Teferi Mekonnen, who welcomed Armenians seeking refuge during and after the genocide. This worked out well for both sides: the Armenians brought education, skills and entrepreneurial talent, helping to build commerce and industry, but represented no major power, and thus no threat.

    Your article also fails to point out the religious bond that was so important to both sides: the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is a “non-Chalcedonian” (or “Oriental”) church only a few decades younger than the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church (founded mid-, vs. early, IVth century). Ethiopian and Armenian Christians thus share a unique historical perspective, and their churches are in communion.

    I remember well the vibrant Armenian scene of the 1960s, with the Ararat Armenian Club, with its sports activities and its restaurant, at its hub. In those days, all Addis Ababans were aware of, and largely felt warmly toward, this community. But, as Armenians were mostly involved in business activities (with the music as a wonderful sideline), their lives were upended by the hard-core military/communist regime that took power in 1974. Many were ruined or badly squeezed and left, sadly for the country.

    Only very young Ethiopians would be unaware of all this. For all others, the Armenian-Ethiopian presence still lives on, both in their memories and as friends, neighbors and local entrepreneurs whose contributions deserve more recognition.

  5. When I was working in Addis Ababa City Culture and Information Bureau we made the inventory of Historical Houses in Addis Ababa where the majority of them were the result of Armenian Engineers of the time.Recently, I saw an elven floor sky scraper built next to Hampo Bogossihan historic house. I am so sad to see that I and my colleagues did our level best in the historic house preservation of Addis a decade ago. These quarters and historic places need an urgent restoration and conservation work.
    Dear Armenians brothers and sisters
    Having seen the good old days you had and you still have in Ethiopia why not embark to save these historic legacies? do start today please..

  6. Many Years I and my friends were in Atlanta, on a business trip from Ethiopia. While walking near our hotel we heard ” Endemin Walachihu” we looked around we could not see we could not see someone who looked like an Ethiopian. Again we heard the same voice, we looked around but the only person we could see was a middle aged “white” man. It was only when he waved and smiled we know the voice was his. He came and hugged us and we started talking and one of us asked if he was Greek. He seemed offended and he asked, ‘Have you ever met a greek who speaks Amarigna like me?’. He spoke ‘YeTera Amarigna’ indeed. The Armenians were Ethiopians and considered Amharic as their language too. They had a lot of love for Ethiopia and Ethiopians. That was one of their contributions and we love them for that.

    I grew up around Ras Mekonnen DilDiy and will never forget the hundred of peaches I age, stolen from Armenian Peachtrees. Thank you also for the memory

  7. It is quite a statement that every one of our Ethiopian guests has had nothing but warm memories of their interactions with Ethiopian-Armenians.

    Thank you Emperor Haile-Selassie I and Ethiopian people for giving shelter to many survivors of the AG.

  8. Dear Editor,i was born in Arat Killo behind 2nd Police Station. We had a lot of Armenians living arround the Area. Begining at Berhan &Selam Printing Press way to up Sidist Killo.Where Nazereth Girls school was in the middel of Armenian Neighbourhood.My mother had a girlfriend called chuni. They meet each other in Sidamo at the time of Italian invasion.They were talking to each other in wolamigna.There freindship lasted very long. As a child my mother took me there and was able to learn their friendship. They met at least twice a week. Through her she was able to meet another lady called Madalene.She was at the end the teacher of my mother on sewing matters.I still remember a beautifull shirt that my mother made me.,a yellow stuff with white stripes.To all that matters the Old Amenien school was in front of Madalene’s compound.
    The Amenian sports club and the club restaurant ,with few but selected Menue was also behind Nazreth school.The club resraurant is closed since a couple of years. what a pity !!!
    The same like the food oil fabric ,which was also situated in front of 2nd police station is also gone during Dergs era.
    These are the very few things which Arat Kilo to Sidest Kilo lost in time of march.
    Even though i live now out of Ethiopia, when i am on vacation in Ethiopia, i still recall the good memories which i also spent with my Amenian friends in Menilik school and the neibourhood.
    Once again,dear editor,thank you for giving me my memories back.

  9. I came back to this article after many days to find heartwarming messages and memories from Ethiopia. Thank you for sharing these stories.

    Unfortunately. I could not find any wikipedia entries on Nerses Nalbandian :(

  10. In the Piassa (Piazza) district of Addis, stands a lovely Armenian Church. Behind it there is a building which previously was the Armenian Community School. A hundred meters away there’s the Ararat Armenian club. This Addis neighbourhood during Haile Sellasie 1rst rule was full of Armenians, not forgetting also the Greeks who also had a church in the middle of Piassa.
    Most of the older generation of Ethiopians have fond memories of both communities who lived and worked in our country many marrying Ethiopian women.
    The terrible upheavals of the 1974 revolution affected all Ethiopians including the Greek Ethiopian and Armenian Ethiopian and I might add the Yemeni Ethiopians and the Italian Ethiopian communities. Many lost their properties and most fled the country. A great loss !
    But Armenians contributed a lot to Ethiopia’s cultural, economic and social life.
    Nerses Nalbandian epitomises this !
    Ethiopians today should remember this and I wish Armenians and especially Armenians whose parents lived here should come back and work and invest here. We will welcome them and we are deeply grateful for what their parents did for Ethiopia.

  11. As an Ethiopian Armenian, this article hits home for me because it brings back some great memories of my childhood in Ethiopia. My grandfather (Johannes Semerjibashian) was one of those that made many contribution to the freedom of Ethiopia during the WW II. Sadly the last 2 administrations in Ethiopia have rewritten history to the point that the current generation of Ethiopians know very little about the true Ethiopian and Armenian histories. Nevertheless, thanks for the memories….

    • Hello Johannes Semerjibashian. Are you related to the Johannes Semerjibashian whom John Hathaway Spencer in his book ‘Ethiopia at Bay’ refereed to as “the caretaker of the German legation” in Addis Ababa in 1945/46? Also, Professor Richard Pankhurst writes that this same Johannes Semerjibashian during the Facist occupation “produced a patriotic publication entitled Amde Berhan za Etopya”. If you are indeed that gentleman’s grandson, it would interest me a great deal to read and learn more about him. So, whatever you can share would be greately appreciated.

      Many thanks
      Yimeku Tamirat

  12. one day, i have heard the contribution of Armenian for Ethiopian Culture and Economy from radio. from that time onwards, i am eager to know their history, legacy and the overall situation. this day am student in Addis Ababa university. as a student, the only contribution expected from me was studding about the Armenians. now, i’m coming with my important research entitled as “foreign Imprints: Cultural Legacies of Armenian Community in Addis Ababa”. as much as possible , am tried to write everything, but more focus on cultural aspects. so everybody may have the acres to this paper.

  13. Dear Seminew Asrat, I am a journalist from Germany and I would be very interested in reading this paper. How can I contact you? Kind regards Florian

    • Dear Seminew …I am Armenian and i find that the Ethiopian people deserve our utmost sincere love and respect …

  14. Hi Yimeku…yes that was indeed my grandfather. As a matter of fact he was the one that used to print the underground paper Amde Berhan za Etopya…if there is a way send me your contact information…

  15. On behalf ALL Armenians around the globe we thank you for giving us a place when
    our homes were taken. A large embrace to Ethiopia.

  16. Yimeku, I certainly am the grandson of the Johannes Semerjibashian you mentioned, and yes that was my grandfather that was mentioned both by Hathaway and Pankhurst. My uncle W.A.J Semerjibashian used to be a judge in Addis and he also collaborated on several books with Pankhurst…

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