Musical Sentinels of the Ethiopian American Diaspora

Fleeing the Ethiopian revolution that began in 1974, many Ethiopian musicians received asylum in the United States, where they anchored vibrant new communities.

Ethiopian musicians playing instruments on a green field in Cambridge

Musicians were among the first to leave the Horn of Africa when a military junta took power in Ethiopia. Musicians always played an important role in Ethiopian history and culture, but the revolution brought restrictive curfews that made public performances impossible and many musicians were harassed and arrested for suspected political action. 

Ethnomusicologist Kay Kaufman Shelemay lived in Addis Ababa during the first two years of the revolution and over the following four decades chronicled the journeys and lives of musicians who became part of the new Ethiopian diaspora in the United States. Her new book, Sing and Sing On: Sentinel Musicians and the Making of the Ethiopian American Diaspora (University of Chicago Press, 2022) demonstrates that these “sentinel” musicians did more than continue to make music in a new homeland; they helped to create cohesive communities, revitalized Ethiopian musical traditions, and served as guides and mentors for younger musicians.

In this StoryMap, we learn about the journeys of five musicians of different backgrounds and ages and enjoy some of their original music along the way.


Kay Kaufman Shelemay is a Faculty Associate and cochair of the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Religion in Public Life in Africa and the African Diaspora at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She is the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University. Her research interests include ethnomusicology; musical ethnography; African Horn and new African communities abroad; migration; diaspora; memory; and ritual studies.