As those well know who have encountered it at the Asmara restaurant in Adams-Morgan, Aster Aweke's voice is a world apart, and not just because the Ethiopian singer performs in Amharic. It is, in fact, startling in its emotion and intensity, as one British critic noted, "in turns playful, ethereal, earthy, plaintive and volcanic ... {flitting} from the intimate to the spine-chilling with effortless grace."

Aweke, whose first major-label album was recently released on Columbia, has been called "The Voice of Ethiopia," that nation's Queen of Soul, with frequent comparisons to America's Queen, Aretha Franklin. The rhythms may be different (though danceable), and the scale may be unfamiliar, but like Franklin, Aweke's vocals often glide into hair-raising ecstasy, with as many swoons, dips, glides and twists as a falling leaf. Since Aweke is singing about love and other old-fashioned heart troubles, that shouldn't be too hard to understand. It's pain and passion beyond language.

"I always feel when they first listen to it they will think 'space music,' " Aweke says with a laugh, sipping tea in the bay window at Asmara. "It's because they're not used to this kind of thing."

"They" are non-Ethiopians. Ethiopians, both at home and (since 1983) here, have been appreciating Aweke's astounding performances, but she is little known outside the Abesha (Abyssinian) community. That may well change with the release of the Columbia album, and some are predicting that Aweke could do for Ethiopian music what Miriam Makeba has done for South African music. The fact that the music has a soulful, danceable edge certainly won't hurt.

Aweke was born in Begemdr, near the small city of Gonder, and began to sing with local bands as a teenager, mostly in the clubs and hotels of the capital city, Addis Ababa (often performing English-language hits for tourists less interested in "native" music). Since the '60s, traditional Ethiopian music has been cross-fertilizing with Western pop styles and technologies -- part of that world beat wave critics constantly allude to and consumers continually disregard -- and Aweke soon found herself at the crossroads of the traditional and the modern.

"If I heard something I liked, I tried to mix it, but just a little, not changing the whole system," Aweke says. At times, she was criticized (mostly by her elders) for sounding "too Western, too modern." But the younger fans embraced the music. ("It's good, they grow old with you always," Aweke says with a smile.) Part of the attraction may have been Aweke's disregard for the restraint and decorum of traditional music. "I used to be tense -- moving my mouth only -- but with me it doesn't work," she says. "I have to make myself happy."

Aweke left Ethiopia in 1981, at a time when women singers were still not part of the cultural firmament. "Now everybody sings, they change the ideology, but in my time it was hard, nobody accepted me. I had to leave home and I had to disappear for a moment." After a couple of years on the West Coast, she moved to Washington, attracted by its large Abesha community.

"But there was no music going on here, though there were lots of restaurants. When I left home, my aim was to go to school, get some more education, but as soon as I got that I was grouchy, I was nervous, I wasn't happy at all. I didn't like it when I came here."

She briefly attended Northern Virginia Community College, studying computers and taking a first shot at formal music training. "I thought they might show me secret scales," Aweke says. "I thought there was something that I didn't know." But sight reading stumped her and the heart of her music remained internalized. "I think my voice is a virgin."

Before long, Aweke landed a job singing at Asmara one night a week "and I felt better." Soon, she was singing every weekend, dancing the eskita (it involves the sinuous shaking of the shoulders) and attracting increasingly larger crowds. Still, until an appearance last year on David Sanborn's TV show "Night Music," the crowds at Asmara were, according to Aweke, "100 percent Ethiopian. You didn't see anyone else, unless they were married to an Ethiopian or were a friend." Like the food, the music was "so different. I had never thought 'How come Americans don't come and see me? They come to eat the food but they don't stay to listen to the music.' " After "Night Music," she adds, "I started getting Americans and they seemed to enjoy it."

What they enjoy is not only the soulfulness and exquisiteness of Aweke's voice, but the music's eminently danceable rhythms. "Anything with a beat, you can just get up and move around, you can stay always with the beat." Aweke's less hopeful about the language barrier, though reviews of both her album and performances have been uniformly positive: "This is great soul music in any language," said Manchester's Guardian. In Tokyo, lyrics were provided in Japanese, English and Amharic.

"Whenever I'm on the stage the first thing I think is, 'What am I doing here? People don't understand what I'm talking about, they don't know the language, they don't know the scale, they don't know the culture -- what are they going to do with me?' Well I'll try, and I'll see their response. They know I'm talking about love."

And apparently they love what she's talking about without the benefit of subtitles. English translations suggest that Aweke's terrain is as old as the hills of Dire Dawa. On "Etite!" (Shivering), she mourns "I doubt whether I can survive the month/ My love, come quick/ I'm not used to this baptism of cold/ Ever since I left you I have no warmth left in me/ I cannot believe how I have survived at all. ... My trouble starts as the sun sets/ feeling depressed, feeling loveless, endless melancholy/ I wish these things on nobody."

Aweke's songs are haunted by love, both bittersweet and giddy, like life itself. Her visibility should get a big boost with Columbia's "Aster" (originally released last year on the British independent label, Triple Earth). It's a sort-of best-of, using many of the most popular songs from her 11 cassette releases, benefiting from new arrangements and improved recording technology (Rockville's Omega Studio and a studio in London). This is the album that elicited rave reviews all over Europe; a new album is planned for early next year, and will be more focused on its crucial instrument, Aweke's voice, which she says is somehow too "covered. On the next one you will be able to hear it better." While waiting for a showcase concert here, Aweke has been doing occasional concerts around the country. She has not performed here this year and says she misses singing every weekend: "I have nothing to do." As for the easy comparisons, she says she's wary of being called the Aretha Franklin of Ethiopia. "I like her style and voice, but I'd like to be called Aster. Maybe {Franklin} could become known as the Aster of America," Aweke says. "That's better."