Songs of the patriots
Africa’s youngest nation, Eritrea, sits on the northern part of the Horn of Africa, bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia and Djibouti in the south and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea, for which it is named. The story of modern Eritrean music – which reflects the influences of successive colonial; powers and the experience of emigration and war – is inextricably bound up with this small country’s long struggle for independence. As Dawit Mesfin explains, rebellion, hope, despair and, above all, the thrashing out of an Eritrean identity, are recurring themes.
The story of the music with which Eritreans mostly readily identify starts with the Ethiopian occupation. After centuries of rule by the Ottomans, Egyptians, Italians and British, a UN resolution to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia went into effect in 1952. Almost immediately, however, Eritrea’s autonomous rights were violated, sparking an armed struggle against the Ethiopian masters which lasted until Eritrea won independence in 1993. During those long decades, music assumed a special meaning to Eritreans. It was used to inspire the youth to join the struggle and to raise the political consciousness of the civilian population; to revive patriotism and shape identity.
Of course, Eritrea also has older, folkloric musics. The country’s estimated four million people fall into nine ethnic groups – Afar, Bilen, Hedareb, Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, Saho, Tigre, and Tigrinya – each of which has its own distinct culture, language and music. The Bilen and Tigre, for instance, share a beautiful dance called shelil, in which women dancers throw their braided hair left and right to an alluring rhythm. But even these older styles have a confrontational element: almost all Eritrea’s ethnic dances feature the waving of brandishing of sticks, swords and daggers.
During the 1950s, the sense among many Eritreans that their country was slowly being swallowed by its bigger neighbour was expressed through music and conversation in the tearooms and secret drinking holes of the capital, Asmara. A musician playing krar – a handheld five-string harp-like instrument – would start singing songs about life under foreign occupation, and those gathered around would clap and join in.
Before long, these protest singers began forming musical groups with the aim of challenging the foreign culture that was engulfing their country. The most significant of these was the Mahber Theatre Asmara (aka Asmara Theatre Association or MaTA), which was established in August 1961, just a few weeks before the Eritrean independence struggle reached a point of no return. Within a very short period, MaT’A gave birth to modern Eritrean music, turning out powerful protest songs and expanding its ranks to include many now-legendary musicians. Songs such as “Shigey Habuni” (Hand me my Flambeau) took the city by the storm, and soon attracted the attention of the censors. Others, such as “Eti Ghezana Abi Hdmo” (Our Big Family Unit) and “Adey Adi Jeganu” (My Home, Land of Heroes) were engraved in the hearts of many of the youngsters who later flocked to join the frontline. Every bar and tearoom in major towns played MaT’A music.
MaT’A’s leading “actors” included Tewelde Redda, who broke new ground by introducing the electric guitar to the Eritrean scene in the 1960s. His contribution as a soloist, especially, was monumental, and many people still hum his songs, such as “Seb mKwaney” (Being Human) and “Ney Fi Tretna Yigermeni” (The Mystery of Our Creation). Redda’s songs contributed to the development of the liberation movement, which he eventually joined in the 1970s. He faded in exile and has not always received the recognition he deserves, but Eritreans of his generation regard him as an icon.
Another key player was Alamin Abdeletif, who represented the Tigre culture and became something of a lowlands figurehead. In the late 1960s and early 70s he was jailed for protest songs such as “Seb nKebdu Tray Aikonen Zinebr” (A Man Does Not Only Live to Eat). Today, after four decades of continuous performance, he is still actively involved in the scene. And his songs in Tigre and Tigrinya, such as “Yima” and “Abay Abashawul”, remain ingrained in people’s hearts.
Other important MaT’A members included Atoweberhan Segid, Osman Abdelrahim and Tebereh Tesfa Hunegn. The latter, although she didn’t write her songs, was the best vocalist and most colourful Eritrean entertainer of the 1960s and 70s. She is remembered for the audacious performances of provocative songs – such as “Nsu Msai Ane Msti” (He is with Me but I am with the Other) and “Eti Gezana Abi Hdmo, tiK-wan Qunchi Meli’omo” (Our Big House is Filled with Fleas and Lice) – that she would give to cheering university crowds. Like many other artists, Tebereh joined the liberation front in the late 1970s and sustained several wounds in the battlefield. Sadly, she never fully recovered from a head injury, but her legacy has been picked up by another ex-fighter: diva Helen Meles.
As well as turning out ground-breaking music, MaT’A also paved the way for groups such as Rocket, Merhaba and Zeray Deres. Today there is an avenue in Asmara named after the organization and the old MaT’A songs are still played, inside and outside Eritrea.
Guayla, literally party music, is the most popular form of music for entertainment’s sake, though even this can become politicized. A traditional dance originating in the highland villages, guayla takes different forms in different areas. In the villages, it features in weddings, engagements and other festivals, but can also break out anytime and anywhere: a person starts singing and those gathered around will join in, clapping their hands and singing in a call-and-response style.
Guayla is placed in two stages: kudda and sbra. During the kudda stage, the dancers move in a circle to a drum played slightly faster than one beat per second. There is not much shaking of the shoulders, nor twists and turns: the dancers just move along slowly, shuffling their legs in time with the booming drumbeat. Half way through the dance, the singer, usually the krar player, or the abo guayla (leader) tells the drummer to speed up with the instruction “Derb!” At this stage, sbra kicks in and the tempo is doubled. The dancers crouch, shrug their shoulders and get wilder, and the women begin to ululate more loudly and more frequently. Shaking their shoulders, the dancers pair up, gyrate, jump and occasionally rub back to back.
The drum used in guayla, the keboro, is made out of hide wrapped and tied around a big tin can, and strapped around the shoulder. Other traditional instruments, if available, give the whole affair more zest. These include the chira waTa (single-string violin), embelta (deep, monotone horn) and shambuQo (traditional flute). A more modern guayla version, with band accompaniment, is found in the cities.
If guayla has the king, it has to be Bereket Mengisteab, a legendary musician who operated from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. He dominated Eritrean music for over decades, starting in the mid-1960s with melodic, apolitical songs recorded in Ethiopia. In this time, he was the only Eritrean artists to be played on the radio. His beautiful compositions, stage presence, deft krar playing and use of the Tigrinya language assured his popularity. In the mid-1970s, Mengisteab joined the liberation movement, but he continued to entertain and inspire fighters with music. Today, a civilian once again, and nearing 70, he is still one of the most sought-after Eritrean artists.
The genre’s queen, meanwhile, is 60-something Tsehaytu Beraki, generally considered the mother of Eritrean soul. She encouraged Eritreans to unite around their cultural background and values with memorable songs such as “Abashwaul”, “May Jahah” and “Mejemerya Fikri”, touching their hearts and fuelling their patriotism. Tsehaytu personified guayla music for more than three decades and, with her elegant, smooth krar sound, earned the undying affection of a huge audience.
Ambassadors and Icons
Born in Asmara in 1970, Abraham Afewerki left Eritrea in 1979 and, like many Eritreans at the time, went to the Sudan, where he was active in the Children’s Cultural Group. While still there, in his early teens, he wrote his first songs. He later spent time in Italy but now lives and works in Washington DC. He writes his own songs and plays krar, guitar, percussion and keyboards, and his music reflects the influences of all the countries in which he has lived and travelled. His live performances (especially his dance routines) have mesmerized Eritreans all over the world, helping him to become the country’s best-known musician internationally. Unusually for Eritrean music, his lyrics are not at all euphemistic when it comes to love.
Afewerki may be Eritrean music’s greatest ambassador, but the ultimate icon is Yemane Baria (Yemane Ghebremichael), widely considered to be the country’s greatest-ever singer. Although he did not venture onto the international scene, the sheer power of his traditional and modern ballads made him a hero among Eritreans, his music epitomizing their personal and collective struggles. Though Eritreans have long been divided between government supporters and opponents, Baria somehow bridged this gulf – and the gulfs between young and old, highlanders and lowlanders, diaspora and locals. He was loved for his soothing voice, unusually slow guayla rhythms and his powerful, straight-to-the-heart lyrics.
Baria was most musically active in the 1970s and 80s, before Eritrean independence. Ironically, his capacity to express himself freely was somewhat restricted in post-independence Eritrea, though he managed to produce two memorable CDs in the 1990s, which can easily be found in any Eritrean community shops abroad, or an Eritrean websites such as Asmarino.com. He remained true to his humanist roots until his death in 1997.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
The predominant theme grant that guided Eritreans musicians from the 1950s was love of the motherland. Hagery (“my country”) could very well be the most frequently used word in Eritrea’s musical vocabulary. Some artists, such as Tesfai Mehari, TeKle Kiflemariam and Gual Ankere, were literally raised in the battlefields.
As such, a preponderance of songs about freedom, unity, heroism and comradeship has meant that other emotions – such as love and heartache – have long taken a backseat. And the resistance was not always healthy for the music in other ways, too. Bands sometimes split due to their members’ political affiliations, and many artists who went into exile, like Tsehaytu Beraki, did not resettle in Eritrea after independence because of an excess of bloody memories.
Unfortunately, in the post-independence era Eritrean musical culture has not really broadened and developed. Its scope is still narrow, and few of today’s reflect the reality of life in the country. There’s a sense that Eritrean artists need to put nationalism behind them and move on.
Thanks to Francis Falceto for assistance with this discography.
Discography – Eritrea
The Best of 2000
Afro Sound, Canada
An authoritative collection, produced and arranged to showcase Eritrea’s musical vitality and variety. Fighters and civilians, men and women, Muslim and Christian, young and old – all are represented on a track list featuring the likes of Alamin Abdeletif and Elsa Kidane.
Ethiopiques 5: Tigrinya Music
Buda Musique, France
Made in 1970-75, these recordings from Tigray (northern Ethiopia) and Eritrea include tracks by a number of resistance fighters. There are early cuts by Tsehaytu Beraki and Tewelde Redda, plus, three from Eritrean drummer/singer Tekla TefsaEzighe (which were surpressed in the 1970s and got their first airing on this 1988 CD). Typically of the Ethiopiques series, the notes are excellent.
Eritrea’s leading musical ambassador, Abraham Afwerki was the first person from the country to release a CD internationally (his kozli Gaba album, from 1991). A compelling singer and natural innovator, he has a unique style – an update of the traditional guayla sound
Negarit Productions, US
This album from 2000 combines the subtle flavour of the krar with beautifully arranged electric and acoustic sounds. The songs (one of them written as a teenage exile in Sudan) feature touching lyrics, danceable grooves and a few melodies that seem to be borrowed from the neighbouring Sudan and Ethiopia.
Faytinga developed her extraordinary musical talents between 1977 and 1991 – while she was fighting for Eritrea’s liberation – and recorded her debut album, Numey, for the French label Cobalt in 2000. Her mixed ethnicity (Kunama, Bilen and Tigrinya), ties to the independence movement, striking looks and high, girlish voice have ensured broad appeal.
Faytinga’s second international release is a pleasantly varied selection of her own compositions, steeped in various Eritrean traditions but also reflecting the influence of neighbouring countries. The lyrics celebrate Eritrea’s birth, the bravery of its fighters and everyday village life. Krar, wata, flute and percussion – plus unobtrusive programming and guitar – are topped by Faytinga’s soaring voice.
Helen Meles is an Eritrean diva whose music encompasses a wide range of styles, both local and international. As well as her own compositions, she’s known for her recordings of songs by the legendary Tebereh Tesfahuney – especially on the album Ti gezana Abi hdmo.
reseAni (Forget Me)
Sembel Multimedia Productions, US
Meles’ third CD, from 2004, mixes traditional Tigrinya styles with European, Arabic and African influences. For instance, “mnAs feTari” puts a gospel- like accompaniment behind South African beats
Like other popular artists of her day, Tsehaytu Beraki became increasingly politicized as the independence struggle intensified, and she eventually joined the liberation front. She’s now based in the Netherlands.
- Selam (Peace)