Conversations with Eritrean Musicians

Afwerki Teshome, musician

Afwerki Teshome, Kraar Musician, Kansas City, MO.

Setting out to define Eritrean music can be a daunting task. But realizing that this Africa’s newest country possesses a vibrant musical culture, and that it today parades the brightest local and international stars from the Horn-of-Africa region, - surpassing Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, combined- makes such a task worthy enterprise.

With a history dominated by gory details of foreign occupation, it is easy to forget that this resilient people on the bank of the Red Sea, whose Queen of Sheba enamored the great King Solomon, boasts of some of Africa’s most exotic cultures.

How much of the music has maintained intrinsic value; how much of it has been affected by external influences; and how have Eritrean immigrants influenced other world cultures?

Abraham Afwerki, Asmara.

In a society such as ours where we always find ourselves in a state of war and frequent exodus, there will always be some pitfalls in developing our music. But the tough times have also been inspirational and motivational. Some of us musicians assumed the difficult role of preserving our traditional music, moving with the wind of change but without loosing focus of the intrinsic values of our culture. Yes, I agree our music has changed. But this has not been negative, because all the traditional elements are still there. For lack of a better word, I’d say the music has progressed. On the other hand, if you look in the musical arrangement area, especially if you consider the famous bands of the 70's that are still remembered, one could say that our music has not progressed at all, and there may be some truth to it. But it is very difficult to measure the development of our music, and perhaps it is better to say that it is progressing and will hopefully continue to progress. However, since this progress also requires the full involvement and support of the public sector, including the information media and the private industries, the longest and the most difficult journey towards a progressive Eritrean music is ahead of us.


Abeba Haile, Asmara.

Eritrean musicians of the 60’s had a unique sound and style. Listen to the re-mix of Teberih Tesfahuney's old songs by Helen Meles, it really attracts me. You also had singers like Haile Ghebru and others, they were really great at that time. Their style, including the way they played the music and the way they dressed, was a perfect fit for that time, and I still have a strong admiration for them. But later on, as the atmosphere intensified for independence, music and cultural trends changed as well. In other words, I guess one can say that the musicians were forced to adapt to the pulse of the people. Lyrics, even instrumental rendition, and other styles appropriated nationalistic fervor - you may call it a patriotic yearning for the homeland. Now, if you take a look at the past seven years, or precisely, since Eritrea liberated from Ethiopia by the EPLF, everything has been more or less driven by national feeling and instinct. People who notice this trend sometimes come up to me and say that our music has improved from previous years and so on. But I let them know that it’s not the music that has changed, it’s just that styles have gravitated toward nationalistic moods. Period. As we now emerge from the stigma of a worn-torn nation into the onerous task of nation building, I am sure more efforts will be focused on evaluating and redefining Eritrean music. A lot of work must be done, there’s no doubt about this!

Idris Mohammed Ali, Asmara.

Talking about Eritrea’s music can be overwhelming. There are so many styles to discuss and so forth. I would say that I have been professionally engaged in music for over 20 years. I sing mostly in two languages, -Tigre and Arabic, and a little bit of Kunama. One of my joys today is that our youngsters have also embraced the music - both traditional and the modern arrangements we produce. You remember this year’s festival in Washington, DC, how many of the kids were singing along with me. I was pleasantly surprised to know that they knew most of my songs. The reaction was the same during our last musical tour in Italy, Germany, Sweden, England, Holland, and other cities in Europe. Some even approached me and asked about conditions back home. I am very pleased to see that those that were born and raised here have remained sensitive to their heritage. To me, this is one of the most satisfying part of touring the world with our music. I must say, though, that due to the compromising effects of mass exodus and emigrations, I believe more of our musicians should sing in Eritrean languages other than their own. There are limitations to doing this, like not having enough information about all the ethnic groups and so forth. However, if our desire is to truly develop the folklore traditional music, such as the Tigre, Bilen, Hdareb, Nara, Afar, Saho, TgriNa, Rashaida, to a much higher level, then we all must take responibility. All of us musicians, managers, producers, and our government back home must assume full responsi-bility to preserve our heritage. The kids are doing good, but more work needs to be done to reach more of our youth.

Sami Berhane, Washington, DC.

Compared to music from other parts of Africa, Eritrean music has a very unique rhythm. The dance styles are also unique, and indeed, distinct from Ethiopian or Sudanese. Many of our stars have helped to sustain this uniqueness - people like Idris Mohamed Ali, Abrar Osman, Yemane Gebremichael, Bereket Mengistab, & Osman Abdulrihm, and many others. My music basically vacillate between traditional and modern. I play traditional to reflect my culture and also play stuff with Western flavor to expand my musical horizon and abilities. Really, I am very broadminded when it comes to music. As for differences in styles between Eritrea musicians abroad and those at home, it’s only normal that those of us abroad have tainted our music a little bit - no matter how much we try to retain the intrinsic elements. We here are exposed to all kinds of influences - diversity of styles, larger selection of instruments, arranging techniques, studio practices, etc. Another thing too is that while we have more time to devote to love songs, musicians back home, until lately, were mostly preoccupied with the dire political situation in our country.



Afwerki Teshome, Kansas City.

I am excited to be part of a show that highlights the positive aspects of Eritrean people. My biggest excitement, really, is having to work with the St. Louis African Chorus, whose members, as you know, are Americans - this is exciting! I don’t think this has been done anywhere in the Diaspora before. In the past we have been very exclusive with our music and sharing of ourselves. This has not been intentional, I guess one can say no one really took a deep interest like the African Chorus has done. You see, they invited us, and we were only too glad to share. I have been working with Yohannes Medhane in St. Louis, and he in turn, with the help of other Eritrean volunteers in St. Louis, work with the African Chorus. I will be coming with Weldegaber, a great bass player who will supplement our efforts at the show. I play the kraar, a lyre-like guitar instruments, very native to our people. I will also play on other instruments, some of which are Western. But the whole show will revolve around traditional Eritrean marriage customs.

On October 24, 4:00PM, at the Sheldon Concert Hall, the St. Louis African Chorus collaborates with select guest artists for a rare presentation that will accentuate the lovely people of Eritrea. The spectacle of exquisite costumes, the transparent joy shown by local Eritreans, who have meticulously rehearsed the African Chorus’ performers, make this event a must-see for the whole family. The concert, "ERITREA: In Song and Dance" is essentially a mosaic of varying aspects of marriage customs. Exotic songs and dances, drawn from some of the nine ethnic groups, will precede the actual wedding dances.

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