Published On  Oct 30,  2011






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With musicians from various regions of Ethiopia bringing traditional, cultural music back to life in their musical endeavors, the envisioned cultural renaissance might in fact be materializing.

Cultural Revitalization

Bringing Renaissance Closer via Music

Decades ago, traditional music was flourishing in respective localities. Those were the days that music was used as a means of conveying expressions of praise and glamorizing men and women of high class in the social strata. Gallant fighters or reputed hunters were also admired and praised to the skies; sometimes with the intent of persuading others to go fight and win against an enemy.

Apart from expressing admiration, these musicians gradually started playing instruments like the Masinko and the Kirrar to accompany their own voices and that of their partners. The lyrics contained ideas and remarks meant to convey double-edged messages, sometimes with the use of bad pun with the potential to trigger provocations.

Such performances were often heard at local pubs where there were pretty women that tended to laugh and giggle for no reason other than for pretence and flirtation with potential clients. Competing customers try to use the singer as a tool to slander and disrepute others by ordering him to repeat the lyrics dictated by the two opposing parties, who would often be intoxicated. The motive may often be to intimidate the competitor and win over the waitresses. Sometimes, these incidents culminate in swallowing oneís own teeth, as the saying goes.

In due course, musical migration to urban centers became the drive of the times as cultural singers discovered something very lucrative in the effort. There was no gainsaying in their name making and fame in the process.

Over the years however, modern music usurped their glory and pushed them out of the limelight towards the back bench. With the opening of modern schools, the introduction of expatriate teachers and the establishment of musical bands of the army, the police and the Royal Guard, a new breed of musicians and vocalists emerged along the Hagher Fikir Theatre traditional music band.

Talented singers such as Assefa Abate, Firew Hailu, Mezmur G. Wold, Etagegnhu Haile, Negatua Kelkay and Ferede Golla were only a few of the shining stars of traditional music played at the Hager Fikir Theatre.

Expatriate music teachers, who also helped to start the marching bands, acquainted the youth with the basics of western music and taught them to read notes and play instruments. They used to also present shows and performances outside of the metropolis.

That was when an Egyptian schoolmaster discovered a talented student who had extraordinary vocal talent in singing the flag hoist anthem, Tilahun Gessese.

Tilahun, who had later been crowned with an Honorary Doctorate degree for his musical excellence, had climbed up the ladder of fame and affection. His special genre and style of connecting with the audience, by way of translating the meaning of the lyrics in his facial expressions, was outstanding.

Looking at Tilahun as a role model for singers who aspire to be successful and accomplished is manifested in the hard fact that almost every competing singer tries to emulate him by singing one of his 470 plus pieces.

Seen from the perspective of developing Ethiopian music based on the folkloric songs of the pre-war period, Tilahunís style of singing cannot go unabated. In fact, many critics place the blame of diversion on the lack of professional music critic. They claim that it is formidable not being able to identify the origins of the hubris of modern Ethiopian music.

Their arguments seem to hold water as some of these songs seem to have tunes of Sudanese or Somali melodies fused together with local creations. But this is no fault of the singers at all. Similarly, there is no denying the fact that singers such as Tilahun Gessese, Almayehu Eshete, and Bizunesh Bekele have made a significant impression in the musical landscape of Ethiopia.

One cannot easily identify the origins of the pieces. Take Tizeta for instance; no matter who sings it with whatever accompanying instrument, it cannot be mistaken for another rhythm. This is because it has its origins in traditional Ethiopian music.

Even amid the ongoing cultural diversions, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. Musicians from varying regional states are revitalizing the cultural songs within their domain. The Wolayta folkloric songs in particular, appear to be stealing the lime light. Some of the music bands in the Oromya and Amhara regions are also reinstating their cultural plays and songs. If this is not a step in the right track of renaissance, I wonder what would be.  It seems that the envisioned cultural renaissance is materializing albeit slowly.  



BY Girma Feyissa




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