Fine-tuning traditional instruments
Traditional music and musical instruments no longer hold an esteemed place in urban lifestyle of Ethiopia; in fact, many have lost respect for the skill and art of crafting such musical instruments. The death of negarit and embilta, traditional instruments which had a significant role in Ethiopian culture and history, showcases this disappearing art of crafting traditional musical instruments in urban areas, writes Hiwot Abebe.
Tasew Wendem learned to play the washint as a sheepherder growing up in Wollo and has been playing professionally for the past 7 years. Playing the washint is a favorite past time activity in rural Ethiopia, young boys learning how to make their own and practice classic Ethiopian tunes. Unlike the now defunct traditions of keeping certain professions in the family, the crafting of traditional musical instruments has endured. Although mobile phone penetration in rural areas may have made washint crafting pointless considering the availability of radio and cellphones with music storage spaces, most musicians playing these instruments learned the skill from their parents, especially in rural areas, with few taking the initiative to learn on their own.
Traditional Ethiopian music famously originating during St. Yared era, 3000 years ago, is played in four scales, namely Tizita, Bati, Ambasel and Anchihoye with the use of various instruments, the most popular of which are washint, masinko, kirar and kebero. The selection of these 4 instruments and the inclusion of a singer make up the modern cultural music band that is commonly seen today. According to Teferi Assefa, an instructor at the Addis Ababa University Yared School of Music and a percussionist with decades of experience, this first setup was used by the Ethiopian Orchestra, a band with members from various parts of the country, assembled by artist and cultural expert Tesfaye Lemma in the 1960s.
Historically, these instruments and many others have been used in religious proceedings, celebrations, weddings, funerals and other social events in various communities in Ethiopia. Music is a significant element of a community’s culture and way of life. It is the soundtrack that creates the pace of daily activities.
With the advent of western music and instruments, the tide has shifted in the past decade or so, especially in city centers. The Kasanchis area in Addis Ababa used to be a center of cultural entertainment – azmari bets could be found every few meters. These establishments save one (Fendika Cultural Center), have made way for bars, stationary stores and new buildings, now. Azmari bets are being pushed away from the center, in a city in a constant state of expansion. There are of course cultural restaurants in Addis, which Teferi says differ from the traditional azmari setting. These restaurants cater to an increasingly foreign audience, introducing Ethiopian food, music and dance to those unfamiliar with the country’s culture. Azmari bets, typically found in lower economy areas attract locals and there is an active interaction between performers and audience.
Locals in search of live music can go to various bars and restaurants in Addis but it is only a handful of places that host traditional Ethiopian musical entertainment evenings. Some bands integrate traditional instruments with ‘modern’ ones, but most find the balance difficult. Ethio-jazz, pioneered by Mulatu Astatke, is one genre that has perfected this blend of sounds, featuring instruments and sounds espeically from the Southern region of the country. Through the efforts of Mulatu, Great attention and support has been given from various institutions and musicians and music lovers in the country, leading to the well-developed and popular stage Ethio-jazz enjoys today. But Teferi adds that there is a lack of knowledge in using instruments integrating Ethiopian and other sounds.
Academic support is undoubtedly essential to the development of traditional musical instruments but from the many music schools in the city very few focus on traditional musical instruments. According to Teferi, traditional instruments are offered as supplementary course at the Yared School of music for 45 minutes per week.
Ethiopian instruments are sometimes given western equivalents (Kirar is similar to guiltar, washint the flute and begena the harp), either to make them more palatable to western audiences or to elevate them to the status of western instruments even though there is no need for comparisons. Ethiopian instruments, usually played on the pentatonic scale, have a different sound and range from these ‘equivalents’. “Why don’t they just play the guitar if they want kirar to sound like that?” Teferi asks.
There is no standardized design for Ethiopian instruments. Since the skill has thus far been passed through the generation, each designer has different models for production. Some washint players carry a dozen washints with them to achieve different sounds depending on the song they are playing.
Wanza, the wood historically used to craft instruments due to its high density, is now replaced by cheaper alternatives. Zerfu Demissie, a begena designer and player, uses Kerero from the Sidama locality in Southern Region, an expensive type of wood difficult to find in other places. Building musical instruments is not a primary source of income for many craftsmen in Addis Ababa. Most craftsmen work with wood producing furniture and other household items. The lack of standardization means varying instruments by a wide range of artisans. Zerfu still builds his begenas using sheep gut, instead of the more modern wire or nylon strings.
Begena is not the only one that has seen string replacement. Kirar and Masinko have experienced similar substitutions. Some of these changes have made the instruments easier to use and more effective. The wooden tuners on the kirar have been replaced by metallic tuning pegs typically seen on a guitar, making it easier to change tune and improved the instrument’s range. Some musicians have added 5 more strings to the kirar, creating a challenging but more diversified instrument.
Haddis Alemayehu (HaddinQo), a masinko player with Messebo band, tries to innovate a lot with his instrument. He added another string to test out a varying sound; he used a longer and thicker bow to create a longer more sustained note; he experiments with genres like blues and rock and roll, pushing the masinko to the limit.
The question these new innovations bring is one of authenticity. Music in the country has evolved, shouldn’t the instruments? Tasew is of the opinion that certain changes cannot be considered growth because they are dismissing the existing culture. “Change in instrument means change in culture.” The washint sounding or looking more like the flute isn’t necessarily development, he adds. He hopes traditional music can attract a larger audience before discussing what growth can mean. Haddis says growth or evolution is a contentious concept. “We can keep 3000 year old tradition separate from these changes”. By experimenting with the instruments and testing what other sounds they can produce outside of the pentatonic scale, he hopes to create new genres of music.
Teferi says most musicians equate development with sounding western. His argument is that these instruments should be used to amplify and explore Ethiopian culture, mining for underexposed sounds. The southern Ethiopia region has a wealth of musical instruments close to extinction. “Most parents would rather their children become doctors or engineers instead of traditional musicians,” says Teferi. The learning of these instruments is no longer passed down through the generations. He adds that traditional music no longer holds an esteemed place in society; many have lost respect for the skill. Dinka is a thin wind instrument that is 4.5 to 5 meters long and only found among the Dawro people in the South. Teferi says a handful of people still know how to play the instrument and if not preserved well, will likely die.
Teferi mourns the death of negarit and embilta. Negarit is a percussion instrument that played a significant role to Ethiopian culture and history. It is especially memorable as an announcement tool when the king had a message, as a call to arms during times of war. Made of either lion or elephant leather with a long production period to produce a single piece (6 to 12 months) there are no craftspeople knowledgeable enough to build one today. Embilta enjoys infrequent use in some areas of north Ethiopia like Tigray but has subsided from popular usage in the past 50 years.
Begena has experienced a revival in the past few years after a strong effort by Mahebere Kidusan, Orthodox Christian church’s religious association, the German Cultural Center and many impassioned individuals. Their endeavors led to the opening of many begena schools and books published on the history and usage instruction of the instrument. The instrument had fallen out of use even in Orthodox Churches and this resurgence made it available to a wider and more diverse audience.
Proper study and institutional support is necessary for the continued application and development of these instruments. Documenting dead instruments and working towards their restoration is essential. While many buy instruments as decorative items in their households or places of business, the application of the instrument is falling to the side. Schools focused on transmitting the crafting and playing knowledge are important to the cultural music resurgence Tasew hopes for.
Teferi jokes that a possible revival of azmari bets is in the form of a kaldi’s café like setting. It is possible to innovate new ways to host events featuring traditional musicians. Institutional and government support and the innovative skills of young entrepreneurs are necessary to the survival of these instruments. Musicians like Mulatu and Teferi’s band Negarit research these instruments and mine Ethiopian culture for sound samples. the popularity of Ethio-Jazz has introduced many instruments to the public and emerand emergingmuscians. Experimental musicians are paving the way for the evolution of music and the application of instruments.