Monday, March 26, 2012

A Conversation with Abba Berhanemeskel Matewos

Abba Berhanemeskel Matewos

Part One:
Issayas: Would you briefly tell us about yourself?
My name is Abba (Father) Berhanemeskel Matiewos, a Capuchin Friar from Asmara, Eritrea. Before getting to the monastery, I lived in Decamhare, Eritrea where I was attracted by the presence of the Capuchin Friary. I had my first education in Decamhare. I finished my middle school studies in Embatkalla and my high school in Mendefera. My journey to music started at a very young age in Embatkalla and Mendefera. Then I studied Philosophy in Decamhare and Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. I returned to Asmara, Eritrea and continued my studies in Theology. I was ordained as a priest in Asmara after I finished my studies.

I had been a teacher in high schools, teaching subjects such as mathematics, computers, languages, music arts and drawings. I had been a director of academic schools and small institutions. I have two BA degrees. One is in Accounting and the second one is in Computer Science from St. John University, Queens’s campus, New York, in 1996, and from Lehman College in the Bronx, NY, in 2001, respectively. In 1999, I also received an MBA degree in MIS from Marywood University, Scranton, Pennsylvania.

At present, I am teaching music to 4th – 6th grade students in Asmara, Eritrea, who would be able to play the piano by reading notes. The program is a continuation of the music choir established in the year 1974. The main aim is to upgrade the quality of church music by graduating piano players who would hopefully in the future be able to interpret Ge’ez songs and introduce Ge’ez songs internationally. Believing that it’s high time to produce quality songs, I wrote four books in Tigrigna (Fidel Dimzi,Nibab Milikitin: both are books to learn and play the piano the hard way, Laza kana – Muzika: about the interpretation of sound or music) to preserve a sound understanding of music, a proper education of piano and flute lessons and other musical instruments. The aim of the books is to build a solid base in music arts' field so that students may be confident with the music as well as with the Ziema literature.

The front cover of one of Abba Berhanemeskel's book

I am very tuned to translate the Ziema-milikit into European notation style. This research is meant to investigate the gap that exists between the two cultures. The update can be a clarification of music note of Ziema and may be enforcement to its music notation system or script (milikit). Of course, the big gap of Geez-note is the missing block of the whole issue of our Ziema-geez. It needs a dedicated and a determined will to fill up such gap. The gaps are: the lack to indicate a single note in Ge’ez milikit, and no system that reply the Ziema-ge’ez, i.e. lack of music instrument to replay the Ziema, and of course some of consequences that requires to set a system. I wish this is a favored time to restore our Ziema-geez treasure of art and to preserve the Ziema-chant through a viable Ziema notation system.

At this time I am interested in writing books of music. I am dedicating an intensive research to find a standard solution of Ziema-ge’ez, namely to collect the data of basic notes and to imprint them in a standard piano. Therefore I am developing part of my time for research in order to preserve the Ziema-ge’ez, so the young generation can use it as part of their culture and develop it as a new development of human skills in the area of world music (it may yield a new scale). Beside pastoral activity I am intending to be involved more on computer issues for example, to understand our identity and to fix few of the double standard of the computer alphabets of Tigrigna, that makes uncomfortable for any “Tigrigna typist”. This problem relates with many important issue, like the Ziema-ge’ez of writing poetry and the annotating of notes’ script.

Issayas: For people who don’t know about Ge’ez and Ziema, would you briefly describe what they are?

Abba Berhanemeskel: The description of Ziema and the style of Geez, I believe it is a question of reading books about it. The word Ge’ez describes the people that live in Eritrea and Ethiopia,
since the languages spoken on these areas depend directly from the formal Geez language. Later the word Ge’ez was added to Ziema (chant), this stands to clarify the special song of these people. At the end, even the people Ge’ez, made their selection to adapt a certain form of song, called Ge’ez, that is attributed as a song to God Father. Therefore, when the two words are tied together, Ziema-Ge’ez, it means the song dedicated to God the Father. The word Ziema is just a translation of song, chant, or form of carol.

Issayas: Even though I don’t agree with it, I’ve heard people argue that Ge’ez is a “dead language”. How do you reply to that kind of argument?

Abba Berhanemeskel: I was discussing some updating issue on the Tigrigna characters to be imprinted in the computer system with professional people of big computer companies; I had a reply that this company would not consider any discussions on such matter. They said they would never be interested on it, because it is a dead language or character. I think it is a problem that arises from a misunderstanding. I am sure, no one can say that Latin is a dead language, for the Roman Catholic Church has been using it for centuries, and many scientific words come directly from it, and it is a building block to the subsidiary romance languages. Among the few of these romance languages some are closer to Latin than the others, but they all are new generation of Latin basis. My reply is that to be interested on these old languages such as Ge’ez is a search of ourselves; i.e. our identities. Therefore, Ge’ez for us is a formal base and a common value of history. How many people and cultures are there with no references of their background in history? I wish that all languages that exist in the world had a source or a mother tongue like we have. I feel it is not only about being proud of, but it is a matter of recognizing the cultural and historical sources of a language. I am proud for Geez people who have their own song, script, tradition, and language. This makes me think that there are sources that no one has a right to do away with it at any level. If we want to recognize the history, this is one, I believe.

Issayas: You mentioned that you like to be involved more on computer issues like understanding our identity to fix few of the double standard of the computer alphabets of Tigrigna, that makes uncomfortable any “Tigrigna typist”. This problem relates with many important issue, like the ziema-ge’ez in writing poetry and the annotating of notes’ script. Would you elaborate?

Abba Berhanemeskel: The alphabet typing of Tigrigna has come up with great resolutions: from Geez gate to Geez TypeNet. The new edition was useful for it cleared some difficult problems
that existed with the previous version. Geez TypeNet also resolved some issue of internet giving free access and support to internet users, reshaped the size of fonts, and smoothed some intricate forms of typing. However the TypeNet couldn’t resolve the whole issue for it was confined in the 255 size of alphabet space. The last version built around 2000: the Geez Mahtem Unicode has a lot of advantage from its predecessors, especially for it gained large size of alphabet space. The wide space of alphabet, beside any preferences of fonts and shape, has more than necessary space to accommodate the Geez alphabet. However, this system appears to have problem of inconsistency with single keys and in other part a kind of double standard issue especially in dealing with the vowels (seeing from the end point of keyboard). I see an inconsistency in these points:

1. All geez alphabets should be considered as consonant for each of them needs to be aggregated to the 7-vowel, except those with 5-vowel. For example: Most of the keyboards are consistent: the “ሰ & ሸ”, “ሀ & ሐ”. However some other letters are scattered: the “ተ & ጠ”, “ቸ & ጨ”.

2. The above position of keyboard doesn’t follow the aggregate alphabet. For example, in the 2nd sample the letter that associates its similar should have been vice versa: the “ተ with ቸ”, “ጠ with ጨ”. Sample of such inconsistency are spread around, and if this criteria was followed I believe the end user would have been helped to associate with the similarity of alphabets.

3. A kind of double standard samples can be mentioned as follows: Some results of vowels seem to have uncoordinated structures: The letter “E = አ” is used with three meaning that makes it not friendly user. For example: the word “ገዚአን” becomes “ገዜን”, the word “ግዝአት” becomes “ግዘት”, and when the single “E = አ” is used alone becomes letter “አ” in 1th order.

4. A single letter “E” functions as a 1st order, changes the previous letter into 1st order, and in the third item switches the previous letter into 5th order. The output of three different results
would be a good solution, but unfortunately such activities, at least from what I tried to understand, become tedious to continue and it frustrates the user with similar unnecessary order of alphabets.

From my part the form of writing should give rise a standard or a consistent form of result. The problem that I pointed out resides in the coordination of keyboard “E” that is used in first case as a consonant (the “አ”), other times as a vowel builder of 1st and 5th (as in “ግዘት” and “ገዜን”) order. My advice is to look at the typing form, the table that the end user uses, and trace a consistent order of alphabets, like for the first proposal I mentioned above.

For the second problem, I would advise to delegate some of the functions of “E”, as in the above case, to other different keys. The issue is to determine the objectives, and for the space of alphabet in the keyboard exists more than we need. I see that the problem can be fixed and smoothed with easy process, from the coordination stand point. I believe that these and others level of keyboard importance is relevant to all of us and it should be implemented to the Geez users best interest. The literate people in this field are in all over the world. It is our right “ሪምና እዩ” to discuss about it and send to the Geez soft system engineers to implement it with sound (workable) steps.

Allow me to add a short proposal:

Other problem of coordinating is that the system GeezWord should have facilitated its use by preparing a software decoder that allows switching one version system to the others (to new comer versions). I believe the translator software is of great help. For example, a person who wrote his paper with GeezNet should be enabled to transfer those data into a new version of GeezWord system. This interpolation of system will empower the author to update data into a new version of Geez-Word system. This translator device will also help to keep documents in one consistent system, instead of having to refer to older version for documents that were written previously. The lack of transferring old versions to new once creates problem of inconsistency to the writers and it confines the author with documents that work with incompatible versions. To settle the inconsistency is quite possible to implement. A solution on this avenue will keep the users stick with the current Geez-system they have, instead of requesting other different avenues to preserve their document.

Next part two

For additional information check:

Friday, March 9, 2012

Abraham Rezene Habte's Zemen: Contemporary Afro-Fusion Groove

About two months ago, a friend of mine sent me a CD produced by Rezene Habte. The CD is entitled Zemen : Contemporary Afro-Fusion Groove in memory of Eritrean singer Yemane Gebremichael (Baria). It's a great work. Two months on and I'm still listening to it like it is the first time. One could easily understand and appreciate how much love and labor is put into the work. I like all the tracks in the CD, but my favorite one is track #2. Beautiful violin playing by a young Eritrean woman and what sounds similar to Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain is all in this track.

I met Abraham Rezene Habte in Washington D.C. in 2009 when I interviewed him on camera for a documentary that I'm working on that deals with Eritreans contribution to the development of modern Amharic music. As it is well discribed below by Biniam Tekle (I'm re-posting it with his permission), Rezene is one of the best Eritrean guitarists. This particular CD is sold out and currently, Rezene is working on his next CD. So look out for another Afro funk groove from Rezene!

                                                        Front cover of Rezene Habte's CD

Guitarist Abraham Rezene Habte reprises Yemane Baria’s music

By Biniam Tekle

In Eritrean popular music the lead guitar plays a prominent role and amongst the many Eritrean lead guitarists only a few are singled out for their individual signature style. If you are an Eritrean music lover and if you heard a guitar sound that incorporates blues, jazz, classical, metal, slide, and generally a distinctly refined sound, chances are you heard Abraham Rezene Habte, known to friends and family as Rezene.

Abraham Habte was born in Dekemhare, Eritrea (East Africa). Abraham developed an interest in music at an early age and immersed himself into it through his formative years. However, his parents did not approve of his penchant for music and sent him to the port city of Assab in a bid to curtail his interest in music and have him focus on his education. Despite his parents effort Abraham's concentration on music continued to intensify. During his stay in Assab, Abraham made his first guitar from scrap wood and discarded cords effectively setting his life long relationship with the guitar in motion.

Eventually, Abraham returned to Asmara in order to complete his high school education but to the dismay of his parents he continued to pursue music. This was in the1960s and at the time Eritrea's music was undergoing a great renaissance and artists like guitarist/vocalist Tewolde Reda were the main attractions. Abraham was highly influenced by Tewolde Reda, Tekle Adhanom, and Tesfamichael Keleta (Rocket Band) and he continued to hone his guitar playing skills finding inspiration in their work. Abraham's concerned parents, once again, ship away the aspiring guitarist to a faraway place, this time to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This was in an effort to separate him from the environment, in his parents thinking, that had an "adverse" influence on him.

Ironically, moving to Addis Abeba presented the young musician an opportunity where he can put his guitar playing skills to practice. Compared to Asmara, Addis Abeba was a much larger city with a much larger number of night club venues. Abraham landed his first job as a guitar player at Abnet Hotel and later joined the Zula Club and became one of the founders of the Walias Band. Later the Walias Band landed a steady gig at Venus Club where Abraham met the great Eritrean composer, musician, and vocalist Abubaker Ashakih who also happened to own the Venus Club. Abraham continued to excel in his music and made the transformation into a professional musician under the tutelage and guidance of Abubaker Ashakih.

In the early seventies Abraham moved to Frankfurt, Germany but his career as a professional guitarist saw him travel through Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and France. While in Paris, for a short period Abraham earned his living as a street musician. He played in one of Paris' main thoroughfares called Boulevard Saint-Michel and inside underground train stations around the city. In 1974 a popular Belgium-based African band by the name of Black Blood came to Paris looking for an additional guitarist. The band was told to look for a certain African guitarist that plays on Boulevard Saint-Michel and soon after Abraham found himself auditioning for the band. Ultimately Abraham was selected out of the many guitarists that auditioned and joined the Black Blood Band and moved to Belgium. The group released their first LP album “Chicano” in 1975 and Abraham was heavily involved in the recording of the album. The album had several tracks and Abraham arranged and wrote the music for the tracksTwalikutemwa and Rastefaria. One of Black Blood’s song, A.I.E (A Muwana) became a worldwide hit and to this day is considered one of the greatest hits of all time. The success of A.I.E made the band highly sought after and for the next two years Abraham toured with the band throughout South France. The band eventually split and in 1985 Abraham moved to the USA.

Residing in Washington DC Abraham continued to play guitar in different venues with different local bands. In the mid 2000s Abraham joined a DC based band named See-I that also had members from the group Thievery Corporation. In one of the groups’recordings Abraham was featured as a guitarist in a song entitled "Gangster" and also in a 2008 released album "Radio Retaliation" he participated as a guitarist in a song entitled "Vampires" featuring Femi Kuti (the son of Fela Kuti).

                                                      The back cover of Rezene Habte's CD

Abraham's greatest joy, however, comes from having had the chance to work and perform with the legendary Eritrean singer songwriter Yemane Ghberemichael, commonly and affectionately known as "Baria". In 1986 Abraham joined hands with Yemane Baria and toured throughout North America performing for Eritrean audiences. Yemane Baria was a giant force that had left an indelible mark in Eritrean Music and the lives of many Eritreans. Yemane Baria was a brilliant composer, arranger, poet, and singer songwriter. His sophisticated and timeless music still resonates with Eritreans and many young musicians are inspired and influenced by his music. Yemane Baria was also a great humanitarian who has been credited with helping many young Eritreans who fled Eritrea to Sudan in the 70s & 80s as a result of war. Yemane was not a wealthy person by any stretch of the imagination but he was a giving person who cared more for others than his own well-being. Yemane was by all measures the most influential Eritrean artist of all time whose artistic contribution to Eritrean struggle for independence was unparalleled. Since Abraham and Yemane Baria's tour collaboration in 1986 both artists became the best of friends and remained very close until Yemane Baria's death in 1997. Abraham dedicates his new album to honor the memories of Yemane Baria and the music celebrates Yemane's work and life.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sketches of a trip : Eritrea 2011

Final Sketch

In 1993 I attended a book signing ceremony in Asmara. While there were very few young people in attendance, most of the attendees were elders. Observing this, I remember asking a young man about the book signing and he told me that he was “dragged “there by his grandfather and didn’t understand the significance of it. That was then and this is now. Things have changed so much since then that Michael Adonai’s book signing ceremony that I attended in Asmara at Ambasoiera Hotel (which has become the routine venue for book signing) was a standing room only event with all kinds of people: young, old, women and men. The books that the publishers (Hidri) brought to be signed were all sold out. As a matter of fact, the revenue from books sales has risen to the millions per year, which indicates that reading culture has improved dramatically in Eritrea. Michael Adonai is not only a renowned author with books such as Keyah Mesobay, Ferdi Gobo A’rey, Mesakuti Mai Men’e and etc., but is also a brilliant artist whose works have been displayed around the world.

The Master of Ceremonies at Michael Adonai’s book signing was none other than my good friend, Elias Amare. Fortunately, he is visiting the U.S. and I’ve asked him to be a guest writer and to write briefly about the status of Eritrean literature today, the aforementioned and the subsequent event by Mr. Nurredin Farah, the renowned Somali novelist’s visit to Asmara.

First, I would like to give a brief comment about the book signing ceremony which was well attended with people from many walks of life. After a brief introduction Elias invited Atsbehet Yohannes (the actress who plays the grandmother in “Sidra Bet”) to give a comment. She briefly described her experience working with Michael Adonai and Michael Adonai’s modus operandi. After Atsbehet, Wedi Adonai, as he is affectionately called, spoke briefly and thanked people for coming to the ceremony. Elias then introduced Mesghun Zerai (Wedi Feraday) to critique Michael’s book entitled Kab Tshufat Hane’ta: Ekub Tewa’esotat from Hagerawi Bea’lat. From the Writings of Haneta: Compilation of Theatrical performances from the National Holidays. Michael Adonai’s book(two stories from the book) was also critiqued by Tesfalem Gebreselassie (Chare)(1)and Amanuel Berhe in “Haddas Eritrea” (2)Wedi Feraday’s critique was unique and brilliant, indeed. Wedi Feraday used live actors to amplify his critique. He picked two (“Tsehefto Haneta”: “From the Writings of Haneta” and “Ab De’ro” “On the Eve”. The same stories critiqued by the aforementioned journalists from “Haddas Eritrea”) from the eight stories in the book (The book is the first of its kind. It is a compilation of eight theatrical performances). For his critique, Wedi Feraday used “Brechtian device” (Also known as the “distancing effect” or in German, “Verfremdungseffekt”, is a performing arts concept coined by playwright Berthold Brecht* which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer”.)(3) Throughout the critique, Wedi Ferday guided the audience on and off by letting them in and out of the stories. During his critique, Wedi Feraday was analyzing “Tsehefto Haneta” in terms of triangles and triangular chains, which led me to wonder off to film critique Pauline Kael’s use of “Circles and Squares” to critique Andrew Sarris: the person credited for popularizing “the auteur theory” in the United States (4). Wedi Feraday admired Michael’s use of triangles to create chains of relationship in his stories. To illustrate, Wedi Feraday pointed out that in “Tsehefto Haneta”, the three characters, Haneta, Zewdi and Narge had connections in the story and this triangle created another chain which becomes a triangle itself. In the second triangle the relationship between Haneta , Negasi and Kifle creates a new triangle and thus creating triangular with varied chains of relationships.

Above: A visual representation of Wedi Feraday’s interpretation of “Tsehfeto Haneta’s” triangular chain relationship.

What was interesting was that Wedi Feraday went beyond the above mentioned relationship and used the same triangular relationship to formulate and understand Michael’s work, thinking and the role of actors and actresses in the following:

Tegbar (deeds): Easy to act
Seme'it (Emotions): Difficult to act
(Ideas):difficult to put them together

Pauline Kael’s circles.

The second story that Wedi Feraday picked was entitled “Ab De’ro” “On the Eve”, that is the eve of independence. Wedi Feraday commented that by not giving names to the main characters who had been imprisoned by the Derg (the former Ethiopian Military Junta) for different reasons (mundane reason to the point of being comical and beautifully acted), Michael had brilliantly moved the story fast forward by eliminating the character’s religion and beher (nationality). This point was also raised by journalist Amanuel Berhe in his Haddas Eritrea article. In the story, the two inmates are represented by numbers 54 and 103, respectively.
In the above article, Amanuel mentions that Michael uses brilliant strategy in all his writing style of not identifying the characters so that the audience does not pre-judge them based on their religion and beher, but judge them solely on their deeds.

Cover of Michael Adonai’s book. The art work is also by Michael Adonai.

On the eve of independence # 54 and # 103 had not eaten for a couple of days and as a result had lost weight. The prison guards had left the prison. The inmates were not aware that the Eritrean independence fighters had liberated Eritrea and the Ethiopian rule over Eritrea has come to an end. Once they were discovered, suddenly, they became heroes who had not only “survived the brutal prison system, but also “hunger!” Their survival and “heroism” became talk of the town and the story spirals out of control. The debate between the two inmates gets hilarious. #54 wants to keep the story going and wants to enjoy the new found popularity, while # 103 wants to expose the “truth”. It’s a very brilliant work of twists and turns. This part of the story reminded me of another translated comedy that I saw in Eritrea in 1994 entitled Jeppe Wedi Gobo (Jeppe of the Hills: written by Norwegian writer, Ludvig Holberg, Baron of Holberg in 1722).

Eritrean playwrights have over the years had inspirations from many writers. To mention a few, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Ludvig Holberg, Anton Chekov, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and many others. Except for one or two translations* in Tigrigna, who is missing from the above mentioned writers is Alexander S. Pushkin (the maternal great grandson of General Abraham Petrovich H(G)annibal, the long lost son of Eritrea. I hope Eritrean playwrights translate all of Alexander S. Pushkin’s works and all his works be integrated in the Eritrean school system.

1. Tesfalem Gebreselassie (Chare). “Haddas Eritrea” pg. 10. July 2, 2011.
2. Amanuel Berhe.”Haddas Eritrea” pgs. 2 and 4. July 4, 2011.
3. Wikipedia: accessed on February 4, 2012
4. Pauline Kaen. “Film Quarterly”, Vol. 16, No. 3 (spring, 1963) “Circles and Squares”

*Berthold Brecht was a German playwright, poet and theatre director.

* Haddas Eritrea is the official newspaper written in Tigrigna. It means “New Eritrea”

* “I Will Marry When I Want” is another Tigrigna translated play that I saw in Asmara in 2000 during the Against All Odds Conference. The play was translated from the work of the renowned Kenyan author, Ngugi Wa Thiang’o. Atsbehet Yohannes played the main female character.

* So far, I’ve found only two Tigrigna translations of Pushkin’s works. The first was translated during the fight for Eritrean independence and republished in 2010 (a collection of 18 short stories from various coutnries) under the title of "Tensa'e" the second one is a translation of “The Tale of Tsar Sultan Belkin" by Ghirmay Gebremeskel in 2009.

To check out Michael Adonai's works,