Saturday, September 29, 2012

Eritrea - (new country)?

                                             Guest  Writers     

                                        TSEGAI Medin, (University of Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain)

Eritrea - (new country)? 

Part I

The most monotonous subject we often listen about Eritrea is; Eritrea is a new country. What makes the country new? Physically, it is relatively small in African standard but bigger than Djibouti, Monaco, Vatican-city, Malta, Seychelles…etc and have the same size as of Pennsylvania and/or England. Historically it is the birth of ancient and giant civilizations (the first "Christianized and Islamized "country) in the region and socio-culturally highly diversified. The subject was unconsciously used in Media, newspapers and websites and further goes down to the knowledge of the ordinary people. For example, once you introduce to someone for the first time; among the frequent posed questions are; where are you really from? Majority of people (especially in the western world and America) they have no idea about -Eritrea?-but some of them after instant pause; they say, the new and small country in the Horn of Africa! A new and small country?  Most of the time, it is curious to listen such an answer and I often tried to highlight some historical facts and socio-cultural information of the country as part of the conversation. However, normally, it is not practical to explain such long history in short conversations. Otherwise, I would be proud to narrate the history of the physically small but historically robust country any time. It is not quite easy to define the meaning of Eritrea, but majority agree that Eritrea means; a compilation of the following expressions; diversity, value, beauty, approachability, solidarity, resistance, martyrdom, liberty, self-reliance,etc. These are some of the expressions or terminologies you often find within the notes of a writer/s and/or any other ordinary witness. Yes proudly they are, but what about its antiquity? Let`s follow the following highly condensed Eritrea`s historic review of information from around 25 Million years to Present.

The Eritrean land catches the attention of antique life of mammals and Humans Millions of years back. Recently about 25 to 22 Million years old fossil of a primitive proboscideana, very old relative modern elephants, is discovered from Adi-Ugri (Mendefera) and Dogali areas. These areas show a time span that includes a portion of African mammal evolutionary history, which is substantially unknown to science. These elephant species were thrived in the Miocene from the Arabian land mass to Africa; during this time Africa and Arabia were still joined together as a single continent that was isolated from the other landmasses by surrounding oceans and seas.

Elephant fossil found near Adi-Ugri (Mendefera)

Roughly, after twenty million years, in the late Early Pleistocene, one of the evolved Homo species was already at the grass-land and Savanna-dominated environments of East Africa. The northern most end part of the rift valley (the Dandiero basin) was part of these huge savanna dominated paleoenvironment. The Buia Homo like any other synonymous African Homo species was living adjacent to the coastal flood plains of the Buia basin. Extensive research programs in the last two decades, witnessed the presence of this Homo species along a diversified species of large mammals and other animal species chronologically dated to the late Early Pleistocene. Among the large mammalian fauna a unique type of Bos is discovered in the basin. Because of its unique morphological traits, it retains Eritrean name, that is, Bos buiaensis. The Homo sp. documented at the Danakil depression was dated to ca. 1.0 million years ago and was inhabited at a wide paleoecological spectrum of the depression. The well known complete fossil skull from Buia (found in Aalad Area in 1995) is recently enriched by other more evidences from nearby localities (locally named as “Mulhuli-Amo”). These are fossils of cranial and post cranial evidences and importantly a third molar teeth-probably belong to three individuals of Homo. The discovery of a complete skull and a molar teeth of Homo (1.0 Ma old) is not widely common to the present knowledge of the fossil record in Africa or elsewhere in the world. The fossil specimen from Buia and Mulhuli-Amo filled the gap between Homo erectus (1.4 ma) and Homo heidelbergensis (0.65 ma) in the Homo family tree. This species was the most widely known and evolutionary successful species of Homo to populate the modern world. To the knowledge of current evolutionary research this species is our direct ancestor, that is, the only Human species remained in the planet.  The invention of fire, highly complex technological stone tools, bigger brain size, bipedalism, are among the most known characteristics of this species.  The Acheulian stone tools (choppers and bifaces-hand axe) are his typical technological devices, used to exploit high protein budget from a mammal bone and marrow that resulted to a rapid increase of brain size and change in intestine gut and anatomy.

 Excavation at Buia, 2010.

Coming up, Part II.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Conversation with Artist Teklit Zecarias

Part II

 Teklit at the Eritrean Festival 2012, Washington, D.C.
(picture courtesy of Yared Tseggai)

Issayas: One of your painting is on the Eritrean postage stamps. Would you tell us more about it? What is the title of the painting? What year, etc?

Teklit: In 2001, for the 10th anniversary of Eritrean independence, there was an art competition for postal stamp; and three artists (Martha, Petros and I) won. The title of my art work is Hagerey Shlematey (My County, My Jewelry); the painting shows that, during the war with weyan (the ruling elite in Ethiopia), Eritrean mothers and sisters placing their gold, even their wedding rings, on the top of the Eritrean flag. The role of Eritrean women during the war and peace is remarkable, which has not been done in other countries.

Hagerey Shlematey(My Country, My Jewelery)

 Teklit, Petros and Martha winners  of the postal art competition, 2001

Issayas: Have you won other awards?

Teklit: In 2000, during the first Eritrean Students Festival, I was awarded for first place. The title of the work was Hidri (promise). In 2004, in my school Lipscomb University, I was awarded for first place and honored.

1st prize award at Lipscomb University

Issayas; You also studied graphic design? What is graphic design?

Teklit: I have not done a lot in graphic design, but for me graphic design is just like other kinds of art, has the same Principles of art. The difference is just that you have to do it in computer using graphic software.

Issayas: In our discussion, you mentioned that you know and did internship with Nadia Biasolo. How did your internship with Nadia (owner of Alkemya in Asmara. check my blog on Alkemya) helped you in shaping your artistic world? What kinds of things were you doing during your internship?          

Teklit: I started working with Nadia Biasolo in 1995. We (two friends and I)  were drawing murals on walls when we met Nadia. She invited us to her house. Then we started working and learning with her as interns. We kept working with Nadia  and going to her studio until 2002. I have learned a lot from her. At that time, all the ideas and plans was her's, we were just giving her a hand, following her instruction on projects that she had. Yes it does help me a lot. I understand that art is not just drawing and painting only. If one artist has an open mind to learn new things he/she could do different kind of art, because  art has the same principle. Nadia has a lot of experience on her profession; her works of art has great quality. I was very impressed by the process of her work. She start her work from raw material (cotton) then she finishes her final product with decoration of art. I have learned discipline and patience from Nadia, when you do an art work. I did painting on  walls and on  products of cotton or crafts. She is a wonderful friend and a teacher for me.

Issayas: Teklit, you're right. Nadia is very creative. Beside the products that they do at Alkeyma, I saw etro (big Eritrean traditional clay jar for traditional drinks) as a light stand in her house. Well, Teklit thank you for your time and this conversation.

Teklit: Thank you.

More pictures of Teklit's paintings. Note: Pictures courtesy of Teklit.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Conversation with Artist Teklit Zecarias

Teklit Zecarias at 2012 Eritrean Festival, Washington, D.C.

Part I

Issayas: Briefly, tell us about yourself?

Teklit: I was born in the ancient nation of Eritrea, located along the Red Sea in East Africa, in 1980. At the age of one, my family moved from their rural home to Asmara. I started drawing when I was young. I would use one side of my school book for schoolwork and the other side for drawing; I also loved modifying different shapes out of recycled materials and clay. I was 15 when I went to my first art training in the summer of 1995. Most of our teachers were artists who fought for Eritrea’s independence. As soldiers, during the war, they kept their love for art. This made me appreciate all the talent they had to offer and inspired me to keep art in my life, even during hard times. That training compelled me to seek furtherart education. I studied art, in 1997, with three Chinese Professors in Asmara Art School. And once my family migrated to the U.S., I took what I learned there to receive my BA in studio and graphic design, from Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Issayas: What is art?

Teklit: Art is everything, especially if we are talking about visual arts. It studies line, form, shape, composition, proportion, perspective, color, value (dark and light), texture, expression and more. An art work could be created using a reference or just from imagination. Art can be done in many different ways, for example: painting, sculpture, design, music, novel, poem, and more, in which individuals express their vision using their unique artistic talent. Some arts may require some special talent or training. However, every human being has some artistic potential. Therefore, most of the arts are done by majority of the population. For instance, if we look around us, we are surrounded by work of arts everywhere: look at your clothes, shoes, furniture etc.; all items are somehow created by an individual using some type of art.

Eritrean Festival, DC
(pictures are courtesy of Yared Tseggai)

Issayas: What is the importance of art in Eritrean society?

Teklit: Art is very crucial for the Eritrean society. I cannot imagine the civilization we have now, would be possible without the participation of the artists and artisans who had the vision and ability to design and create the arts that makes Eritrea what it is today. Art was essential to the ancient civilization of Eritrea. Unfortunately, we have not continued progress on our art for the past many centuries, as we should have like the western society. There are various reasons for the loss our ancient civilization, however, we should not take for granted the knowledge that our ancestors left for us. Seeing what our world has reached now is only the continuation of the ancient civilizations; artists today imitating their ideas to create new forms of art. Art in Eritrea plays a great role on the development of the country, documenting present and past history, entertaining and educating the people, and harmonizing the society.  

Issayas: As a painter, what does painting mean to you?

Teklit: Painting gives me a chance to see nature deeply. Understanding the basic principles of art helps me to analyze things visually. Even when I am not  painting on canvas, I always feel like I am painting when I see something which impresses me. My goal is always to express my internal feeling on canvas. My plan is usually to try to simplify my painting, avoiding too many details by using few and effective brush strokes and the right values of colors. I do this by squinting my eyes to view the big shapes on the object. I love the depth of the shadow and the effects of light, the way they create three dimensional shapes on the painting.

For more on the works of Teklit Zecarias, check out :

Next,  part II

Monday, September 10, 2012

A conversation with musician Yonas Ghirmay

Part three

Issayas: Did you get a chance to listen to Robel's group sampler? If you did, what do you think of it?

Yonas: Yes I did and I had great time listening to it. It is very different than other techno- like productions in the past. Because some of the component of the composition did not frustrate my expectation. In other words, a composer would introduce an idea or ideas and then develops that simple idea to become something that none of us can imagine. In that way listeners are anticipating internally in their mind and souls their own musical process to tune up the end result. Let me give you another perspective. In mathematics we see a lot questions driven to solve for X or the unknown value. You are given the value for A & B, which means that you can solve for X or C. By the same analogy, if you mention that Geez music to be identified with your production or composition, then we need to define what is and what is not. I can see that every Habesha singing style can trace it inception from Geez. Geez is a house hold name and is a basis for our culture including making  the parameters of literature, singing styles and vocal styles.

If one is claiming that their product has Geez zeima element in it and when one of the above mentioned elements are none existent in your work, then frustration is inevitable. First and foremost, Geez is performed or is intended for an acapella style of singing,which means that it is not accompanied with musical instruments except with those musical instruments that can not produce melody or harmony such as, sistra, kebero and mekomia. Robel's music does not incorporate some of these musical elements to give us some sense of Geez. To give you an example, the so called "Chinese food" in the United States is not same  dish as in mainland China, but it's a brilliant idea the way it's marketed to Americans' taste and be able to generate so much money in every corner of entire cities in America. From the point of creation of new audience and market in  the future, it is very wise to tailor one's music to be heard by wider range of demographic or international ear. But the question remains the same, there is a prior knowledge of what Geez music should sound like and it is very difficult to alter that perception by just giving it the name Geez and not incorporating it basic identity.  Does it mean that Geez needs to remain to the same with out any change and people must study it the way it was done in the 4th century? In those days a young boy is trained from age 7 in the style of repeat after me kind of pedagogy, which took fo ever to master the entire book Dugga. If Geez served as vocal music in those days, the questions that we need to ask  are: can we arrange Geez zeima to modern instruments instead of singing in unison (when the entire group is singing the same melody with out any harmony)? Can we arrange it to be sung in counter point style of singing whereby different parts or a section of the group is singing different part of the music at different pitch level as well as different times instead of singing at the same time to the texture and volume of the composition? How about counterpoint dynamics where by the introduction of the music is very soft to express some important values of the  lyric and to give it gradually increase in volume and energy to highlight a new section of the composition?

Issayas: Thank you for your time.

Yonas: Don't mention it.

Back cover of Yonas' CD entitled "Instrumental Arrangements from Eritrea"

NOTE:  In 2003, I bought a CD entitled, “Instrumental Arrangement From Eritrea” in Washington, DC. The CD was produced by Yonas Ghirmay in 2002. I liked it the moment I heard it because it was different. In April 2004, Melba Williams, a former Stanford University film masters degree student,
asked me if I had Eritrean CDs that she wanted to use for her film dissertation (MEND). One of the CDs I gave her was Yonas Ghirmay’s. She liked the #1 score (Kem Kokeb.) on the CD. She contacted Yonas to give her permission to use the score in her film. Yonas was gracious enough to let her use it. Since then, I've also used his music for my documentary films.

Back then, I interviewed Yonas for Also then, I asked Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin, a musicologist, to comment on the CD. As usual, her response was positive. I thank her for that. Below is Dr. Cynthia’s review.

Instrumental Arrangements from Eritrea.
©2002 Yonas Ghirmay. Made in Canada 

Reviewed by Cynthia Tse Kimberlin, Ph.D.

1974 was a watershed year in the Horn of Africa, a time in which major events sowed the seeds of an accelerated Diaspora movement. These migrations took place at a time when new technological advances were being made in transportation and communication and which Eritreans and Ethiopians have astutely exploited by creating their own networks in the form of virtual communities.  A result, these factors produced an environment of invigorated music creativity of which this CD is emblematic. Instrumental Arrangements from Eritrea contains music that is collaborative, transnational, and no longer bound by geography and language constraints.  As part of the Eritrean community in the New Orleans area, Executive Producer, composer and arranger Yonas Ghirmay and others like him are redefining music within the framework of the global community of music and music making. Most of the music selections on the CD are renditions of jazz using recognizable traditional melodies accompanied by Western instruments. The one exception is the use of the ‘ud played by Brian Prunka.  According to Prunka, “The 'ud (also known as the oud…is a musical instrument common to all Arab cultures. It is also an important part of the Turkish musical tradition and may have originated in Persia…”

A key factor in this recording is that the creative process retains strong elements of one’s ancestral roots that form the basis for ‘new compositions’.  What is distinctive about this music is that this is an approach not commonly practiced; that is, this instrumental ensemble does not accompany singing.

There are ten examples whose titles are given in transliteration with the musician’s name and include: Kem kobob, Entezefelit Nayre, Adey Kitweldeni, Zey – meflate mehashena, Ala leye la ley (Parts 1 and 2), Hel – mi Wegahta, Ewan meseye, Yeantey, and Tenebre Nayra. Musicians and the instruments they play are Yonas Ghirmay (piano), Brian Prunka (acoustic guitar and ‘ud), Matt Rhody (violin), Michael Jenner (saxophone), Michael Skinkus (percussion), Andy Wolf (double bass), and Jason Marsalis (drum set).

Yonas’ major strength is his bi-musicality. First, his music arrangements are a testament to his educational training in music composition at Loyola University in New Orleans where he gained greater knowledge and practice of various art and popular music forms. Second, not only is he knowledgeable in the music of Eritrea and Ethiopia, but as a former seminarian who trained to be a priest in the Ge’ez rite, he is also a practitioner of Ge’ez chant with a strong interest in preserving its tradition. He is acquainted with 30 to 40 ex-seminarians living in the USA who know from memory the Ge’ez liturgy and they formed a chapter, meet annually, and are devoted to this music. As a result Yonas is in the process of forming a national Ge’ez chorus and intends to produce a recording of this choral group.* 

This multi perspective towards music making is evident in this CD. According to Yonas “it contains a variety of arrangements of ethnic (folk music) and also modern. I totally avoided the use of electronic instrumentation. It is absolutely acoustic with the idea of me being in New Orleans; it has [that] ‘Gumbo’ flavor.”  (Feb 2, 2004). Although this music does not accompany singing, some of the music would be suitable for accompanying dance. Since Yonas’ solo piano composition found on track 7, Hel-mi Wegahta, possesses a style and mood so different from the rest of the examples, I would recommend that this composition, as an example of intercultural music,** be issued on a separate CD along with other examples of this nature.  This piece is based on a traditional melody, and it would be interesting to know from where the inspiration came to compose this piece.  Personally, the tracks having a special appeal for me are 5 - 9.  Tracks 5, 6, 7 and 9 primarily because their evolution can be clearly discerned in that musical ideas are developed from a basic core idea, and then expanded.

The cover layout and design features lead me to believe the CD is meant for the Eritrean communities worldwide. If it was intended to cultivate a broader based audience, the song titles could have been described and/or translated into English, and the sparse liner notes could have been expanded to accommodate listeners less familiar with the music. A brief description of each selection could have been given, as well as brief bios of the musicians. In addition, the listeners in general, and musicians in particular, would be interested in learning about the creative process taking place when these arrangements were being developed and which are based on essentially traditional melodies. Lastly, if Yonas continues to explore and capitalize on his strengths, with his penchant for exploring new avenues, he will bring forth a freshness and spontaneity that is long overdue.


* For the chorus singing Ge’ez liturgy, instead of having the chorus sing a single melody in unison as  traditionally practiced in Ge’ez chant, Yonas has arranged some of the chants in four parts where the  various parts imitate each other at different pitch levels and interval sequences. This practice is   reminiscent of the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750)  counterpoint as  epitomized in his chorales, preludes, and fugues. Yonas says his approach to choral music may prove to  be a challenge for the untrained musician or individual trained to sing in Ge’ez.  Yet, he consciously incorporates new elements into a traditional musical practice so that it would appeal to a wider public  and that others might develop an interest in this genre of music.

**  For a definition of the term see the "Introduction" to Intercultural Music Volume 1 edited by Cynthia Tse  Kimberlin and Akin Euba. Centre for Intercultural Arts, London U.K. and Bayreuth African Studies Series, Bayreuth University: Bayreuth, Germany. 1995:2-5.  It can also be accessed  online at: