Sunday, September 29, 2013

A conversation with Solomon Tsehaye.

Solomon Tsehaye has done it again. His latest book is a colossal work on masse and melkes: Tigrigna's highest form of poetry. Tigrigna is one of the languages of Eritrea. This is the first volume of an anticipated three volume work. The book needs to be translated into English so that the work gets worldwide exposure.Solomon Tsehaye is Eritrea's top poet. He wrote Eritrea's national anthem.

As an introduction, until I write a book review, here is what I wrote Solomon right after I finished the book: "Solomon, I read the entire book that you were kind enough to send me in a few days.You owe me some hours of sleep. Just kidding. Anyway, the book is excellent and one can judge and sense the time, effort, sweat, concentration and research that is poured into the work. Congratulations! Frankly, this is a kind of work that universities teach in their departments. It is not just an anthology but also an anthropological, sociological and historical work.

This is part one of my conversation with Solomon Tsehaye.

Issayas: Would you briefly tell us about your background?

Solomon: I was born in December 1956 in Addi Quitta, a village in southern Eritrea. Having received my elementary education in Eritrea, I went to Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, for my high school education at the then British-run General Wingate Secondary School. It was a boarding school.  I had won a scholarship to study at the school by passing its entrance examination. My education was affected by the coming to power of the military regime (the Dergue) which deposed the emperor in Ethiopia. Upon seizing power in September 1974 the regime declared that senior high school and University students be mobilized from their schools for the ill-intended and ill-planned  “students campaign to eradicate illiteracy”. Considering the chaotic and politically hostile situation surrounding the program I boycotted the students’ campaign like many Eritrean compatriots and came back home.  I joined the Eritrean independence struggle in April 1977.  I was assigned to combat forces and served as a combatant and later as what was commonly called “the bare foot doctor” until I was wounded in action and reassigned to the rear area of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). It was there in the second half of 1979 that I started to engage myself in cultural activities by writing plays, acting and composing poetry. I was attracted more and more into arts and culture to the extent that I was transferred in mid-1981 to work as a full time artist in the Division of Culture of the EPLF. I was appointed head of the Division in 1987 and served in that capacity until the liberation of Eritrea in May 1991.

Solomon as a young man.

Solomon as a young EPLF fighter.

In the post-independence period I was given a number of opportunities to travel abroad to attend conferences and training programs on culture and arts which helped broaden my scope of knowledge and experience. Though almost all of my poetic works and essays were either published in magazines and newspapers or broadcasted by radio during the independence struggle or after, I decided to publish an anthology of my selected poems on the Eritrean struggle. Hence my poetry book entitled Sahel was published in 1994, and the publication of the second edition took place in 2006. Since the book is now out of print, I have plans to make a reprint of the second edition soon.

Taking over from its founding editor, the distinguished writer Alemseged Tesfay, I also edited and regularly contributed to a dozen issues of Netsebraq, the arts and culture magazine published in Tigrinya by the cultural establishments of the EPLF and later the Eritrean government. I have always been concerned with my literary productions. For many years a conflict was going on inside me - a conflict between the performance of my administrative duties and my professional development as a poet and writer. My longtime assignment at the level of management denied me adequate time to pursue my creative writing as I want it to be. On a request to write and research free of administrative obligations, I was given a long leave which enabled me to conduct research on Tigrinya oral poetry with particular focus on masse and melqes. As a result of that research I have recently published a 544-page book entitled “Massén Melqesn Qeddamot” (Massé and Melqes of the Ancestors).

Issayas: As you said earlier you have been concerned with your literary productions.

Solomon: Yes indeed.

Issayas: Then, why didn’t you use your leave for writing poetry and fiction rather than shift to oral poetry - massé  and melqes - research?

Solomon: As a person who worked in the field of culture for quite a long time, I was always aware of the fact that our oral traditions were in danger of disappearing with the passing away of our wise and knowledgeable old people. But I have to admit that this particular issue was brought to my attention when the late oral poet Negash Baira’u (Negash Sagla) approached me to help him publish his massé and melqes expressing his fear that his lifetime contribution will be forgotten for ever if his oral poetry is not retrieved from his memory and documented. He said great works of massé and melqes of his predecessors are getting less and less remembered and will eventually be forgotten because they are not published. His concern was that his massé  and melqes would face the same fate. I absolutely shared his fears and concerns and having made preliminary studies on the subject, I decided to embark on researching and collecting massé  and melqes all over the Tigrinya culture in an effort to rescue the long accumulated literary heritage and pass it on to future generations. If it were not for the inconvenience created by the present strained relations of Eritrea and Ethiopia the research would have definitely taken me to Tigray, the northmost region of Ethiopia, because being Tigrinya culture poetic art forms, massé  and melqes were also practiced at least in some parts of Tigray. Taking the urgency of the task into consideration, therefore, I postponed my creative writing and fully concentrated on the research. Paying tribute to the late Negash Baira’u, I would like to express my highest respect and appreciation for him for bringing forth the idea of collecting and publishing his massé  and melqes, because it is that idea which developed into this wide ranging massé  and melqes research and publishing project in Eritrea. Alas, he did not live to see the book (Volume I) in which his collected  massé  and melqes are published. The course of life and the time consuming nature of oral poetry research could not match up to enable him to see the book come out.

Issayas: What is massé? Melqes?

Solomon: Massé (awlo) and melqes are related art forms which constitute one of the genres of Tigrinya oral poetry. Massé is performed on happy and festive occasions where, most of the time, specially prepared food and drink are served. Weddings and a number of other celebratory events are appropriate occasions for massé. On the other hand, melqes is performed during funerals and similar moments of sadness. Though different in the way they are presented, massé  and melqes have the same poetic structure. They are also composed and recited by the same people. With the exception of a few who either make massé  or melqes, the overwhelming majority of oral poets who perform massé  also perform melqes.

Solomon doing field work.

The cover of Solomon's book on masse and melkes. Vol. I

Issayas: What is the significance of massé  and melqes in Tigrinya society?

Solomon: As is briefly explained (in English) in my book, Massén Melqesn Qeddamot Volume I, on pages 540-541, massé  and melqes are highly valued oral poetic forms in Tigrinya society. They are highly valued because the ideas and concepts they transmit have depth and relevance. Massé  and melqes are source of guidance to society from which people draw all sorts of lessons. They are useful in resolving conflicts. They present social critique which helps solve social problems and correct mistakes. They enhance society’s knowledge on history, culture, language, politics, religion, etc. by discussing various aspects of life. Last but not least, massé  and melqes are also very entertaining. Because of the happy occasions on which it is performed masse’ is particularly amusing with a lot of humor connected to it. The events in which massé  and melqes are presented were the mass media of traditional Tigrinya society. They were platforms where the real opinions of the people were heard from the voice of its great minds - the oral poets. Whenever such events took place attending audiences were very eager to know what the oral poets had to say. There were even times when people travelled long distances merely to hear massé  or melqes, particularly when it was known that renowned oral poets would be present for the occasions.

Issayas: One would be curious to know what type of people the oral poets are to create poetic works of such significance.

Solomon: The oral authors of massé  and melqes, called masségnatat  in Tigrinya, are talented people who develop the skill of composing poetry as spontaneously as they recite it. To acquire such a skill they cultivate the faculty of thinking fast under high level mental concentration. They are the most enlightened elite and creative cream of the society with broad knowledge of various aspects of social life and human experience. They are highly observant critical thinkers. Because of their imaginative power and vision, masségnatat are sought after for new ideas and intellectual guidance. Some of them are even considered to have prophetic abilities. One such talent was the master poet Weldedingl Gedlu who lived in the 19th century.

Issayas: So they earn their living by performing oral poetry on respective occasions?

Solomon: No, they earn their living mainly as farmers. Though they occasionally receive gifts or honorariums from their hosts, masségnatat, unlike contractual performers, do not present their poetry for payment. They don’t perform for financial or material gains as such. Performing massé  or melqes is just honor for them and they do it only if they are invited respectfully.

Issayas: Your research goes a couple of centuries back, how was it possible to track down all these oral poetic works long after the death of their composers?

Solomon: To be more accurate my research covers some 250 years. The lapse of so many years was covered by the transfer of memory from generation to generation.  When we speak of this process of transfer we speak of a talent crucial to the preservation and passing down of the oral poetry to future generations - the talent of keeping memories through learning massé  and melqes by heart. People who are endowed with this capacity store the knowledge of the oral poetry and transfer it by telling. These depository tellers are therefore the custodians of massé  and melqes. It should also be noted that the most gifted among the depository tellers learn by heart instantly memorizing the poetry as it comes out from the mouth of the oral poets or the tellers, once and for all like the audio recording machine does. According to my research, so far, the earliest massé retrieved from memory was composed by a great oral poet Feleskinos around 1765 and was told by a great depository teller Teame Desta in 2008. The late Teame Desta , who passed away in September 2012 at the age of 88, was the only person among my informants to have kept the memory of that two-and-half centuries old poem along with the contextual information surrounding the poetic piece.

Issayas: Coming to another basic question, why do we need to study massé and melqes?

Solomon: As has been partly explained above when discussing the significance of massé and melqes, we need to study them to understand who we are searching for the true meaning of our past. Massé and melqes are expressions of identities, values, ethical behaviors, psychological makeup and world outlook of the society. They are expressions of culture in general. Moreover, they are a portrayal of history. We also need to seriously study massé and melqes for their literary and aesthetic merit. The imagery and fine language with which massé  and melqes reflect ideas, philosophical concepts and social reality makes them impressive. The impact of the vivid and at times subtle artistic expressions they employ is very strong. They are always appealing with powerful educational and entertaining effects. Hence the massive information embodied in massé and melqes deserves careful research and analysis for us to fully understand the period covered by the massé and melqes. But we should not limit ourselves to just studying them. We should disseminate the outcome of the study by all means possible. Most importantly, the study needs to be systematically integrated into the school curriculum up to the level of higher education.

Issayas: The idea of integrating the study into the Eritrean educational system being very important, how do you think it should be implemented?

Solomon: Of course, it is up to the Ministry of Education and institutions of higher learning to decide if the study should be part of the relevant school curricula, but I strongly suggest that massé and melqes be taught in schools as part of Eritrean literature. Consistent with the Eritrean policy of mother tongue education, the inclusion of this study, I believe, can certainly have commendable results in cultural education as a whole. And yet to achieve the desired outcome the training of highly qualified teachers is crucial.

Part two to follow.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Guest Writer: Abraham T. Zere


                                    Beyene Haile’s Mezghebe Enters Wider Readership

 Beyene Haile’s first novel Abdi do Tibluwo (1964) is now translated and published in English by Huriy Ghirmai under the title Mezghebe: would you say he was mad? (AZAB publishers, 2013).

With its excellent translation and universal theme, the book is expected to bring more attention and critical studies of the literature produced in indigenous African languages. Eritrean literature, being mostly produced in indigenous languages, has been least read and never assumed its proper place in the study of African or world literature in one facet, but greatly helped production of original works on the other. As the great critical thinker Ngugi wa Thiong'o proposes it is only through translations that such original works could reach wider readers.

When first published in 1964, Abdi do Tibluwo was summarily neglected for its complex narration and its thematic concerns by most of the Eritrean readers then.Only after its re-publication in 2003
did it start to have wider readership and critical acclaim. The book holds important place for its thematic concerns,complex style of narration and its transnational spaces.                                            

Mezghebe narrates the life and times of a bohemian painter and cum-sculpt named Mezghebe. Set in Adi-Girat of Ethiopia and Asmara-Eritrea the book, through four main narrators shows how the enigmatic Mezghebe lived his life until his early death. Mezghebe, who showed interest in sculpture and painting at very young age slowly immerses in his world until he “got to such a point that he took to demanding that people enter his house through the window”(152). Mezghebe’s unique passion, considered as madness by most people, diverts him slowly from all regular interaction with people. He drops his studies, secludes himself in a distant house and lives an aloof life. The book shows an absolute dedication and readiness to pay the highest prize for art.

While most of his contemporaries compromised their art because most took the stand of an educator, Haile took a different position and portrayed that it is only through arts that a society could heal its wounds. He made his stand very clear right in his preface by stating that “most of the current writers seem to naively believe that they should primarily educate, admonish and even lead their readers.” As a result, as Haile puts they “veer away from the idea of pure beauty.”

Mezghebe’s very complex narrative technique is another angle that needs further scholarly research. The book is narrated by four different narrators associated with Mezghebe, including one chapter
by himself. All the narrators, except of course Mezghebe, the rest three are ‘I-witness’ narrators who have some role in the story and tell their perspectives of Mezghebe.  Very focused, the story starts
when Mezghebe was bedridden during his final days and the police detective asks Mezghebe “Do you remember?” In the first chapter, Captain Berhe simultaneously addresses the reader and Mezghebe as “you.” Told against the traditional suspense stories, the story comes to full-circle at the end and connects with the first chapter.


I found Mezghebe’s narrative technique very similar to Nuruddin Farah’s Maps (1986) that was published 22 years later. Both the books are narrated through different narrators and the main protagonists are implicated with deaths for bigger causes. Askar of Maps is implicated with the death of his foster mother, Misra, for national cause and Mezgebe with Hagos for arts. Only at the end of the two books do readers learn that the whole story was narrated orally to police detectives. At the end, Farah’s Maps tells the story was told by Askara to ‘himself, by himself’:

And that was how it began -- the story of (Misra/Misrat/Masarat and)Askar.
First he told it plainly and without embellishment, answering the police  officer’s
questions, then he told it to men in gown, men resembling ravens with white skulls. (259)

Similarly, Mezghebe ends:

     He had risked life and limb in order to destroy all evidence of its existence,
     yet now here it was in his hospital room, and instead of a doctor, there was only
     Captain Berhe, a famous police detective standing by his bedside. The captain,
     a close acquaintance of Mezghebe’s parents who knew him from childhood,
     implored him to tell him all that he remembered.

     Without a single hesitation, Mezghebe began to tell the captain the whole
     story openly without leaving out a single detail. (159)

The book transcends different established traditions in Eritrea. For example, Mezghebe’s view of school and education is different than  most people. He does not see formal education as an ultimate end and the only means of success in life. He tells Ti’be:

       “Haven’t you realized that I’ve had enough education now? School took up
        a lot of my time and distracted me from work -- I remained in school because
         I thought it would make all of you happy. It’s enough now, that’s it, it’ll be enough for me.
         I can’t afford to let my dreams go unrealized because of education.” (137)

Similarly, Haile’s representation of women not only transcends his contemporaries, but also perfectly meets the current feminist literary view. All the women characters are strong, independent and educated. Kidsti for example, goes beyond her physical disability to achieve higher goals.

Haile’s main characters do not also fall on the traditional track of education that was common in developing societies. For example, Kidsti and Tekali went to Columbia University in US but chose
different field of studies than most of their contemporaries would choose. Unlike most of Eritreans of that period and to a great extent now, they did not pursue their higher studies in engineering or
medical schools. Kidsti studies General Education and Home Economics while Tekali studies archaeology.

Mezghebe’s works go beyond limited geographical and cultural spaces. Never did he care to sell any of his works and earn more money, but some of his works end-up in museums in Italy. Mezghebe’s stand as a true global citizen is articulated in Tesfay’s letter (162-165) to his sister after Mezghebe’s death.

Huriy Ghirmai’s translation gives glossary of terms at the end of the book. He did not try to find their equivalent meaning to most of Tigrinya terms which carry greater cultural contexts. It was an excellent decision to give the English readers the cultural contexts of most of the terms.

Beyene Haile, the leading literary figure in Eritrea, has published other two novels --Duquan Tiberh (2003) and Tsbit Bahgu (2006)-- that are also considered milestones in history of Eritrean literature.
Similar initiatives to translate the other works can help Eritrean literature assume its proper place and introduce Haile’s works.

For the works of the late Beyene Haile, check out the following website:

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A conversation with Luwam Thomas

Issayas : Would you tell us about yourself?

Luwam: My name is Luwam Thomas and I graduated with a BSc in Nursing Degree from Ryerson University. Currently I am working as a registered nurse in Canada. Along with my love for nursing, I have a passion for music, arts, and my country Eritrea. Music has been a part of my life since I was young, starting piano lessons at age five. I continued my lessons for 14 years and currently wish to pursue my studies at a university level, with a focus in music composition. My dream is to compose classical-cultural Eritrean music to then one day see the Toronto Symphony Orchestra play our music on stage.

At age 14, I began playing Eritrean music as solo piano shows at Eritrean local community events. In 2006, I produced an Eritrean Instrumental CD of which I played popular/cultural Eritrean music. The total proceeds of the sale of the CD was donated to the Eritrean Martyrs Children Fund. In my late teens I started a journey  in search of young Eritrean artists in Toronto to create a band; 2007 Bahli Tesfa was formed. We performed at various Eritrean and non-Eritrean events for 3 years  promoting our culture through music and dance. In promoting Eritrean culture, I participated in the Miss AfriCanada 2009 Pageant in which I was awarded 2nd  Runner-up and best talent ( In addition, I wrote an essay for a university course titled, “The Role of Music in the Eritrean Struggle for Independence” ( It was featured in a local ommunity newspaper,, and recently in  

Recently, I have begun sharing my work to the cyber world through my YouTube channel Hade1Hade ( In the channel you will find  my work in Eritrean music, Eritrean cuisine cooking tutorials, how-to-play the kirar tutorials, and of course the Eritrean Mass Online Music Collaboration Project of 2013.                                                    

Issayas:  When I first saw your solicitation for your project, I thought it was a brilliant idea. For people who didn't see the pledge, what was it that you wanted  to accomplish and did you succeed in what you set out to do?

Luwam: As a young kid I remember watching the Eritrean cultural group, “Sbrit” perform a group song called “Hibue’ Werki”. For the first time I saw an Eritrean orchestra with several kirarists, wata players, flutists, and more. I said to myself, “I want to create an Eritrean orchestra here in Canada!” Looking back, I realized it was a kiddish wish.

Early this year, I watched a YouTube video called "Little Symphony" where 106 young artists from 30 different countries collaborated online to play a classical song, Canon in D Major. Rekindling my kiddish memories of an Eritrean orchestra, I thought to myself, "What if we did this in Eritrean music?" I brought it up in conversation with a fellow friend and multi-talented young artist Minasie Haile (who is the music producer in EMOMCP2013) and from there the idea blossomed. As I started to see the massive responses from Eritrean youth all over the world, the support, the encouragement, and the desire to participate, it started to become clear the objectives of the project: cultural awareness, youth empowerment, and most importantly unity.

Issayas: What did you learn from this experience about the Eritrean youth?

Luwam : Spirit of the youth.

We are “weresti hager”. Through this project I was able to see the desire and willingness of Eritrean youth to learn about their culture, the desire to connect with their brother’s and sisters all over the world, and to be in touch with their identity. The youth in this group, with enthusiasm and dedication, encouraged each other in the development of their talents, teaching each other what they know, communicating ideas, and helping each other to network. For example, the initiative of the organizers
taking ownership of parts of the project in the field of their talents.


Regardless of our differences, where we live, our political views, or our religions, this project has showed that together as Eritreans we can do great things. As a group we have come across some challenges including persons or audiences questioning or attempting to politicize the project. What really enlightened me was the maturity level and how progressive-minded these young smart Eritreans were; showing the world that we can set aside our differences and work together,
focusing on a common goal.

Issayas: What surprised you the most about this project?

Luwam: The magnitude of undiscovered Eritrean young talent in this world! Each application I went through, I felt like I found a pot of gold, or a gem. "I play kirar". "I can rap in English or Tigrigna". "I am a painter". "I can dance with the areki bottle on my head". It was a wonderful experience to go through these applications, to get to know these young artists, and finally to have the pleasure of working with them.

This project took 5 months to complete (which isn't a short time), starting from April to August. The second thing that moved me was that each and every single person involved in this project was extremely dedicated, committed, and passionate about the project from day one all the way to the final days of completion.

Issayas:  What was the volume of the response? How about the demographics?

Luwam: We used various Internet outlets to share our project idea: Facebook, Email, Twitter, and YouTube. We released an information/advertisement video, which received 40,000 views. On Facebook we created a group called Eritrean Mass Online Music Collaboration Project. In a matter of weeks, the group grew to include 500 members consisting of supporters and participants from all around the world. The participants you see on the final video are living in countries Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,USA, Canada, Germany, Rwanda, UK, and Israel. The final video was released on YouTube on August 27, 2013 and in 3 days totaled over 10,000 views and endless positive feedback from YouTube users, Facebook users, and shared by many all over the Internet. It was featured on,, paltalk forums, the Abraham Afewerki Facebook Fan Page, and others.

 Issayas: The end product is beautiful. Did you have to select the finalists? What was the process?

Luwam: One of the goals of the project was to encourage and empower young Eritrean talents. Having said that, there wasn't any competition or any selection process of finalists. Everyone was welcome to share their talents as long as they performed it to the best of their ability. Being the first of its kind in Eritrean music, when we first released the idea of the project to the cyber-world, we did not know what to expect in terms of youth response. It ended up that we received a very large amount of interest from Eritrean youth all over the world wanting to participate. This made us decide it was best to begin an organizing process by creating an application form for interested youth, and asking to submit by a deadline. We then formed an organizing committee with representatives from different parts of the world to assist with each category of artists, advertising, and music and video editing. We received over 70 applications with various talents in less than 3 weeks. Each applicant was sent an
information package via email including a description of the objective/goals of the project, the instructions or steps they would need to take, and necessary tools they may need to complete their part (i.e. instrumental, lyrics). From then it was endless back and forth communicating with artists and organizers, sometimes assisting with the Tigrigna lyrics or pronunciation, assisting with tuning their instruments via Skype, helping them find creative ways to perform their art...etc. It was a group effort of Eritrean youth helping each other develop and fine-tune their talents in Eritrean music; all completely over the Internet.

Keep in mind that this project was completely voluntary. The majority of the participants took time out of their busy lives from school, work, many asking for extensions so that they can finish their exams (which of course we granted). Finally, we ended up with a total of 34 official participants (musicians, singers, painters, dancers, photographers, artists).

Issayas: Would you do it again? What would you change or not change?

Luwam: It was a memorable experience. Since the release date, to this day I still don't have words to express my happiness and appreciation to everyone that was involved either actively participating or supporting us. It took a lot of hard work, sacrifice of time, problem solving, learning new technologies, dedication, teamwork, and perseverance to complete this project. I really do believe this was a stepping-stone in the development of Eritrean music using technology as a vehicle. I learned nothing is impossible if we put our mind to it and have belief in what we are doing and trust in the people we are working with. At the moment, I am pursuing other pending projects but if the opportunity arises and if the youth are interested in an EMOMCP Part 2, I am more than happy and willing to do it again. This project has sparked a new network of young Eritrean artists, evident by some of the artists already working on mini-collaborations with each other online.

I must express my gratitude to my parents and the Eritrean community of Toronto whom since my early days supported me in my journey in arts and music. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all those involved in EMOMCP2013. Lastly, thank you Issayas for inviting me to your blog.

Issayas: The pleasure is mine.