Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Conversation with Solomon Tsehaye


Solomon at the official launch of his book.

Issayas: You once mentioned in your article “Aspects of Traditional Wisdom: As Agents of Conflict Resolution” that “any meaningful development cannot take place in the presence of conflict”. That statement makes me think of Eritrea’s written customary laws. Once I asked Prof. Asmerom Legesse his take on Eritrea’s customary laws. Because it’s important, I would like to quote him in length. This is what he had to say: “The most fascinating aspect of the Eritrean Customary Laws is its dynamism. In the Eritrean context, laws are not written in order to be administered by law enforcement agencies. Laws exist as a background to intervention, to mediation, to conflict resolution. Conflict resolution is the most important aspect of Eritrean Customary Law. In other words, Eritrea’s Customary Laws have conflict resolution mechanism incorporated in them”. From your research, how did masségnatat (people who practice massé) addressed social issues in the context of customary laws. Can you give us an example of a masségna who resolved a conflict through massé?   
Solomon: Conflict resolution is one of the functions of massé and melqes. But massé and melqes do not necessarily refer to customary laws when playing such roles. Drawing from the traditional values and wisdom of the society, masségnatat create massé or melqes in a way that appeals to the conscience of the parties engaged in dispute. Out of the many oral poets who resolved conflicts through massé or melqes I will mention two as examples.

In Sagla, the home village of the renowned oral poet Negash Bairau, a family man beat his elder brother hard and consequently the victim died a few days later. Then it was feared that his sons would kill their uncle in revenge. A sage from the neighboring village of Embabdehan, who was also a very respectable village chief, named Bashay Weldu Abbadi pre-empted the suspected revenge by making a melqes at the funeral of the deceased. He wisely warned the sons of the victim to refrain, because, he said, they will only lose and not gain anything by having both brothers killed. Almost everyone of the hundreds of people who attended the funeral pleaded with the sons to show restraint quoting the melqes of Bashay Weldu. The public pressure aroused by the melqes was overwhelming that the sons were finally convinced not to avenge, and the extended family lived peacefully.
Please allow me to digress a little bit to give some information on certain Tigrinya terms which I am using in this interview. Ra’esi, Degiat, Bahregas / Bahre Negasi, Blatta, Aite and Bashay are traditional Tigrinya titles. The highest of these titles is Ra’esi and is just below the king. The title Degiat comes after Ra’esi. Etcetera.
The other example I have selected is Bahregas Tombosa Weldemichael of Addew’ala, a village to the west of Arreza. Around the turn of the 20th century, when two strong chiefs Degiat Tesfamarriam of Addi Quala and Ra’esi Kidanemariam of Arreza were engaged in rivalry, a group of men from Arreza accompanied a groom on a trip to Addi Quala where his wedding ceremony was taking place. On their arrival the groom’s company entered the pavilion prepared for the wedding party at the bride’s household. Food and drinks were served after the essential marriage rituals had been enacted. Compliments on the quality of the feast poured from the men of Arreza. The celebration was continuing in a very happy mood when one among the Arreza men came to the middle of the pavilion with his spear and shield and boasted about the superiority of Arreza in the very presence of Degiat Tesfamariam. The chief felt insulted by the boastful man of Arreza and ordered his immediate arrest by his armed guards. Several men of Arreza objected the chief’s order and stood in the way of the guards to prevent his arrest. Angered by their audacity the chief also ordered the arrest of the men, too. Almost half of the men of Arreza were put under arrest. The wedding bliss turned to sadness and confrontation. Tension was building up between the two sides and the fear that it may spark into a physical fight was growing. If a fight started then the Arreza people would be annihilated. Wisdom had, therefore, to intervene on their behalf.
The distinguished oral poet Bahragas Tombosa requested Degiat Tesfamariam’s permission to perform massé. Keen to know what he was going to say in his massé the chief permitted him.
Bahregas Tombosa praised him to be a weighty man of full measure, while all others, including Arreza’s chief, were only a quarter. The chief’s heart was softened by the nice words the poet said about him. The “fullness” and grandeur bestowed on him by the poet in comparison to those chiefs whom the poet considered were only one fourth of him made Degiat Tesfamariam feel that it would be degrading to vie with a handful of men from Arreza who by no means were a match to him. As the massé appealed to his conscience he calmed down. His anger and eagerness to take punitive action was replaced by rationality and mercifulness. He, therefore, declared the release of those arrested, and the men apologized for their misconduct. The resolving of the conflict brought the occasion back to its festive mood. At the closing of the ceremony, the Arreza group left safely escorting their bride and groom.

A long line to buy Solomon's book at the official book launching ceremony.
Issayas: Eritrean poetry in English is becoming popular in the U.S. thanks to the efforts of many people in Eritrea and outside including Dr. Charles Cantalupo and Dr. Ghirmay Negash. Dr. Cantalupo has written a brilliant essay entitled “The Story on Who Needs a Story?”. I also think you need to write an essay on the story behind the collection, identification, publication and etc. of your work. Do you have plans to do so?

Solomon: I absolutely agree that an essay or essays should be written at least in Tigrinya and in English on the overall massé and melqes research experience. There is a great deal to be shared. I would also like to take this opportunity to suggest to Prof. Charles Cantalupo to write the English essay because I know he has a lot of interest on the subject.

Issayas: You have concluded the first of the three volumes to be published as the result of your extensive research on Eritrean massé and melqes. What is the status of the remaining two volumes? When are they going to be available to the public? I think this is very important aspect of Eritrean culture, therefore, it should be available to the rest of the world, too. Do you have any plans to translate it into English? I know, for example, artist Yigzaw Michael wants to raise funds to help you fund for the translation.

Solomon: I am being asked the first two questions frequently by many of my readers. They are eager to see the remaining volumes published very soon. Appreciating the enthusiasm and good wishes, I have to be honest to inform my readers that it will be quite a while before the second volume can be available to the public. I still have substantial research work to do. Research never ends. But lets hope to see it come out towards the end of 2015, God willing. Then follows the third volume some time later.

 Regarding translating massé and melqes, or oral poetry in the broad sense, into English, Elias Amare and myself have already embarked on carrying out the task. We firmly believe that Eritrean arts and culture should be exposed to the outside world and translation into major international languages like English is one of the means of doing so. So far, very little of the nation’s arts and culture is known to the world. Extremely few Eritrean literary works have been translated into widely read international languages. Yet, the amount of literary material, particularly oral literature, composed in Eritrean languages over the centuries is enormous. There is a lot Eritrean literature has to offer in terms of ideas, values and human experience to readers from other cultures. This sharing of knowledge and experience across cultures is, therefore, the motive for this translation project.
We want to make it clear, however, that our plan is not to translate the entire book or books as such. What we have intended to do is to translate selected masterpieces of massé, melqes and oral song poetry, as well as a summarized version of the long introduction of the volumes. We are very grateful to artist Yigzaw Michael for his efforts to generate support towards achieving our goal.
Speaking in line with the issue of translation, I would also like to add that I have written an essay entitled “Weldedingl: the Master Poet” which features some of Aite Weldedingl’s massé and melqes translated into English. The essay was written on request by the editor of the book “Great Minds of Africa”. The book is hoped to be produced in 2014 by a German publisher. Incidentally, I am pleased to inform the reader that my present interviewer, Mr. Issayas Tesfamariam has also contributed to the book by writing an essay on Abraham Hannibal.

Issayas: Do you have anything to add?

Solomon: I hope what has been said in three parts gives an overview of the topic in discussion. For the benefit of those who don’t read Tigrinya, I also recommend that pages 540-544, the English part of my book “Massén Melqesn Qeddamot”, be read for further information.
Issayas, I thank you very much for your keen interest in my research and for organizing this conversation. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my deeply felt gratitude to all institutions and individuals who supported the massé and melqes research and its publication in one way or the other. Finally, my best wishes for a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2014 to everyone.              

Issayas: Thank you.

Solomon: Thank you.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Conversation with Solomon Tsehaye


Solomon Tsehaye at the official launch of his book.

Issayas: What unique experience did you get in researching and collecting massé and melqes?

Solomon: The study of massé and melqes is the most enlightening experience I have had in my life. It is through this research that I have come to learn a great deal about the Eritrean society. I was exposed to the sea of wisdom accumulated by our ancestors which proved right, time and again, the Tigrinya saying “kab mehros a’emro” meaning intellect is more powerful than education/schooling. The authors of massé and melqes did not go to school, hence were not educated in the conventional sense of the word. They were non-literate people and yet they created marvelous pieces of oral poetic art through the power of imagination and critical thinking. I must, however, state that the aforementioned Tigrinya saying does not mean to undervalue the importance of education or going to school. All it intends to express is that formal education is not the only means to knowledge, intellectual development and creativity.

Issayas: Did you encounter any challenges during the research process?

Solomon: Yes, I did. The greatest challenge I faced was the project itself - the task of researching and collecting massé and melqes throughout the Tigrinya speaking regions of Eritrea. It is a daunting task. Think of traveling all over the villages and towns to interview the oral poets and depository tellers where at times I have to travel for hours on foot in places that can not be reached by vehicles. The geographical area covered by the study is very wide particularly taking into account the nature of the research. Since each poetic piece of massé or melqes is unique in its own way, portraying any specific event, situation or personality in history, I search for every single massé or melqes as long as it exists in memory. The research calls for rigorous cross-checking efforts to verify the authenticity (originality) of the piece as composed by its author. This exhaustive research method naturally increases the risk of losing informants at the other end, because many of them are already in their very old age. Regrettably, several of those who were in my list of potential informants passed away without me interviewing them even once. Some also died or lost memory completely while I was planning to meet them again for further consultation.
Currently, I have another challenge. The fact that I have been reassigned to my administrative duties at the Cultural Affairs Bureau, Ministry of Education since mid-2009 deprives me of sufficient time to finalize the remaining part of the research.
 Although, I also encountered obstacles like shortage of funding, the main challenges I face in the research process are the ones stated above.
Issayas: Knowing that you are a poet, what are the advantages of oral poetry being studied by a poet?

Solomon: To start with, doing this research is a huge learning opportunity for me. I am having great pleasure not only as a researcher but also as the student of oral poetry. It gave me the very rare chance of studying under some of the most natural professors of the discipline who are no more now.
Regarding the advantages of oral poetry being studied by a poet, I think, it is obvious that someone who practices the art and knows more about the subject matter is in a better position to study it well. In my case, my background in poetry was very helpful in the overall conduct of the research. Among other things, I could easily identify missing part of a certain massé or melqes, or unnatural additions as told by some informants. I am sure, I couldn’t have performed the way I did, if I hadn’t had that background.

Audience at the official launch of Solomon's book in Asmara, Eritrea.

Issayas: Why was it hard to find any massé or melqes before Feleskinos?

Solomon: There is no doubt that massé and melqes had been practiced long before Feleskinos. In fact, the first massé retrieved from memory as composed by Feleskinos in circa 1765 is said to have been made upon request by Bahregas Turquay Gebryes of Loggo Sarda. He asked Feleskinos to compose and perform massé for him right on the spot. Bahregas Turquay’s request for the massé is indicative of the fact that the tradition of massé and melqes was being practiced before that time.
The reason why I couldn’t find any massé/melqes or any names of oral poets (masségnatat) before Feleskinos is simply because it was not available in the memory of contemporary depository tellers whom I interviewed. The further we go back in time the rarer the memory becomes and we reach at a point beyond which there is nothing remembered. Had this research been done in the middle of the 20th century for example, I believe, the chances of finding massé/melqes and names of oral poets before Feleskinos would have been high.
Issayas: In your book, page 540, you mentioned that what makes massé and melqes enduring oral literary works is the depth and philosophical approach with which they look at social issues. Would you expand on it?

Solomon: Massé and melqes are mostly known to discuss the cores of issues with very wise and thoughtful approaches employing beautiful language. This quality of being profound in terms of content and aesthetic in terms of structure renders massé and melqes highly memorable. Though composed and performed on particular occasions these oral poetic works often have universal character being relevant at all times, thus  making them enduring.
Lets take two examples, as translated from Tigrinya into English:
Blatta Sbhatu Tesfu from the village of Addi Chomay is said to have made a massé on the duality of human nature while feasting with his fellow villagers. Spiritually it is claimed that the soul and the flesh are in a continuous struggle against each other for supremacy. The oral poet then had to say the following about this human predicament in the religious sense.

        It would have been good
        Had God created the soul leaving out the flesh
        Or the flesh leaving out the soul,
        Poor humans
        Caught in a dilemma of difficult choices
        We just fatten ourselves
        To feed the bloody termites.

In the Tigrinya tradition the human dead body is believed to be eaten by termites after burial.

Ra’esi Kidanemariam Gebremeskel, the well known chief of the Arreza area in southern Eritrea, used to occasionally invite his notables and ask them to tell stories and recite oral poetry. In one of such events he asked an oral poet by the name of Amr Fkak from the village of Dabbu to compose a massé for him. Though a bit reluctant at the beginning, the oral poet spontaneously made this massé for the chief who was evidently getting old.

        Son of Geremeskel looter of gold
        Son of Haileab looter of gold
        Son of Geretsadiq  looter of gold
        In life, you enjoyed all the sweet things
        But you are left now with two bitter ones,
        One is ageing
        And the other is dying.

Upon listening to this very realistic massé, the chief touched by the poetic piece is said to have declared the end of that day’s gathering and entered into contemplating human destiny - the inevitability of old age and death.

Next, part three (final)