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)