This past weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of modern Eritrean music.
From the highly sensitizing and vibrant tunes of the 1960s and mid 70s, to the revolutionary songs of the armed struggle and on to the colorful musical productions of Independent Eritrea, the long journey of modern Eritrean music was colorfully commemorated through exhibitions and musical concerts. When it comes to Eritrean music, a lot has already been said on its origins, stages of development, contemporary status, challenges, and so on…
What I now would like to talk about however, even if in its smallest measurement, is how veteran Eritrean singers were influenced to take up the singing profession and how they succeeded in producing songs that still remain to date likable and highly vibrant, even among today’s young generation.
While music as we know it came to Eritrea with the advent of Italian colonization, only in the late 1940s did native Eritreans began taking the stage and entertain local audiences.
A living testimony to that époque and one of the names that actually springs to mind at hearing the words music in Eritrea is legendary singer Bereket Menghisteab. With a career spanning over five decades, he can unquestionably represent the handful veteran artists that Eritrea proudly boasts of.
Born in 1938 in a village not very far from Asmara, Bereket was fortunate enough to be able to listen to music whenever he came to the city on errands.
“We would listen to songs on a gramophone and wonder where the sound came from or how the person [singer] got into that black round thing,” he reminisces.
Upon returning to their village, they would try to repeat what they heard using traditional instruments that they could find in their surroundings. That way the love for music was gradually growing in their hearts. That burning love had however a seemingly impenetrable barrier: a strong societal conviction that singing was of no use and that singers were useless persons.
Bereket narrates that while his grandfather allowed him to play music as long as he did it for his personal entertainment only, his father strictly admonished him and went as far as destroying several kirars Bereket had built.
“There were many people who, despite their evident potential, quit music fearing their parents’ objections,” Bereket recollects. After all, back in those days, anyone hardly thought of music as a career. It was rather a hobby; and a useless and time-consuming one at that.
Regardless of the antagonism he got from family and fellow villagers however, Bereket set out to achieve his dream of being a singer.
“Love or passion for music is not enough. Hard work is a key component towards achieving your goals in life,” says Bereket.
With time, however, people began changing their attitudes toward music and singers. Especially with the beginning of the armed struggle in 1961, people started using the songs as a way of manifesting their hatred for the colonizers. It was around that time that Bereket started his public singing career. He wrote many ballads, some of which featured love themes with coded messages for political freedom. He travelled to different countries in Africa as member of a cultural group.
Today’s singers have the older ones to serve as role models. Similarly Bereket and his companions had also other singers that they looked up to.
“I remember listening to songs by Atoberhan Segid, Tsehaytu Beraki, Tukabo Woldemariam and others on the gramophone,” he recounts, and went on explaining that they in turn had few nationals who might have influenced them to sing.
A great song is always the outcome of the coordinated efforts of all those who participate in its production: from the singer to the composers and musicians, all make up the natural elements of a song.
This harmony and teamwork was typical of the veteran singers, a quality barely witnessed among our contemporary artists.
“We used to have extensive rehearsals. This should of course be seen in line with the present day technological advancements,” Bereket says and explains that unlike today, in the early days there were no computers who could balance or modify the singers’ voice. The only choice was to practice over and over again until the desired effect was attained.
“I won’t deny the benefits of technology but everything shouldn’t be left to it because in doing so, we are making our songs lose their natural flavor. And that’s a big mistake that should be given due consideration,” he stressed.
Most people do agree that one of the reasons why most of the modern Eritrean songs lose popularity quickly is because they lack the effort and are only being produced in a hurry just for the sake of producing albums.
“A singer has to take into consideration that he shoulders the responsibility of satisfying the public that is waiting to listen to him. To that end, he must exert all his might for the best production possible. I am sorry to say but many of our artists are to be blamed in this matter,” Bereket pointed out.
“This doesn’t mean that there are no good singers at all. There are in fact very promising young artists from whom I’m sure we’ll hear great things,” he added.
“But I can’t help noticing how some young performers, driven by fame, pick up harmful habits and eventually grow weaker in their career. That was unthinkable in our times. We always remained true to our cultural values,” said a concerned Bereket.
Eritrean legend Bereket Menghisteab in the end stated that artistic capacity alone is not enough for an artist to remain successful. He is of the firm belief that “Good manners or professional etiquette is also equally important.” (Shaebia.org)