The traditional music in Eritrea is essentially oral in character and is transmitted from one generation to the next through performance. It has the power to reflect historical and social episodes. There are songs of patriotism, victory and pestilence, as well as many more songs of love with wonderful melodies and lyrics.
Eritrean society has a variety of musical instruments, and types of singing and dancing. Last Thursday, my colleague and I went to Hidmona, a popular traditional dancing club in Asmara, and saw traditional musicians who can play many pieces of music. Some of the performers are multilingual who can repeat the songs of various ethnic groups of Eritrea.
The traditional musical instruments used by the musicians at Hidmona include wata (a single-stringed instrument), kirar (a bowl-lyre with 5-6 strings), emblta (long metal or wooden tube, open at each end), and kebero (double headed drum).
Music is an integral part of life in all ethnic groups of Eritrea. In traditional Eritrean society music served not only as a means of entertainment but a means of communication and was closely integrated with social life. The society used music to praise, to advise, to warn and to criticise. Lyrics of songs tend to be satirical that can subtly convey messages. Traditional songs are performed on social and cultural occasions like marriage, harvest, religious festivals, games, and so on. Every social and cultural event is accompanied by a relevant music designated for the occasion. Young and old, men and women use music to communicate and to express emotions and ideas.
Since ancient times music has played a very important role in mobilizing the society. When an enemy invades or prepares to invade, for instance, the Negarrit (drum) is used to send a cautionary message to the people to be alert and get ready to defend their land and people. The melodies and poetic contents of traditional music are so enlightening they have been used as rallying points for political and social purposes. Resistance against foreign incursions is expressed through songs that help mould public opinion. During the long struggle for independence, a number of revolutionary and freedom songs were produced by the revolutionary artists to mobilize people. The revolutionary songs of Eritrea are described as “cultural bullets.”
Traditional Eritrean songs can be sung solo or in a group, and they can be performed with or without the accompaniment of musical instruments. The traditional music performed at Hidmona dancing club throws the audience into amusement. I was amused by the sound of emblta and the vibrancy, coordination, and mastery of the three men. Emblta, wind instruments, is a long wooden or metal pipe which is traditionally played in major social and cultural events. It’s described as a spice of music but isn’t extensively used these days. Only few old men are now playing emblta.
Kebero, traditional drum, is used to accompany traditional tunes. It enriches the music and makes it attractive to listen to. It’s made of a piece of animal hide stretched over the end of a cylinder-shaped object. People who play kebero sling it over the shoulder and produce sound by striking it with the hand. In some cultures the drum is placed on the ground to be stricken by hand or stick.
Traditional Eritrean music is a cultural element that gives a particular identity to Eritreans, but modern music is posing a major threat to its development. To counter this, we must work for its protection and development. Present-day singers and musicians, in particular, have the responsibility to study traditional music and work to develop it and make it globally popular.