Asmara, the Culture Capital of the Tigrinya Language
|Asmara's rapid infrastructure development of the 1930s and early 1940s helped kick-start the modernization of Tigrinya language, arts and music|
Asmara, the Culture Capital of the Tigrinya Language
By Makhate Berhane,
When I hear the word Asmara, I immediately see a stream of images in my head. Old men in classy tweed blazers worthy of tenured college professors, sitting at a local café conversing about the day’s top issues while occasionally taking long sips of their espressos; children selling gum out of boxes on the street; groups of uniform clad high school students walking home from class while simultaneously making plans on how they’re going to spend the rest of the day. I see all of these images against the breathtakingly beautiful backdrop of Asmara’s art deco buildings, reminiscent of Rome, the city that Asmara was modeled after by the Italian colonizers in the 19th and 20th century.
The history of Asmara’s founding is so eerily fitting, that it seems as if it were made up at a later date. It’s said that Asmara came about as a truce that was created and backed by the women of four clans who were constantly at war against one another. The area that Asmara inhabited was being preyed on by local bandits, and the women decided that the four clans who inhabited the land, should unite in order to combat them. The four clans agreed to unite, and the name Arbate Asmara was adopted, which translates to “the four are united” in English. As time progressed, Arbata was dropped from the official name of the city, however there is a district in Asmara today called Arbate Asmara in tribute to the original name. To this day, Asmara enjoy general peace and stability even though it’s a bustling metropolis. Muslims, Christians, and people of differing ethnicities live together in the same neighborhoods in sound and solid harmony.
It’s a bittersweet reality that the Italian colonizers played a major role in morphing Asmara into the cultural center that it is today, and has been for the last one hundred or so years. The physical infrastructure that they constructed, alone, is a significant factor. The Italian architects essentially had free reign to create a new world from scratch and they ran with it. The leaps in education, sanitation, healthcare and modern governance that came along with the Italians cannot be discounted. For fear of seeming Uncle Tom-ish, I want to unequivocally state that many Eritreans, myself included, resent the colonization of our precious Eritrea, or any other country in Africa for that matter. That being said, I realize that rapid modernization came hand-in-hand with the colonization of our land.
The form of Tigrinya spoken in Asmara is generally considered to be the purest form of Tigrinya. The acceptance of this form of Tigrinya stretches even into the borders of Eritrea’s neighbor, Ethiopia, among the Tigray people. Even though accents of Tigrinya differ, even within the regions of Eritrea, Asmara-Tigrinya is the standard to most native Tigrinya speakers.
The music scene in Asmara is known for setting the standard of Tigrinya music for the rest of Eritrea and even Tigray, in Ethiopia. This trend can be traced to the 20th century when a musical revolution took place in Eritrea. Years of oppression of the Eritrean people by the Italians, then British and then Ethiopia forced Eritreans to vent their frustration through creative means. Eritreans not only took up arms to fight the yoke of the consecutive oppressive regimes, they also took up musical instruments. Eritrean artists resorted to writing and performing music with coded messages in them to offer support and dreams of a brighter future to their countrymen and women. The most famous of these coded songs is Meley by Bereket Mengisteab, a song that he wrote and composed in the 1960’s, and Shigey Habuni by Tewolde Redda which came about in the same time period.
Another major contribution that modernized Eritrean music, is the establishment of Mahber Theatre Asmara, nicknamed MaT’A for short. This musical troupe was instrumental in discovering, training and creating new musical talents. To this day, artists who belonged to this troupe are regarded as some of Eritrea’s finest artists. The above mentioned Bereket Mengisteab and Tewolde Redda were members of the legendary troupe, as were many famous other such as Ateweberhan Segid, Haile Ghebru, Teberih Tesfahuney, Osman Abdelrehim, Tikabo Woldemariam (the father of one of Eritrea’s current biggest stars, Wedi Tikabo), and Yemane Barya. It should also be noted that the invention of the electric krar by the above mentioned Ateweberhan Segid aided in modernizing Eritrean music. It’s no coincidence that MaT’A was founded in 1961, just a few months before the start of Eritrea’s thirty year armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia.
Another key factor in the modernization of Eritrean music can be traced to 1960’s and 1970’s with the influx of young US soldiers at Kagnew Station, a listening base for the American Army during the Cold War. These young G.I.’s brought with them to Eritrea, musical records of the biggest artists of that time such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and James Brown. The influence that these major American and British musical acts had on Eritrean music is evident when listening to records from that era, especially in the music of Haile Ghebru, Engineer Asgedom and Tewolde Redda.
Eritrean cinema has steadily progressed since independence and has progressed at an even faster rate following the ending of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border War. A few Eritrean films have even made it to prestigious international film festivals. Many of the films are very reminiscent of the dramas of Ancient Greece in that they are very dramatic and often times a wise societal lesson is deeply ingrained in the film.
It has been pointed out in several different articles, a few even published on Madote.com, that Eritrean-Tigrinya music and films are more popular in the Tigray region of Ethiopia than their own respective music and films. Personally, I first learned of this phenomenon when a family friend, who is from Tigray, had a male relative in his early thirties, migrate to the US. I was stunned to find out that this gentleman and I shared a similar taste in Tigrinya music. His favorite singers were not only Eritrean, but they were the most popular artists at the moment. He named off some of his favorite as Elsa Kidane, Wedi Tikabo, Korchach and Helen Meles. I was shocked. He informed me that the satellites in Tigray pick up Eri-TV signals and that most people prefer to watch Eri-TV programs over those on the Ethiopian channels.
There is a phenomenon of Ethiopian singers “remaking” celebrated songs by Eritrean artists and passing them off as their own, to the constant ire of many Eritreans who feel that it’s a form of cultural and artistic theft. This has been happening for years now, but as of late, it seems to have become a more heated topic of debate within the Eritrean community as these songs continue to soar in popularity within the Ethiopian and Eritrean community. To me, this is the final straw that solidifies Asmara as the cultural capital of the Tigrinya language.
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