By Abraham T. Zere
A long history of censorship, combined with the state’s comprehensive control of the arts sector, has crippled the Eritrean music industry. This unfavorable environment has forced many musicians into exile in other countries. Many of them do not return, while the young continue to flee. This text provides an overview of Eritrean music in exile.
During the pre-independence and colonial era, Eritrean music was characterised by an emotional intensity that prescribed a love for life and nation. It set the tone for the nation's struggle against repression. Shortly after Ethiopia’s illegal subjugation of Eritrea began after the second World War, Eritrean singers refused to sing as Ethiopian citizens. Haile Selassie’s rule made every effort to ban and discourage Eritrean musicians from performing in national languages such as Tigrinya, which was a source of nationalistic fervor at the time.
This was to change during the struggle for independence. In this period, Eritrean music was scattered. Few popular musicians remained in Ethiopia - the majority either joined the revolution or went into exile in various parts of the world. This period showed the bravery of Eritrean musicians, who were out of their element, underfunded, ill-equipped and without a support mechanism. Those who joined the rebellion were in effect revolutionary fighters that performed for the cause.
After Eritrea’s independence in 1991, the country's political structure did not change much. Artists continued to be monitored under the ruling party's various organs. Eritrean singers today are either army conscripts serving in divisions labeled “Information and Agitation” or are classified as civil servants of the ruling party’s Cultural Affairs Bureau. Both organs produce works of art that promote official policy. They are called upon during national holidays and government campaigns, celebrated with huge fanfare and covered in the national media.
For those that cannot stand the regime’s control over their artistic expression, the common route has been to seize the opportunity of a government-organized performance abroad to abscond. A more dangerous journey is fleeing through the country's heavily guarded borders. Some of the recently absconded singers include Yohannes Tikabo, Tesfalem “Qorchach” Arefaine, Kiros Asfaha and Temesghen Yared, among others.
Key exiled artists
The career of Eritrea’s living legend, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Abrar Osman[i], spans more than three decades in exile. His influence on modern Eritrean music has been immense. Osman has produced four albums and is currently finalizing his fifth. He sings in Saho, Tigrinya and Tigre and masterfully assimilates traditional beats with modern music. His first three albums (released in 1987, 1992 and 1994) are characterized by elegiac lyrics expressing lasting hope for his country’s liberation and human dignity. His love songs, similarly, continue to explore new terrains. The singer is based in Germany and was one of the lead singers of a German band named Sparbear for about two years in the early 1990s. Since going into exile in 1985, Osman has not returned to his home country. His fourth album, Shama-Bel (released in 2000), redefined modern Eritrean music. The album was bestowed with a Raimoc award, Eritrea’s highest artistic honour - although Osman did not come to Eritrea to accept his award.
Another artist, Idris Mohammed Ali, is regarded as the most important singer in the Tigre language. He is credited with modernizing the country's traditional beats and his songs were chanted by school children in the country. Ali fled the war and migrated to the neighboring country of Sudan in 1968. After joining the musical association in Atbara in north-eastern Sudan and studying music for six months, he was exposed to different rhythms and modern music, which enabled him to reinvent his work. Singing in Arabic and Tigre languages (spoken across Eritrea and eastern Sudan), Ali is an avant-garde singer who greatly modernized the traditional Tigre beats. He has produced about 70 songs and released three albums. After Eritrea’s independence in 1991, leaving a large family behind in Sudan, Ali returned to his beloved homeland. As the Eritrean dream started to falter, Ali never compromised his stand. He often spoke truth with authority. As many had feared, he was detained on 24 November 2005 as part of a wave of arrests that included 13 other prominent political and cultural figures. He was neither charged nor brought to an independent court. Information by various online sources show that the singer was killed by Eritrean security agents in August 2007 alongside three colleagues. Ali has not been heard since and the Eritrean authorities have never clarified his fate.
Tsehayu Beraki is another iconic singer and songwriter who has outgrown Eritrean society’s traditional boundaries to establish herself[ii]. Beraki was playing the five-string traditional instrument, the Kirar, in local bars and at various public events before joining the Eritrean armed struggle for independence in 1977. Only a handful of singers - like Teberh Tesfahugn[iii], Amleset Abay[iv] and Tegbaru Teklay - were singing in bands at the time, when Beraki single-handedly initiated the grassroots music revival. She quickly established herself in her neighborhood of Abashawul, drawing large crowds. Her songs prompted many youths to join the armed struggle of independence, leading her to be targeted by the Ethiopian military junta. Her songs were soon chanted all over the country. Beraki recorded some songs in collaboration with other established bands in Eritrea, influenced by the disco sound of the time. After the fall of the liberation front, Beraki was exiled to The Netherlands and continues to live there. She recorded a 17-track album called Selam at Koeienverhuur Studio. In 1999 she returned to visit her homeland, where she received a hero’s welcome.
Yohannes Tikabo (aka Wedi Tikabo) is one of the most prolific Eritrean singers and songwriters, with an unsurpassed talent for perfectly capturing new trends. He has recorded more than 60 songs. His 2009 album Fewsi lbi was one of the best-selling albums in the country. It combined modern beats with melodies and expressions deeply rooted in Tigrinya tradition. The product of a laborious exploration, the album clearly revealed his cultural engagement and yielded outstanding works. Tikabo has been working to export his art and enter the wider music industry that transcends Eritrea’s limited geographical and cultural boundaries. His style combines traditional Tigrinya beats with jazz, R&B and reggae. Many of his songs have been sung and re-mixed by singers in the neighboring Ethiopia and Uganda, including Dr. Jose Chameleone.
Tikabo’s career embodies the circumscribed life of Eritrea’s artists and its youth. After finishing school he was conscripted into the army in 1994. For close to two decades, his freedom of movement and his right to release albums and embark on an independent career was thwarted. In 2013 he left the country while on state-sponsored tour of the USA. Since then he has experienced first-hand the country’s political upheavals and the bitter divisions among members of the Eritrean diaspora. His 2013 single 'Hadnetna' (our unity) went viral[v].
Few Eritrean singers and songwriters have earned the level of adulation that Abraham Afwerki enjoys. The artist, who passed away in 2006, was a true singer of the people, whose art was able to bypass the restraints imposed by Eritrean authorities. Exiled at an early age to escape the ongoing war against Ethiopia, Afwerki released five albums. Specializing in deeply philosophical lyrics and classic melodies that combined traditional, jazz, R&B and reggae influences, Afwerki consistently renewed his sound and style. Each of his albums exemplified his artistic restlessness. Afwerki was a rarity whose songs encouraged his compatriots to lift themselves up and withstand the nation's historical calamities[vi]. Afwerki embarked first on his music career while exiled in Italy when he was a teenager. He then moved to the US but continued to visit his homeland to perform. His long career was coloured by a deeply rooted poetic consciousness and diligence. Ultimately, he was too big to be silenced by the institutional schizophrenia of the Eritrean political authorities. Despite their continued attempts to curb his works, he excelled. His tragic death - he drowned in the sea while filming a music video - was turned by his fans into a day of national mourning.
Music and other forms of popular culture have long served as a site for the creation of an imagined Eritrean identity[vii] that stretches beyond the country's borders. While today only roughly 6% of those living inside Eritrea have access to the internet, for those outside the country music remains a vital source of community and belonging, which can be shared and consumed worldwide.