Soundtrack of Eritrea: Tigrinya Music
"Are you are Christian or a Muslim?" Joseph asked me. He was fasting for Lent and missed every meal with us, which was too bad because the Berbere-spiced bowls were out of this world. I didn't think it was the most ideal moment to get into religion with him, so I vaguely mentioned something about being born Episcopalian and we resumed watching a passing camel.
Our guides Alem and Joseph were the long-lost Eritrean uncles I never had. They were the ones who introduced me not only to Tigrinya music, but to the spellbinding beauty of Eritrean people. We spent most of the days driving around the country in Joseph's truck, listening to the entrancing mix of Arabic, Afrobeat, and Sudanese blues, criss-crossing our way across the country.
"Can you turn it up, Alem?", I called from the back of the car, sweat dribbling down my face. They had this album on repeat- a Tigrinyan mixtape- that colored every turn in the road. I was lost in the melancholic warbling of the singer's androgynous voice, set against West African horn runs and slightly over-synth'ed production. I was transported.
Tigrinya comes from the Tigray-Tygrinya people, an ethic group inhabiting both Eritrea and the northern highlands of Ethiopia. In Eritrea, Tigrinya is the most spoken language and the music the most popular. Geographically it sits on the Red Sea which explains the influence of Arabic and Andalusian classical music in its scales and modes. The country is elusive: the last country to gain independence in Africa, closed off to the outer world, its citizens lacking basic rights like owning a passport.
But the music is permeating. Listen to older folk artists like Wedi Sheik, Wedi Tukul, and Bereket Mengisteab and you will be taken back to the times when Eritrea was still a part of Ethiopia. I also like the modern music: Elsa Kidane, Adeba Haile, and Dehab Faytinga (Kunama). All women with entrancing voices.
Eritrea and Ethiopia were embroiled in a 30-year war which has left the country struggling to stand on its own. Our guide Alem had been kidnapped and taken prisoner by the Ethiopian army at one point. As we cascaded down the massive 2,500 meter cliffs through sweltering desert, I reveled in how this music sounded like such a harmonious mix between the Arabic and the African. Music reveals the story of a place better than history itself.
More posts from Eritrea here.