Love and war songs

Located some 60 kilometres south-east of the port of Massawa, the Zula Plain stretches from the piedmont  of the highland plateau to the Red Sea.
Since ancient times Zula Plain, protected by the gulf  of the same name and sitting just across from the nearby Dahlak archipelago,  occupies a enviable strategic position as is attested by the ruins of the ancient port city of Adulis, former gateway of the Axumite kingdom to the Red Sea.
The alluvial soils of the plain cover some 140 km² of which only around a tenth is currently under cultivation (principally maize and sorghum).  Whilst the better part of the coastal plains of Eritrea are extremely arid, thanks to seasonal floods flowing off the highlands and the richness of its alluvial soil, Zula plain is exceptionally fertile compared to other parts of the region.

Afar, Tigre and Saho
Three ethnic groups, Afar, Tigre and Saho, make up the majority of the some 15,000 inhabitants of the Zula Plain and its immediate surroundings. They are concentrated largely in the villages of Foro, Afta and Zula. These ethnic groups are distinguished by their origins, their social organisation and their culture, but above all, by their language even if many persons are bilingual and even trilingual.
Tigre and Tigrinya, spoken on the highlands by the largest ethnic group in Eritrea, together are used by some 80% of Eritreans. They are Semitic languages sharing a common ancestry since they are derived from the ancient Ge’ez language which only survives today as a liturgical language used by the Coptic Orthodox religion. Tigre, however, is written using both Arabic script and Ge’ez script  whilst Tigrinya is written only in the Ge’ez script. The Afar and Saho languages, on the other hand, are Hamitic languages and spoken by fewer people. The Afar, Saho and Tigre of the Zula Plain are Muslims like the majority of coastal peoples even if some Tigre living in the highlands are Christians.

The music
The songs collected and recorded on the CD “Golagul” ( commonly used phrase meaning  the Plain) reveal the musical traditions of the three ethnic communities established in the Zula Plain.  If there are rhythmic and thematic differences between the songs of the three  groups, the musical structure in nonetheless virtually the same: the main singer sets the tempo by clapping his or her hands or by beating a drum (kobero); verses sung in solo alternate with choral incantations (men and women separate into groups spontaneously) taking up refrains and rhythmically clapping hands. As the song’s mood ebbs and flows, women give out strident cries to stress certain verses (elel).

In such traditional rural communities isolated from the modern world, song and dance play a preponderant role in social life. Some years back during the liberation struggle, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) began radio programmes broadcasting modernised music as a means of political education. This has been continued by the now legitimate Eritrean government even though somewhat paradoxically one can feel the influence of Amaharic music popular in Ethiopia. In contrast to this modernised type of music, the folk songs on this CD have an ancient origin and reproduce long-standing melodic and rhythmic traditions proper to each ethnic community. Nonetheless, the lyrical content of the songs themselves is frequently inspired in part or in whole by current political reality. These folk songs convey then both the ethnic identity of the artists as well as their attempts to relate to current times. Thirty years of liberation war, of sacrifices and suffering, have contributed to the emergence of a strong sense of a common national identity without for all of that, as these songs show, having diminished the rich variety of a multicultural society.

The songs were recorded in Foro, administrative capital of the region, in February 1999 during the border conflict pitting Eritrea against Ehtiopia since May 1998.

CD tracks

  1.  Ana meto agebe (Tigre)
    “Where have I failed?” tells the story of a young man abandoned by his lover for no apparent reason. Alone at the door of the one who yesterday feigned love for him he laments his fate …

  2. Ayregede (Afar)
    “When the sun rises”, based on a classic folk song of long date, is dedicated to the Eritrean President, Issayas Afwerki.

  3. O’h (guma) yeharshema (Saho)
    The words of this traditional song entitled “Listen, I am going to sing” have been adapted to contemporary events.  Among other contemporary references, it speaks of hiding places used by fighters during the Liberation War such as islands of the Dahkak archipelago.

  4. Haleto IaIe Ialo (Saho)
    “Where are you going?” evokes the difficult relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia at the time of the annexation of Eritrea by the former Emperor Haile Selassie (“with the left hand he killed you, with the other he fed you”)

  5. Seda (Afar)
    As if in a debate (seda means conversation), this old song opposes men to women who each in turn reply to the criticisms of the other.  “We enjoyed good times before you came along” say the men to which the women reply “We also are unhappy since we met you!”

  6. Toriyota (Afar)
    In this song the singer incarnates a bridegroom the night before his marriage.  “Which woman are you preparing for me?” his sings.  The chorus responds “If we sing well, she will follow her suitor.”

  7. Erab Ghedem (Tigre)
    “Your hair floats on the breeze as does the attire of the gazelle.  You are the gold of my heart.  I cannot live without you.”  The beauty of the young women is compared with that of a gazelle (erab) encountered on the Ghedem mountain range which stretches form the Sudanese border in the north to the Zula Plain in the south.

  8. Adate (Tigre)
    Adate signifies culture.  “We ignore whether we will die today or tomorrow, but we must preserve our culture for those who follow.”

  9. Aran heutoukta (Saho)
    The tilte of this war song, “A star in the heavens”, refers to the Eritrean flag which bears a star. This song of the Liberation War underlines the unity of the 9 ethnic groups making up the nation and recounts war victories and the construction of an independent state.  “Men and women fought together.  An Eritrean fighter is worth 1,000 Woyenes (pejorative name for the people of Tigrai currently dominant in Ethiopia), an Eritrean female fighter is worth 100 soldiers!  We will take breakfast in Makale and lunch in Addis …”

  10. Innyo soklie (Saho)
    “Developed City” sings the praises of Eritrea comparing it to a flower.

  11. Keke (Afar)
    “She and he” is a typical traditional Afar love song sung only outside of villages.  “You are tired of dancing with this beauty with a face like the sun.  You who still sleep, come (outside of the village).  Come and dance with us”.

  12. Sanadirle (Saho)
    This song, entitled “Armed group”, evokes not only the war but also Eritrean culture (dancing and music) and the beauty of the country which is being fought for.

  13. Farum Ghedan (Saho)
    This song, like the preceding one, has somewhat atypical lyrics.  Without apparent connection, one sings pell-mell of the Ambussa Peace Treaty, the story of Fatuma Sete who slaughters sheep and the vigour of Shum Assenta’s herd of goats! Ghedan is the name of the a montain near the town of Ghinda and Farum signifies its summit.

  14. Selam (Tigre)
    “I want peace (selam) for school children, for all of my friends, for our people, for the trees and for the animals of our country.”

  15. Yewelale (Tigre)
    “Our country is blessed with the most beautiful hills.  Our soldiers have given their lives for her.  Our sea is magnificent.  Continue!”  This song dates from the Liberation War.

  16. Erytrea nedege (Saho)
    “Eritrea is my country”.  From verse to verse in the traditional narrative style, the singer expresses his attachment to his country while enumerating the sacrifices he is ready to make for her and giving his version of the causes of the new conflict opposing Eritrea and Ethiopia.

  17. Worada (Saho)
    “Justice” cries this Saho singer whilst the two chorus chant “We have destroyed the Woyene tanks”. Retaken by the Eritreans in 1998, the town of Badme is one ot the major areas of territorial contention in the current border conflict with Ethiopia.

  18. Laleh (Afar)
    This ancient song entitled “Courage” is sung only by Afar men during the marrying season (March).