Ethiopia: Begena or the harp – Ethiopian traditional musical instrument

In the past, most Ethiopians knew about the begena as a traditional musical instrument during the Lent period, when it was constantly played on the radio, especially during the reigns of emperors and aristocracy. The begena was almost the only instrument played during the long period of fasting as the church was an equal partner of the aristocratic state and was described as “the third estate”, with a dominant position in all aspects of national life, including that of culture. Thus, the state had made it a rule to play the begena during the two-month fasting period when it was obligatory to praise God, to meditate or to ask the divine powers for mercy and absolution.

It was played and enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s and began to gradually decline as the country turned to socialism in search of progress and all religious music was banned from the air, along with any religious preaching or ritual. religious. Begena was taken out as a dying musical instrument confined to a narrow circle of art lovers and high-class people. However, begena stepped out of the shadows after the Yared Music School was established in 1972 for a fairly brief period.

It then fell back into obscurity when the self-proclaimed socialist cadres seized political power and imposed their brand of revolutionary music on the whole of society. Young music students learned to play the begena, and more lessons were given inside and outside Yared’s music school before the ban. The instrument is still played although on rare occasions.

What sets the begena apart from other traditional Ethiopian instruments is that it is played by a single man sitting on a stool and touching the strings with his fingers to make the instrument release a sound or what musicians call a melody. acute which often has the tendency to strike hard on your mind and create a feeling of spiritual melancholy. The begena is often accompanied by someone singing religious songs although the lyrics are entirely spiritual in nature.

What is important is that the singer plays the begena at the same time. The lyrics are either invented by the singer / player, or poetic phrases taken from religious texts. The lyrical compositions are nevertheless deep in their messages and meditations on human nature, the fate of the soul or the afterlife. They often have a double meaning like Ge’ez kine or double meaning poetry.

The words are also taken from the Bible and other religious or holy texts used by the church. Sometimes this rule is broken when the singer introduces secular themes into his composition by singing about love alongside such moving themes as the futility of living in this world, the inevitability of death, the punishment of sin and l state of the afterlife.

According to connoisseurs, playing and adjusting the begena is not easy. According to information from Wikipedia, “When all ten strings are plucked, one method of begena tuning is to tune each pair of strings to one of the pitches of a pentatonic scale. When using five of the strings, only the first one. , the fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth strings are tuned and plucked to give sound. ” The complexity involved in the game of begena can be easily achieved by watching people play it with difficulty and a lot of concentration.

Unlike other traditional musical instruments, the begena seems to be often overlooked by young and modern musicians. Some of them used the kirar or the kebero or the washint with the guitar, trumpet and other Western instruments. This is not the case with the begena, which has not yet found its place in the imagination of modern Ethiopian musicians. Even Dr Mulatu Astatke, the internationally renowned dean of Ethiopian jazz, did not find the begena appealing or easily playable, perhaps because of its volume or the nature of its sound that defies any combination with modern instruments. .

As noted above, historical evidence suggests that the begena was known in Ethiopia since the 15th century and played largely in upper clergy and nobility circles in Ethiopia both as a religious and secular musical instrument, although that it was mainly used and still is used as “the accompaniment during meditation and prayer” and is used within the framework of religious occasions.

Most Ethiopians easily know many traditional musical instruments like kirar (string instrument), washint (flute), kebero (drum) from early childhood, as these instruments are played everywhere, in taverns or pubs. , both in town and in the countryside. . However, the begena was a rarity, sometimes played on the radio and on special occasions. The begena is played in the north of the country where Orthodox Christianity was born and developed by creating its own brand of melodies, lyrics and instruments. It is also an addition to the diversity of Ethiopian culture or faith.

The diversity of Ethiopian ethnic groups is reflected in the diversity of their beautiful cultures and traditions, their music and their musical instruments. Ethiopia is believed to have over 85 ethnic groups and more than double that number when it comes to their food cultures, religious rituals, dances and music, and variety of musical instruments. What makes Ethiopia such a colorful and incredibly diverse country is obviously the rainbow nature of all of these cultures, the melting pot nature of its material and non-material cultures and practices.

Ethiopia is therefore an inexhaustible mystery not only for foreign visitors but also for its own people. It can take a lifetime to see, hear, taste, live and breathe the Ethiopian experience which is so deep, so complex and so rich.

The harp (begena in Amharic) is not an everyday traditional Ethiopian musical instrument. It is used outside the field of religious worship is limited. Although the harp in the West is widely used in a secular artistic context, by large musical orchestras, the harp on the contrary is largely confined to religious purposes, such as praising God and awakening the feelings of the faithful to divine or spiritual meditation. What makes it all the more spiritual is the fact that it is mainly used during major festivals or religious rituals like periods of fasting and on special occasions when deemed appropriate to promote inspiration. spiritual to achieve a divine goal.

The harp or begena is a bulky traditional instrument that resembles a lyre, and Ethiopian harps are bulkier than those used in Western countries. The materials used in making Ethiopian harps are also different. According to information on the nature of the begena, the Wikipedia encyclopedia says that “the begena is a ten-stringed Ethiopian string instrument belonging to the lyre family. Oral tradition identifies the instrument with the parent of ancient Israel. Performed by David to soothe King Saul’s nerves and cure him of insomnia and later brought to Africa by Menelik I. Its actual origin remains uncertain, although local manuscripts describe the instrument as early as the 15th century. Regarding the origin of the name begena, the same the source says, the name is derived from the terms “buzz, pinch, play”. Etymologically, begena is related to the Hebrew “hard / to play like a string instrument”.

In the past three years, reforms have taken place in almost every area of ​​national life, but Ethiopian music and musical instruments do not seem to have found some kind of artistic renaissance as the begena, with so many instruments , has not yet found public acceptance and appreciation. No one in the music world, here at home or abroad, has been inspired to reinvent the begena or play it in combination with other local or foreign musical instruments.

Nonetheless, the begena continues to fascinate many foreign music connoisseurs and ordinary music lovers who are impressed with the size and utility of the begena as there is rarely a religion or faith in the world that uses a musical instrument exclusive to its own. own invention and history. How many cultures around the world use musical instruments to make their fasting period deeply religious and / or deeply meaningful?

Ethiopia must be the only country in the world where a 600-year-old musical instrument is still used to make sense of a religion that is almost 2,000 years old. This is also what makes Ethiopia unique in the world; a point which is often overlooked if not deliberately and totally ignored. This harmony between fasting and music, between the needs of body and mind is simply incredible.


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