History of Eritrean Music

Updated by Sham Kaleab December 13, 2011

Flag of Eritrea


1. Introduction


Eritrea is a country in the Horn of Africa. Perhaps the most famous Eritrean musicians in history are Eng. Asghedom W.Micheal, Bereket Mengisteab, Yemane Baria, Osman Abderrehim, Alamin Abdeletif, Atowe Birhan Segid,Tkabo Weldemariam & Ghirmay Solomon, some of whose music were banned by the Ethiopian government in the 1970s. Also of note is Bereket Mengistab, who has had a lengthy career, and 60s legends Haile Ghebru and Tewolde Redda. The latter was one of the first electric guitar players in East Africa, and a singer and writer of the famous 'allegedly' Eritrea's independence song "Shigey habuni" with love theme as coded message for political freedom.

Eritrean music has a unique rhythm that sets it apart from the rest of Africa. Modern popular stars include Bereket Mengistab,Teklé Tesfa-Ezighe, Tekele Kifle Mariam (Wedi Tukul), Tesfai Mehari (Fihira), Osman Abderrehim, Abrar Osman, Abraham Afwerki, Yemane Ghebremichael, Idris Mohamed Ali, Alamin Abdeletif, Tsehaytu Beraki, Atewebrhan Segid and Berekhet Mengisteab.

2. Eritrean Traditional Musical Instruments

Starting from the early ages a society’s cultural practices, music, dance, musical instruments, and other traditions determine the cultural identity of a given society. Although music and musical instruments in today's world seem to be common to any society in any corner of the world, some traditional musical instruments are unique to particular societies. Following are some of the cultural music instruments of the Eritrean Society:

Negarit is a kind of drum made from either wood or metal in a semi circle shape with a diameter of 15cm. The upper and lower end of the circle is covered from animal hide with a rope in the middle to stretch the hide. "Negarit" is played with a small stick usually in religious celebrations and weddings. "Negarit" is also beaten in times of invasion or attack.

Kebero is a drum like traditional instrument categorized into two by the sound and task it provides as big and small. The bigger one is used by priests during church hymns and recitals. It is made from wood in circular shape with unbalanced ends. Animal hide covers the ends of "Kebero", and the whole body is covered with a rope in order to stretch the hide. It also has a rope in the side because it is played hanging from a shoulder of a person and it beaten by the hand. The sound and beats of the “Kebero” depend on the movement of the hand and the timing the hand touches the hide.

The smaller "Kebero" is also made with the same material and shape as the bigger one except the difference in size and is used in any kind of celebrations. Sometimes the manufacturers put small stones or beads inside it to make deeper sounds.

Tsenasel; the handle of this instrument is made of wood where as the head is made of metal. The metal part has two strings attached to its ends. The strings are full of metal corks depending on the length of the strings. The corks make the sounds when the instrument is moved from one side to another. This instrument is usually used during church recitals.

Shambuko: is a musical instrument similar to a flute and is made either from iron or a bamboo tree. It has eight or six holes along its length to determine the type of tune.

Embilta: is traditionally made from a tree called "Argezana" but it is also made from iron or any other kind of metal. "Embilta" is a 1m long tube and is played with blowing air into it. There are three types of "Embilta" , one is with one hole in it, Shanqet, the second is without holes but is played by covering the bigger hole at the end of the tube, Debay, and the third one is without holes and is played by rhythmically blowing air on it. All three are played at the same time and music is created by mixing the sounds coming from the three "Embiltas".

Embilta is played during all kinds of celebrations. Although not common, it is also played during funerals. There also used to be a similar smaller instrument called "Tatula" made from either animal horn or metal played during religious celebrations especially during Epiphany and often during funeral ceremonies.

Meleket: is a traditional instrument similar to trumpet usually made from bamboo tree but also made from iron and is played during different celebrations.

Begena: is a triangular shaped musical instrument with eight to ten cords and is played by touching those cords with a finger. It is much similar to the harp. In Eritrea, it is played in churches especially during fasting seasons. At present, this instrument is no longer used.

Kirar or Mesenqo: is made of boxed wood with six or five strings attached in the middle and played by touching the strings with a finger, similar to a guitar. It is played in almost any celebrations accompanied by "Kebero" and "Chera Wata".

Chera Wata: is diamond shaped musical instrument made from hide of a goat, horsehair and wood. It is similar to violin. It is played when the instrument with the horsehair string touches the strings on the box. It is played in almost all occasions, previously used to be played by professionals but at present, almost everyone who has the ability can play it.

These are the traditional musical instrument used by almost all the ethnic groups in the Eritrea and almost all are still functioning in the music of the country.

3. Popular music

Modern Eritrean popular music can be traced back to the late 1960s, when the MaHber Theatre Asmarabegan to produce stars like Osman Abderrehim, Alamin Abdeletif, Yemane Ghebremichael(Baria), Jabber, Ateweberhan Seghid, Yonus Ibrahim, Tsehaytu Beraki, Tewolde Redda, Teberh Tesfahiwet, Tukabo and others . This music was influenced by American psychedelic rock and Motown soul music. The list of eritrean singersand Eritrean bandsis long.

Since then, some musicians, like kraar-player Dawit Sium have helped to incorporate the core indigenous Eritrean musical elements in popular music. Imported styles of music from Europe, North America, and elsewhere in Africa, as well as the Caribbean, are also very popular in urban areas of Eritrea.

4. Dancing

Traditional Eritrean Tigrigna dancing involves two main styles of dance. In the first which is called 'quda', the dancers form a circle and slowly circumambulate or move around in an endless circular motion to the rhythm of the music. Then, they cease the circular musical flow/motion and dance in pairs or 3's facing each other for a short while before resuming the circular motion in a file again. During this time, they shuffle their feet to the beat of the music and bob their shoulders in a rhythmic fashion. Female dancers usually move their shoulders more than the male dancers. Towards the end the musical tempo increases and the drum beat quickens to signal this musical crescendo. The dancers round off their dancing by facing each other in twos and threes and moving their shoulders faster - this can also involve jumping and bending your knees and going down to the floor to sit in a squatting position while bobbing those shoulders and moving the head sideways to the strong drum beats.

In the second style of dance, two groups (often a group of men and a group of women) line up and face each other. The dance features a skipping step to the music. Periodically, the two groups will change places, dancing across the floor and passing each other in the process.

Other Eritrean traditional dance include those by the Kunama which involves raising the bead-strung legs in sync with the rhythm of the music; those by the Saho which involves jumping each leg in rhythm with the beats - as well as those by Afar, Nara, Tigre, Billen, Hidareb and Rashaida


Studies in Eritrean Folklore