A HISTORY OF MUSIC
Saint Yared: Ethiopia's Great Ecclesiastic Composer, Poet and Priest
Saint Yared singing in front of Emperor Gebre Meskel accompanied by drums,
sistra, and male priests. Mesmerized by the music, the Emperor accidentally
dropped his spear into the flat part of Yared's foot. Photograph of a traditional
color painting. (Collection of Ashenafi Kebede, Florida State University.)
According to Saint Yared's Gedle (biography), he was born
in Axum circa 496 (Ethiopian Calendar). His father was an Amhara farmer
by the name of Yisaak (Isaac). His mother, Kristina, was born in Tigre
from Eritrean parents. Yared received educational and moral guidance from
his uncle Gaidiwon who was then reputed to be a scholarly priest. Moreover,
it is claimed that Yared was taken to Heaven where he was taught by three
Holy Spirits, the arts of vocal performance, composition, poetry, versification
and improvisation. Yared arranged and composed hymns for each season of
the year, for summer and winter and spring and autumn, for festivals and
Sabbaths, and for the days of the Angels, the Prophets, the Martyrs and
Yared often sang for Emperor Gebre Meskel. "And when they heard the
sound of his voice," his Gedle (biography) tells us,
"the king and the queen, and the bishop and the priests, and the king's
nobles, ran to the church, and they spent the day listening to him."
one day Saint Yared sang in front of Emperor Gebre Meskel accompanied by
drums, sistra, and male priests. Mesmerized by the music, the Emperor accidentally
dropped his spear into the flat part of Yared's foot. (See picture of Yared.)
The Emperor was grieved by the pain he had inflicted on his spiritual friend.
He said: "Ask me whatever reward thou wishest in return for this thy
blood which hath been shed." Yared made the Emperor promise that he
would not refuse his request. Having accomplished that, Yared asked and
was reluctantly granted permission to live in solitude and to dedicate
his life to prayer, meditation, and to his music. He departed from Axum
and went to the Semien mountains where he lived until his disappearance.
According to our recent research among Ethiopian scholars, there is a general
claim that he did not die, and that he will come back in the future to
perform, preach, and teach. He was sainted after his disappearance. (Notes
from Ashenafi Kebede's
Roots of Black Music, Africa World
Press, 1995) And one day Saint Yared sang in front of Emperor Gebre Meskel
accompanied by drums, sistra, and male priests.
Sacred Musical Instruments at the Horn of Africa
The Egyptian and Ethiopian sistrums are probably the oldest and best known
idiophone types. Both are made of three or four metal rods that are horizontally
drawn through a bow or U- shaped frame with a handle. They are of wood,
porcelain, or pottery; the more recent standard type is made of metal.
Both are equipped with movable discs, threaded on the rods, which jingle
or clash when the instrument is shaken. It is interesting to note here
that these ancient sistrums of African origin later spread to Greece, Rome,
and other cultures around the Mediterranean as well as to other countries
on the African continent. The sistrum used in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian
Churches as well as in the Fellasha Synagogues are known as tsenatsil.
Its social function is evidenced by its popularity in many Jewish Communities
of North Africa, and the Middle and Near East, where it accompanies exclusively
It is also interesting to indicate here that the four jingling metal bars
on the sistrum are linked with the elements of nature: fire, water, air,
and earth. In most of the cults, the sistrum was identified with votive
power. The sistra of contemporary Ethiopia are strictly religious instruments
played only by male deacons and priests to accompany sacred chants. In
this case, close relationships exist between Ethiopian and Jewish practices
in the use of the sistrum; and in both cultures, it is played by male priests.
Metallic idiophones had a universal role of protecting the bearer against
evil spirits. In many oriental cultures of Africa and the Near East, for
example, jingles are used in the rites of initiation and circumcision.
This extra-musical roles associated and interrelated with magic and religion
are by no means limited to the non-European world. It is also practiced
in Europe; in A.D. 900, for example, Pope John IX ordered that bells be
used in the Catholic Church as a defense against thunder and lightning.
It is edifying to know the roles musical instruments play in religious,
magical, and other symbolic services in societies, east and west.
Censors and silver pyxes
In all Orthodox Christian Churches, the censors and silver pyxes are provided
with jingles. Even Biblical references indicate that Hebraic priests wore
metallic jingles on their robes upon entering sacred places such as the
Holy of Hollies. This is still practiced in many Christian and Jewish communities,
including those found today in Oriental Africa and the Near East. The names
of some of these instruments are often indicative of their common origin
or source. The spherical jingle, which is popularly found is known, for
instance, under onomatopoeic names in Afro- Semitic languages: al-gulgul,
shkelkil (Egyptian), al-galag (Sudan), and quachil (Ethiopia).
Drums, or membranophones, play an important role in Afro-Asiatic religious
ceremonies. The Sudanese Dervish sect performs its ritual songs and dances
accompanied by drums; intricate dance movements and syncopated rhythms
are performed simultaneously each Friday afternoon at the Hamad el Nil
cemetery in Omdurman. In Egypt, drums play an important role during the
religious ceremonies of the Sufi mystic brotherhood in Cairo.
In the area of Christian music, priests of the Ethiopian and Coptic Churches
undertake specialized training in order to master the techniques employed
in playing the drums that accompany sacred hymns sung during the year.
Probably the most known of these membranophones is the Ethiopian kebero.
Its name is derived from the Amharic verb makber, which means "to
celebrate; to honor." Thus, its name refers to its function; it is a processional
drum used to accompany the music of important religious celebrations of
the Church. The kebero is also used by the Fellasha of Ethiopia
(as distinct from those Ethiopian Jews in Israel who do not use it).
The Ethiopian kebero is an excellent example of a large double-headed
cylindrical drum. It is made of a hollowed-out log. The interior and exterior
are iron-filled and smoothed with sandpaper. It is covered by hide or membrane
in two ways: there are drums that are laced with leather cord, and those
whose bodies are entirely covered with ox-hide. In the first case, the
skins of the two faces are stretched and laced on top of the wooden body.
Often enough, the stretched membrane is treated with animal fat oil to
prevent it from breaking. The kebero is always played with the bare
hands; the right hand plays on the big face and the left hand on the small
side. It is often suspended horizontally from a strap around the players
Perhaps one chordophone which is quite often used to accompany semi-religious
songs is the lyre-type begena of Ethiopia. Lyres are structurally
distinguished from other chordophones in the following ways: Two wooden
side-posts emerge from a sound resonator; a crossbar or yoke connects the
posts on the opposite side of the resonator; the strings, stretched from
the crossbar down to the bottom of the resonator, always run parallel to
the face of the resonator. There are two types of lyres: namely box-lyres
and bowl-lyres. The terms "box-lyre" refer to the types with square-, rectangular-,
or box-shaped resonator, similar to the begena. Lyres are found in many
of the northeast African, Near Eastern, and Mediterranean cultures. For
example, it is known as kinnor in Hebrew, kinnara in Arabic, ginera in
Egypt, and lyra in Greece.
Most lyres use a bridge that stands on the face of the resonator; it has
slots equal to the number of the strings; its purpose is to lift up the
strings off of the face of the resonator so each string can vibrate freely
and produce clear tones. One end of each string is tied to the loop on
the sound resonator and the other end around the yoke with the tuning twigs,
or pegs. These pegs may be turned to the required intensity to tune the
eight to ten strings. Traditionally, the strings of the begena were
made of ox or cow gut. (Today, however, nylon strings may also be used.)
Historically, Egyptian paintings of about 2000 B.C. show Semitic nomads
with lyres. It is not, however certain whether Egyptians exerted their
influences on Asian, Mediterranean, and other African musical cultures.
Lyres are also found widely distributed in most of the northeast and east
African cultures. Uganda and Sudan are famed for their large variety of
bowl-lyres. These lyres generally use a tuning-bulge on the yoke to tune
the gut strings. Ethiopian lyres, unlike the Ugandan lyres, have tuning
twigs or sticks. The direction of influences and migrations still remains
Ethiopia is the only country in the world where the box-lyre begena
found as part of the living tradition today. Wood from eucalyptus or juniper
trees is ordinarily used in making the frame of the soundbox. It is then
covered by parchment made of ox-hide. The box is sometimes made of a hollowed-out
piece of wood of appropriate circumference and depth. The begena do not
have rattles on their surface as some of the other African lyres do, such
as the lyres of Uganda and Zaire, for example.
The begena plays a semi-sacred role in the hands of the solo performer.
Though completely out of the sphere of the strictly sacred practices of
the dominant religions, it is not either used in the performance of really
secular music. For example, it is primarily used to accompany awit's (Biblical
David's) Psalms during Lent or other fasting periods of the Christian population;
again, members of the Fellasha (Black Jews) use it in a similar manner.
Consequently, and following oral tradition, it is nicknamed "Dawit's Harp;"
it is the instrument, they say, that David played to soothe King Saul's
nerves and saved him from madness. It is also claimed that the instrument
was introduced to Ethiopia by the Israelites who came to Axum from Jerusalem
escorting Menelik I, the alleged son of Solomon and Queen Sheba. On the
other hand, the begena is found depicted on Ethiopian manuscripts
of the early fifteenth century.