Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A conversation with Singer-Lyricist Saba Tewelde

Issayas Tesfamariam: Can you tell our readers about yourself?

Saba: I arrived with my family in Germany when I was six
years old. I have always loved singing. It feels very natural
to me, but it took me a long time to actually sing in public
or even think of taking it further. No matter how hard you
try you can never kill a real passion for something.
Beside music, I always felt myself drawn to basically all art
forms.I think they are great gifts for us to express our inner
world and feelings, which often can’t be explained in plain
words, especially those overwhelming feelings that leave
us speechless.Like colors on canvas give us a great
sensation, so can a piece of music, lyrics or dance.
What else can you do, but love it!

Issayas: Your band’s name is InjeraSoul. Why did you choose
the name InjeraSoul?

Saba: Thinking about the music I had in mind and was already
doing, only one word came close to describing it, “Soul food”
(at least that’s what I like to think of it). So InjeraSoul
just fitted perfectly.We all love Injera and it is a little
piece of home in the Diaspora. And another great thing about
it is,it brings people naturally together to share and eat out
of one plate, just like the music that brings the audience
together. Finally, these two words simply sound beautiful
in combination.

Issayas: What kinds of songs do you sing?

Saba: All sorts of subjects can be found in the songs, mainly
raising social critical issues, but how else could it be if
you look at the conditions of the world we live in. But of
course love in many ways is also a great inspiration for the
lyrics. You know some of the songs have been written by
one of my uncles and a cousin in Eritrea, so that was extremely

Issayas: Which songs were written by your uncle and cousin,
respectively? Are your uncle and cousin songwriters and musicians
in Eritrea?

Saba: No they are not musicians, but they like to write so
I asked them to write for me. Two songs were written by my cousin,
they are called “Laura” and “Turum Neru”. My uncle wrote a song
called “Seb gin Seb eyu”.

Issayas: What type of music does your band play?

Saba: The music is always different. Each song has another
influence to it. We play mainly with a twist of different genres
and soulful melodies with a nice beat.

Issayas: Do you sing mostly Tigrigna songs,or do you sing in other

Saba: I sing in English which actually is the language I started
to sing in. But I also did lots of backup vocals for several artists
in French and some African languages.

Issayas: Who were the people you did backup singing for?

Saba:I did a backup for “African Consciences” that’s a music project
based in Paris. And for several afro beat bands in Frankfurt. And
different things like backup for a Caribbean influenced show band
and singing in a Gospel musical.

Saba: It wasn’t really a planned thing to sing in Tigrinya, because
growing up Tigrinya was my parent’s music and I had my own taste of
music. I was hardly listening to Tigrinya music to begin with, but my
parents would listen to it all the time, so it wasn’t really too far
away. But as for many female singers growing up my vocal heroes was
Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Mary J Blige and
other soul voices. But, I always had a diverse taste of music from
Soul, Jazz, R&B, Hip Hop, Gospeland Classic. I also liked to listen
to fusion World Music loving the sound of different languages and
singing styles blending in with jazz/afro beat and traditional music,
the creativity behind it really impressed me. So the idea of sometime
trying this in Tigrinya was definitely growing.

I did start to also discover more of Tigrinya music. One day at the
end of 2003, a friend of mine was organizing a world music concert
featuring local musicians. He asked me if I would like to contribute
something. I spontaneously said "sure" but until that time I was
only singing in English, unless I had to do backup vocals for none
English performance. This was an opportunity to try something new.
So afterlooking around for a while to find a Tigrinya lyricist I
heard about a writer/poet who was studying in the area,Petros Werasi.
I met Petros and told him what I had in mind. After we had a long
and interesting conversation about the subject and message I wanted
in a song, he came up with “Tesfa Kabana”. For the second song,
I sang “Woledi kindey tenaferu” by Elsa Kidane but changed the
music with my guitarist and sang it in my style. So I performed
these songs at the acoustic, vocal and guitar event, and it went
really well and just felt right. I guess that’s when InjeraSoul
was born.

Issayas: I have heard comments such as Tigrigna is not for lovers,
can’t sing romantic songs in Tigrigna,Amharic is suited better for
music etc. Personally, I don't agree with the comments,but what is
your take on it?

Saba: I also wouldn’t agree with that statement. It’s too general,
even tough, I know it can be a challenge to sing Tigrinya in a soft
way simply because of the pronunciation of certain words and that’s
just a fact.And people do associate softness and melodic of words
as being romantic and emotional, but then again it is not impossible.
It depends on how you are using the language and the way you sing.
I actually have received a lot of emails on my website from people
saying how surprised they were to hear Tigrinya in such a soft
way and with that type of music. Therefore, I don’t think that it
is the language that keeps it from sounding romantic and let’s say
suitable for lovers, I think the music/melody/beat plays a major
role and our understanding of what sounds soothing. For example,
Abraham Afewerki’s (May he rest in peace) last album, is so diverse
and is beyond romantic. If you listen to the way he used the guitar,
it makes you emotional. Also the backup vocals he used to complement
some of the songs are very creative. I think it only takes an open
mind towards different influences and ideas and then actually allow
it to be part of Eritrean music.

Issayas: I have heard how you have "soulfied" some Tigrinya songs.
I love how you did them.For example, Tsheatu's "Mejemaria fikre ab
men tejemere?". How do you pick the songs that you want to

Saba: The reason why I, for example, picked Tsehatu Beraki’s song
was because I love the lyrics. They are very poetic and deep,
unlike many other love songs. I am very much interested in the
way a song is written. I like when words are able to draw pictures
in your mind. The message of a song is also quite important to me.
When I pick a song it has to touch me and I have to relate to it
somehow, that’s what makes me want to pick a certain song and
interpret it my way. It was actually a friend that pointed out
to me that Tsehaytu has put out an album with a lot of her old
songs. After listening to it I was really touched by her voice,
she has a unique sound and deepness, fantastic.

Issayas: I would like to see Eritrean music compete in the
world music scene. But, to do that, I think, Eritrean music has
to innovate. Do you agree with this lazy and easy assessment or
you disagree? And how should Eritrean music become internationalized?

Saba: Actually I am pretty confident that Eritrean music will
be internationalized; it’s just a matter of time.Not necessarily,
exactly the way traditional music sounds. We enjoy traditional
music because it is part of our culture. But, different sounds of
it need to be developed so that it suits the ears of a wider range
of audience.Depending on where you are from, you have a different
understanding on what sound is pleasant to your ears simply because
of what you grew up hearing and what you associate the sound with.
Here again, we have to just keep an open mind and just mingle in
the different music genres and see what happens. If you look at
the world music scene, the most successful are those who use
fusion with other more contemporary genres. Most of it is
not straight traditional music. And if you look around there
is much more going on now than a few years ago. There are several
Eritrean musicians out there in the Diaspora,who use Tigrinya
lyrics in Hip Hop ,for example.It is already happening,
you might say.

Issayas: Saba, thank you very much for your time.
And keep up the good work.

Saba: You are welcome.

Please check out Saba's website at the following url: