Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Conversation with Robel Afeworki

Part One

Robel Afeworki                                    
Issayas: Briefly, tell us about yourself.

Robel: My name is Robel Afeworki. I was born in Asmara on November 17, 1982. Later, moved on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after a couple of months. My early childhood musical inclination was boosted from massive hits made in mid 80’s from influential artists like Michael Jackson and ABBA. The first person who got me inspired in radio show was the great Larry London, VOA radio host, Since then I started following his footsteps on his phenomenal radio shows; Border crossing and VOA music mix on the early of 90’s.  I learned from the best in him and developed quickly the essence of radio show in 1995 by listening VOA, BBC (Top of the Pops) and making tapes for friends. However, I was interested in communicating with the masses and I love music. Between that and spending most of my money on collection of records, the transition was tremendous because I knew that I needed it to promote my career to a more civilized daytime show.

I have a regular show on Radio Zara (since 2005). I invented the show “Zara Music Mix” English entertainment program on FM radio station. Radio is my first love and I am honored to head such an influential, informational and entertaining Eritrean brand. But it’s not easy, with close 3.5 million listeners nationwide, maintaining the high standards of broadcasting services in the national radio station.

My radio show always runs every Wednesday from 9:00- 2:00 GMT. The motto behind my show “State of Music” is the reflection of multitude various styles of music spectrum (country, rock, trance, techno, hip-hop…) from 50’s all the way to the latest hits in 2012. Well, I consider the “State of Music” a little bit like my backyard. A lot of people don’t know that I don’t get professional payments for the show besides motivational incentives and it takes a lot of time to produce the show. I don’t have a producer or an engineer that helps me with selecting the show. I basically go to Zara FM studio. I sit down with my latest records; the show exists of the latest tracks in my case and the music database I have created in the system. There are no secrets about my show. It’s a cross section of records that are out of the music industry. I really enjoyed listening to a lot of radio shows when I was younger; even now I am fond of it, and I really want to give something back to the younger audience who don’t have enough money to buy CD’S but want to be updated on what’s good and what’s not. It is not usually the content, the talents, the contests or music that makes best show in the station. It’s the organic and strategic compilation that creates a memorable product in radio. I bake my bread with very careful mix of ingredients so it’s just right, and we package it very appropriately for the Eritrean audience.

In the studio of Radio Zara  Asmara, Eritrea

I always strive to understand the radio business and evolution of music better before any changes are made so that our working strategies aren’t bulldozed. In the entertainment industry one has to constantly reinvent oneself and reposition the station’s vision and mission to keep abreast of international renowned radio stations. I love the broadcasting environment, I fell in love with radio and music as a child. Today I am running a show in the country’s biggest FM station. I can say that I am living my dream. Furthermore, I am not only a radio DJ; after completing high school in 1999, I went on to study Biology and received my degree in 2004. Right now, however, I am teaching biomedical academic courses as a regular job; Medical Informatics, Biostatistics and Epidemiology in Orotta School’s of Medicine and Dental Medicine.

Issayas: You are working on Eritronic music. What is Eritronic music?

Robel: Eritronic is an enthusiastically adopted concept, a sonic version of new genre created from collision of Geez and  trance culture. It is more contemporary and is one of the projects I have completed under the auspices of committed artists, our team that seeks to unearth young talent with new dimension of music. It is only one facet of my many pronged career.The team mainly comprise of six people; I , Robel, made the  trance beats and mixing(DJ), Simret Haile (Bucchi); made ziema, melody and beats, Samuel Ghebradonai; made the lyrics, Alazar Misghina (Gerry);owner of Gerry studio who produced and made the entire mixing with whole studio crew, Henok Teklay (Nago) main vocal  and Abeba Aradom with inspirational hook vocal. Creativity and team work is the underlying motto of our project. As a team we all channel our energies into our project. The commitment of vocal artists, Nago and Abeba, was extremely outstanding, even personally persuaded them to accept the new role, since they have never done experimental work before. It is a new medium for the young artists; I wanted them to try something different because the recording would be a wonderful opportunity to revolutionize their understanding to evolving musical dimensions.

Eritronic Anthem 2012: "The new evolution of Eritrean music/ Ge'ez + trance"

The new single “Debabina” is mainly traditional embedded strong Eritrean element embellished with culturally tied lyrics. Moreover, it is vividly painted with trance beats where the inspiration comes from talented worldwide DJ’S Armin Van Buuren and David Guetta. “ Debabina” (Eritronic Music = Geez + Trance) has hypnotic groove, with dance floor anthem, taking on a journey of geez melody with new dimension of Eritrean music which have been beautifully decorated with a traditional Tigrigna lyrics capturing the essence of young, unbridled love.You can hear the growth from where they came from to where they are today. Eritronic has an authentic Eritrean stamp to it and can be proudly shown off to the rest of the world.

Issayas:  What is zeima and its significance?

Robel: Ziema is like a hidden weapon of civilization. I just feel like a light passes through prism and reflects with spectrum various colored light. The message is diversified and always alive in our innerness but the degree differs upon the strength and dynamics of the individual masterpiece. Ziema, mezmur and geez are interconnected concepts of music in Eritrean context. I will try to discuss briefly their distinctive features, origin and pivotal roles in Habesha culture in the following paragraphs. Geez is a term basically originated from the word “gea’ze” which literally means that migrating from one place to another, attributed to the word freedom. Geez is symbolized with migrating to freedom and when it comes to ziema it represents the first sound of voice. It is mainly local ziema reserved only for God and church services. Geez in comparison with western music can be explained as 1st tera mezmur (fundamental), 1st type of ziema (1st scale = meselal) which has (grave sound= zemta, zemamie) accustomed to church for liturgical services; equivalent to the Gregorian mezmur of western music.

On the other hand mezmur is an art of expressing your inner feelings with a vocal sound. It is an instrument which coordinates sound into moments of happiness as well as to melancholic feelings. In general, mezmur is a term that marks the seven fundamental roots of sounds. Mez – mur is originated from geez alphabetical sequences that works on seven pattern of subsequent orders.

“ Me, Mu, Mi, Ma, Mie, Me’, Mo”
   መ     ሙ    ሚ   ማ    ሜ     ም    ሞ
 Similarly, we use “Do, Rae, Mi, Fa, So, La, Si” and “ C D E F G A B”  in Latin and English respectively.

Ge'ez culture: the origin of our culture and identity"

Music orchestrates mezmur with tunes (ziema) that gives amazing feelings, create feelings of belongings and happiness, interaction of dream and reality, feels the mind with contemplation and relaxed mood. Geez ziema is one of the oldest existing state of art with undiscovered mysteries of musical sciences, peculiarly explained with wisely quotes of our Eritrean ancestors from ancient and existing monasteries: “The essence of its flavor seduces the heart and quenches the thirst deep down to your bones.” Geez ziema is a representation of three figure explanation of trinity categorized into Geez, Azel and Araray. It is similar to the concept of scale which isn’t approved with modern music standard approaches; where Geez denotes 1st scale (grave sound), Azel to a 2nd scale (Intercession), and Araray to the 3rd scale (Inspirational). The significance of ziema in society is mainly associated with usage of geez ziema (Liturgical song) which is a type of mezmur (Sound) developed in our country based on geez language; encompasses mainly Tigrigna, Tigre and Amharic languages. It flourished with geez speaking people through centuries as part of geez culture; to date back its history, it was first,  Saint Yared (ቅዱስ ያሬድ) (April 25, 505 – May 20, 571) was a semi-legendary musician credited with inventing the sacred music tradition of the Orthodox Church and Geez system of musical notation, who lived in Aksum almost 1500 years ago. He is responsible for creating the Zema or the chant tradition of Eritrea, particularly the chants of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which are still performed today. He is regarded as a saint of the Orthodox Church with a feast day of 11 Genbot (May 19). Yared gaining musical insight and talent through interaction with three birds, which inspired him to link the spiritual with the musical through the blending of musical terms which he defined as Ge’ez, Izil, and Ararary. Yared arranged and composed hymns connected to religious celebrations and holidays, introducing the concept of sacred music to the Orthodox services. Geez music reflects the ziema part or what we call in the western world melody of the song. Eritronic music is simply the reflection of music, ziema, culture in reference of time. In a world of countless little choices sometimes “more” is more hassle. Making music shouldn’t be like pondering paint swatches. It should be simply one, two, and three………. As an alternative evolution of music, we attempted to fuse trance with geez music which gave more melodic nature with more bouncy techno like sound. I called it Eritronic; peculiar brand trademark of Eritrean style. However, looking back provides not only an intense nostalgia but also a clear picture of how far we have come as society flourishing geez culture. The role of experimentation in this metamorphosis has its own story to tell about Eritronic. Eritronic is breathtaking phenomena where you can experience its exhilarating legacy. But, still, value judgments and preference are subjective and should be left on the eye of the beholder.

Next: part two of the conversation


  1. Great post! I thought this was wonderful and I look forward to more of these!

  2. Robel, Your work seem to be creative and well engineered. I look forward to hear more about it and your other work in progress.

  3. Hi Robel, It sounds good. Thanks a lot for bringing new sonic. I read all your interviews, well written and very expressive. I was wondering why it was called Geez music? Of course as you have mention that all Habesha singing style seems to claim it's genealogy from Zema Geez, however; most modern Eritrean music production relays on some kind of western genre as a foundation and adds it's local touch as well as exotic vocal singing. Are we referring modern or progressive music to be a style that one downloads and configures it to the local appetite or flavor? I did not hear the Geez portion of the sample presented in this part two interview. Geez represents a particular geographic as wells as liturgical style of singing and I was thinking that it has to do with Geez language and strict vocal technic. In your next production are going to include Geez language as well? Thanks.

  4. I appreciate your point of view.We are in the early embryonic stage of musical evoultion. The ziema part corresponds with geez flavor. Geez music has enormous cultural resources which haven't revealed its mysteries yet. Geez is not confined only in liturgical services if we can decipher its fundamental tones just like western music, we can benefit from its legacy.

    We are right now galvanizing all the potential geez culture local resouces towards next production.

    It is a movement for optimism......

  5. Hi Robel, it sounds perfect. Your work is hilarious, you showed us in a pleasing fashion, the musical response of our cultural music with trance dance beats. There is also a poignancy to the chorus as delivered by Nago and Abeba that invites an emotional engagement from the listener that is outstandingly should be appreciated. otherwise.

  6. I have read your interview deeply interested with a view to discover new functional and progressive music productions. In deed, probably if I am not mistaken, there is perverted nomination in bringing a name for your great and transforming exertions. Hence, as 'Geez' is such varied in its past but triumphant spiritual accomplishments, elaborating your resultant initiatives as 'Geez Zema' is something like claiming an encomium for inspiring work.