Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Conversation with musician Yonas Ghirmay

Part One

Musician Yonas Ghirmay

Issayas:  Before we start, as you know, I use music from your CD to drive the "story" in my documentary. Also, as you know, I still bug you about your next music CD and hopefully your Ge'ez CD. I won't leave you alone until you produce them. For people who don't know you, would you tell us about yourself?

Yonas:  I was born and raised in Asmara. I went to La Salle where my first exposure to musical instruments came about. Even though, my knowledge was limited, I played guitar and keyboards. However, that limited knowledge became a great influence on me. There were other influences too. Osman Abdelrahim and Berket Mengistab were great influences. I used to know all the lyrics and songs of Osman when I was just a little boy. Also, Kaleb Temesgen and Woldegabir Temesgen were influences. I used to go to their house to watch them play. In 1986/7 I went to Sudan, where I was exposed to more music. In 1988 I went to Sweden. In Sweden, I was introduced to more genres: classic, pop, jazz etc. I also picked up the guitar. I wanted to know the secret of harmony. But everybody was keeping it as a secret. In 1991, I came to the US. First, I went to St. Louis, Missouri. From St. Louis, I went to Philadelphia where I enrolled at Temple University. From there, I went to Loyala University in New Orleans, Louisiana.  From New Orleans,my family and I moved to North Carolina where we currently reside.

Issayas:  What is Zeima? What are the different parts and their differences?

Yonas: Zema simply means to sing or to outline any kind of melodic patterns. Geez zema or Zema Geez is a sacred style of singing with enormous repertoire of oral tradition in Geez language. This master piece style of singing developed three different kinds of arrangements and devised to utilize them according to the traditional seasons of the church. These three different styles of singing are Araray, Ezle and Ge'ez.  The differences between the three styles, purposes, uses, and functions are very clear.  Some people would argue that zema does not only represent liturgical or sacred singing but also secular music and singing.  Evidently, since zema meant to sing, it can be sacred or secular. Within zema there are subdivisions that are not recognized under zema. For example, when someone dies, sorrow and painful situation is expressed in combination of singing and some form of declamatory fashion  ”LeeQsoo”. This kind of singing or lamentation is not considered zema because of the occasion and the incident may not permit us to call it zema.  From the stand point of what constitutes zema, it has all the necessary elements to be called zema
but it has different name for it and it is known as LeeQsoo. It requires some serious knowledge of poetry to improvise and create dramatic scene instantaneously, sometimes previous experience  would help to really come up with stunning phrases of LeeQsoo .  It can easily be considered as poetry/drama or monolog. I read LeeQsoo that was composed by my favorite warrior, for the great hero Rasi Woldemicael Solomon “Gomeda” after his death. I was stunned at the first glimpse of the lyric and poetry. This cannot be random occurrence that someone can just improvise at a given time, secondly who ever compose those LeeQsoos got to be artistic in nature or a poet. It is very difficult to imagine the melodic patterns of the LeeQsoos  at that moment and I can see at the lyric of the LooQsoos that it must have moved a dead body side to side. The point that I am making is that it requires thought and knowledge although it may sound random in nature and the phrases may not be fully flagged song-like. One must have a great deal of control and can’t get emotionally overwhelmed with the entire incident to be able to deliver the message. Masse is the other form of singing that can fall under the category of zema. It is obvious that poetry seems to surround the main act with singing as needed between parts Queene of the entire performance. Therefore, zema is not limited to singing sacred or secular music or melodies but any other subdivision of it is respected as well as acceptable singing style in it itself. Masse is intended to either praise  someone’s heroic act or degrade wickedness with double meaning left out to be interpreted by the listeners. As I have mention before, it is really specialty
of an artist to be able to improvise lyric and melody that have double meaning. It is also evident some melodic patterns have been used repeatedly with remixing old lyric to echo the past or even to project the future.

Issayas:  Some people say that Ge'ez as a language is dead. What is your opinion?

Yonas: Of course people are entitled to their opinion. When commenting on knowledge based point of view or experience, one should only respond from a deeper understanding and must be free of personal feeling. Geez is not a dead language. Geez is not only a language but it’s a culture. It is a theology, style of worship, poetry, spoken language, mode of thinking, sacred and secular dance, script that is still in use, percussion, sistrar, kebbero, begena, masinquo, kirar, Mekomia, style or fashion of clothing, hair breading style of growing guttery and beard, habesa melkeaa, driver of modern music, economics, law and order, diet, constitution, fetha negest of the monarchy, head of the church, melody: Geez, Araray and Ezle. If one is thinking that Geez is a dead language because it is not spoken in daily activity, I would like to introduce the concept of incarnation. Everything that we do comes either from our environment or what culture and society instill in us directly or indirectly. Because the way of life changes, languages must accommodate the new way of living either by creating or regenerating some aspect or part of the existing elements of the old languages. Even if we look  into other prominent languages like English, they have evolved to completely new sounding and more modern use. I will be surprised to see or hear Shakespearean English in London in our times
except in the theaters. The point here is that nothing stays the same. Language’s purpose and use changes with economic growth and new ways of life as well as new technology. All our ancestors are dead but they live forever through their off springs. Geez language is well and alive through its off springs, Tigrigna, Tigre and Amharic. Is it the same as it was 2000 years ago? Of course not! Not only is it foolish to think that Geez is a dead language but also that has a one-dimensional perspective which ignores the definition of a living language to its basic use.

Yonas' CD front cover.

Next, part two

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