Issayas: Did you get a chance to listen to Robel's group sampler? If you did, what do you think of it?
Yonas: Yes I did and I had great time listening to it. It is very
different than other techno- like productions in the past. Because some
of the component of the composition did not frustrate my expectation.
In other words, a composer would introduce an idea or ideas and then
develops that simple idea to become something that none of us can
imagine. In that way listeners are anticipating internally in their mind
and souls their own musical process to tune up the end result. Let me
give you another perspective. In mathematics we see a lot questions
driven to solve for X or the unknown value. You are given the value for
A & B, which means that you can solve for X or C. By the same
analogy, if you mention that Geez music to be identified with your
production or composition, then we need to define what is and what is
I can see that every Habesha singing style can trace it inception from
Geez. Geez is a house hold name and is a basis for our culture including
making the parameters of literature, singing styles and vocal styles.
If one is claiming that their product has Geez zeima element in it and
when one of the above mentioned elements are none existent in your work,
then frustration is inevitable. First and foremost, Geez is performed
or is intended for an acapella style of singing,which means that it is
not accompanied with musical instruments except with those musical
instruments that can not produce melody or harmony such as, sistra,
kebero and mekomia. Robel's music does not incorporate some of these
musical elements to give us some sense of Geez. To give you an example,
the so called "Chinese food" in the United States is not same dish as in mainland China, but it's a brilliant idea the way it's
marketed to Americans' taste and be able to generate so much money in
every corner of entire cities in America. From the point of creation of
audience and market in the future, it is very wise to tailor one's
music to be heard by wider range of demographic or international ear.
But the question remains the same, there is a prior knowledge of what
music should sound like and it is very difficult to alter that
perception by just giving it the name Geez and not incorporating it
basic identity. Does it mean that Geez needs to remain to the same with
out any change
and people must study it the way it was done in the 4th century? In
those days a young boy is trained from age 7 in the style of repeat
after me kind of pedagogy, which took fo ever to master the entire book
If Geez served as vocal music in those days, the questions that we need
to ask are: can we arrange Geez zeima to modern instruments instead of
singing in unison (when the entire group is singing the same melody
with out any harmony)? Can we arrange it to be sung in counter point
style of singing whereby different parts or a section of the group is
singing different part of the music at different pitch level as well as
times instead of singing at the same time to the texture and volume of
the composition? How about counterpoint dynamics where by the
introduction of the music is very soft to express some important values
of the lyric and to give it gradually increase in volume and energy to highlight a new section of the composition?
Issayas: Thank you for your time.
Yonas: Don't mention it.
Back cover of Yonas' CD entitled "Instrumental Arrangements from Eritrea"
NOTE: In 2003, I bought a CD entitled, “Instrumental Arrangement From Eritrea” in Washington, DC. The CD was produced by Yonas Ghirmay in 2002. I liked it the moment I heard it because it was different. In April 2004, Melba Williams, a former Stanford University film masters degree student,
asked me if I had Eritrean CDs that she wanted to use for her film dissertation (MEND). One of the CDs I gave her was Yonas Ghirmay’s. She liked the #1 score (Kem Kokeb.) on the CD. She contacted Yonas to give her permission to use the score in her film. Yonas was gracious enough to let her use it. Since then, I've also used his music for my documentary films.
Back then, I interviewed Yonas for Shaebia.org. Also then, I asked Dr. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin, a musicologist, to comment on the CD. As usual, her response was positive. I thank her for that. Below is Dr. Cynthia’s review.
Instrumental Arrangements from Eritrea.
©2002 Yonas Ghirmay. Made in Canada
Reviewed by Cynthia Tse Kimberlin, Ph.D.
1974 was a watershed year in the Horn of Africa, a time in which major
events sowed the seeds of an accelerated Diaspora movement. These
migrations took place at a time when new technological advances were
being made in transportation and communication and which Eritreans and
Ethiopians have astutely exploited by creating their own networks in the
form of virtual communities. A result, these factors produced an
environment of invigorated music creativity of which this CD is
emblematic. Instrumental Arrangements from Eritrea contains music that
is collaborative, transnational, and no longer bound by geography and
language constraints. As part of the Eritrean community in the New
Orleans area, Executive Producer, composer and arranger Yonas Ghirmay
and others like him are redefining music within the framework of the
global community of music and music making. Most of the music selections
on the CD are renditions of jazz using recognizable traditional
melodies accompanied by Western instruments. The one exception is the
use of the ‘ud played by Brian Prunka. According to Prunka, “The 'ud
(also known as the oud…is a musical instrument common to all Arab
cultures. It is also an important part of the Turkish musical tradition
and may have originated in Persia…”
A key factor in this recording is that the creative process retains
strong elements of one’s ancestral roots that form the basis for ‘new
compositions’. What is distinctive about this music is that this is an
approach not commonly practiced; that is, this instrumental ensemble
does not accompany singing.
There are ten examples whose titles are given in transliteration with
the musician’s name and include: Kem kobob, Entezefelit Nayre, Adey
Kitweldeni, Zey – meflate mehashena, Ala leye la ley (Parts 1 and 2),
Hel – mi Wegahta, Ewan meseye, Yeantey, and Tenebre Nayra. Musicians and
the instruments they play are Yonas Ghirmay (piano), Brian Prunka
(acoustic guitar and ‘ud), Matt Rhody (violin), Michael Jenner
(saxophone), Michael Skinkus (percussion), Andy Wolf (double bass), and
Jason Marsalis (drum set).
Yonas’ major strength is his bi-musicality. First, his music
arrangements are a testament to his educational training in music
composition at Loyola University in New Orleans where he gained greater
knowledge and practice of various art and popular music forms. Second,
not only is he knowledgeable in the music of Eritrea and Ethiopia, but
as a former seminarian who trained to be a priest in the Ge’ez rite, he
is also a practitioner of Ge’ez chant with a strong interest in
preserving its tradition. He is acquainted with 30 to 40 ex-seminarians
living in the USA who know from memory the Ge’ez liturgy and they formed
a chapter, meet annually, and are devoted to this music. As a result
Yonas is in the process of forming a national Ge’ez chorus and intends
to produce a recording of this choral group.*
This multi perspective towards music making is evident in this CD.
According to Yonas “it contains a variety of arrangements of ethnic
(folk music) and also modern. I totally avoided the use of electronic
instrumentation. It is absolutely acoustic with the idea of me being in
New Orleans; it has [that] ‘Gumbo’ flavor.” (Feb 2, 2004). Although
this music does not accompany singing, some of the music would be
suitable for accompanying dance. Since Yonas’ solo piano composition found on track 7, Hel-mi Wegahta,
possesses a style and mood so different from the rest of the examples, I
would recommend that this composition, as an example of intercultural
music,** be issued on a separate CD along with other examples of this
nature. This piece is based on a traditional melody, and it would be
interesting to know from where the inspiration came to compose this
piece. Personally, the tracks having a special appeal for me are 5 -
9. Tracks 5, 6, 7 and 9 primarily because their evolution can be
clearly discerned in that musical ideas are developed from a basic core
idea, and then expanded.
The cover layout and design features lead me to believe the CD is meant
for the Eritrean communities worldwide. If it was intended to cultivate a
broader based audience, the song titles could have been described
and/or translated into English, and the sparse liner notes could have
been expanded to accommodate listeners less familiar with the music. A
brief description of each selection could have been given, as well as
brief bios of the musicians. In addition, the listeners in general, and
musicians in particular, would be interested in learning about the
creative process taking place when these arrangements were being
developed and which are based on essentially traditional melodies. Lastly, if Yonas continues to explore and capitalize on his strengths,
with his penchant for exploring new avenues, he will bring forth a
freshness and spontaneity that is long overdue.
* For the chorus singing Ge’ez liturgy, instead of having the chorus
sing a single melody in unison as traditionally practiced in Ge’ez
chant, Yonas has arranged some of the chants in four parts where the various parts imitate each other at different pitch
levels and interval sequences. This practice is reminiscent of the music
of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) counterpoint as epitomized in his chorales, preludes, and fugues.
Yonas says his approach to choral music may prove to be a challenge for
the untrained musician or individual trained to sing in Ge’ez. Yet, he consciously incorporates new elements into a
traditional musical practice so that it would appeal to a wider public and that others might develop an interest in this genre of music.
** For a definition of the term see the "Introduction" to Intercultural
Music Volume 1 edited by Cynthia Tse Kimberlin and Akin Euba. Centre
for Intercultural Arts, London U.K. and Bayreuth African Studies Series, Bayreuth University: Bayreuth, Germany.
1995:2-5. It can also be accessed online at: