Monday, September 10, 2012

A conversation with musician Yonas Ghirmay

Part three

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 not. 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 new 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 Geez 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 Dugga. 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 different 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 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:


  1. Thank you Issayas. I can't wait to get the CD. I just heard a sample of it, and it sounds good