Sunday, September 29, 2013

A conversation with Solomon Tsehaye.

Solomon Tsehaye has done it again. His latest book is a colossal work on masse and melkes: Tigrigna's highest form of poetry. Tigrigna is one of the languages of Eritrea. This is the first volume of an anticipated three volume work. The book needs to be translated into English so that the work gets worldwide exposure.Solomon Tsehaye is Eritrea's top poet. He wrote Eritrea's national anthem.

As an introduction, until I write a book review, here is what I wrote Solomon right after I finished the book: "Solomon, I read the entire book that you were kind enough to send me in a few days.You owe me some hours of sleep. Just kidding. Anyway, the book is excellent and one can judge and sense the time, effort, sweat, concentration and research that is poured into the work. Congratulations! Frankly, this is a kind of work that universities teach in their departments. It is not just an anthology but also an anthropological, sociological and historical work.

This is part one of my conversation with Solomon Tsehaye.

Issayas: Would you briefly tell us about your background?

Solomon: I was born in December 1956 in Addi Quitta, a village in southern Eritrea. Having received my elementary education in Eritrea, I went to Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, for my high school education at the then British-run General Wingate Secondary School. It was a boarding school.  I had won a scholarship to study at the school by passing its entrance examination. My education was affected by the coming to power of the military regime (the Dergue) which deposed the emperor in Ethiopia. Upon seizing power in September 1974 the regime declared that senior high school and University students be mobilized from their schools for the ill-intended and ill-planned  “students campaign to eradicate illiteracy”. Considering the chaotic and politically hostile situation surrounding the program I boycotted the students’ campaign like many Eritrean compatriots and came back home.  I joined the Eritrean independence struggle in April 1977.  I was assigned to combat forces and served as a combatant and later as what was commonly called “the bare foot doctor” until I was wounded in action and reassigned to the rear area of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). It was there in the second half of 1979 that I started to engage myself in cultural activities by writing plays, acting and composing poetry. I was attracted more and more into arts and culture to the extent that I was transferred in mid-1981 to work as a full time artist in the Division of Culture of the EPLF. I was appointed head of the Division in 1987 and served in that capacity until the liberation of Eritrea in May 1991.

Solomon as a young man.

Solomon as a young EPLF fighter.

In the post-independence period I was given a number of opportunities to travel abroad to attend conferences and training programs on culture and arts which helped broaden my scope of knowledge and experience. Though almost all of my poetic works and essays were either published in magazines and newspapers or broadcasted by radio during the independence struggle or after, I decided to publish an anthology of my selected poems on the Eritrean struggle. Hence my poetry book entitled Sahel was published in 1994, and the publication of the second edition took place in 2006. Since the book is now out of print, I have plans to make a reprint of the second edition soon.

Taking over from its founding editor, the distinguished writer Alemseged Tesfay, I also edited and regularly contributed to a dozen issues of Netsebraq, the arts and culture magazine published in Tigrinya by the cultural establishments of the EPLF and later the Eritrean government. I have always been concerned with my literary productions. For many years a conflict was going on inside me - a conflict between the performance of my administrative duties and my professional development as a poet and writer. My longtime assignment at the level of management denied me adequate time to pursue my creative writing as I want it to be. On a request to write and research free of administrative obligations, I was given a long leave which enabled me to conduct research on Tigrinya oral poetry with particular focus on masse and melqes. As a result of that research I have recently published a 544-page book entitled “Massén Melqesn Qeddamot” (Massé and Melqes of the Ancestors).

Issayas: As you said earlier you have been concerned with your literary productions.

Solomon: Yes indeed.

Issayas: Then, why didn’t you use your leave for writing poetry and fiction rather than shift to oral poetry - massé  and melqes - research?

Solomon: As a person who worked in the field of culture for quite a long time, I was always aware of the fact that our oral traditions were in danger of disappearing with the passing away of our wise and knowledgeable old people. But I have to admit that this particular issue was brought to my attention when the late oral poet Negash Baira’u (Negash Sagla) approached me to help him publish his massé and melqes expressing his fear that his lifetime contribution will be forgotten for ever if his oral poetry is not retrieved from his memory and documented. He said great works of massé and melqes of his predecessors are getting less and less remembered and will eventually be forgotten because they are not published. His concern was that his massé  and melqes would face the same fate. I absolutely shared his fears and concerns and having made preliminary studies on the subject, I decided to embark on researching and collecting massé  and melqes all over the Tigrinya culture in an effort to rescue the long accumulated literary heritage and pass it on to future generations. If it were not for the inconvenience created by the present strained relations of Eritrea and Ethiopia the research would have definitely taken me to Tigray, the northmost region of Ethiopia, because being Tigrinya culture poetic art forms, massé  and melqes were also practiced at least in some parts of Tigray. Taking the urgency of the task into consideration, therefore, I postponed my creative writing and fully concentrated on the research. Paying tribute to the late Negash Baira’u, I would like to express my highest respect and appreciation for him for bringing forth the idea of collecting and publishing his massé  and melqes, because it is that idea which developed into this wide ranging massé  and melqes research and publishing project in Eritrea. Alas, he did not live to see the book (Volume I) in which his collected  massé  and melqes are published. The course of life and the time consuming nature of oral poetry research could not match up to enable him to see the book come out.

Issayas: What is massé? Melqes?

Solomon: Massé (awlo) and melqes are related art forms which constitute one of the genres of Tigrinya oral poetry. Massé is performed on happy and festive occasions where, most of the time, specially prepared food and drink are served. Weddings and a number of other celebratory events are appropriate occasions for massé. On the other hand, melqes is performed during funerals and similar moments of sadness. Though different in the way they are presented, massé  and melqes have the same poetic structure. They are also composed and recited by the same people. With the exception of a few who either make massé  or melqes, the overwhelming majority of oral poets who perform massé  also perform melqes.

Solomon doing field work.

The cover of Solomon's book on masse and melkes. Vol. I

Issayas: What is the significance of massé  and melqes in Tigrinya society?

Solomon: As is briefly explained (in English) in my book, Massén Melqesn Qeddamot Volume I, on pages 540-541, massé  and melqes are highly valued oral poetic forms in Tigrinya society. They are highly valued because the ideas and concepts they transmit have depth and relevance. Massé  and melqes are source of guidance to society from which people draw all sorts of lessons. They are useful in resolving conflicts. They present social critique which helps solve social problems and correct mistakes. They enhance society’s knowledge on history, culture, language, politics, religion, etc. by discussing various aspects of life. Last but not least, massé  and melqes are also very entertaining. Because of the happy occasions on which it is performed masse’ is particularly amusing with a lot of humor connected to it. The events in which massé  and melqes are presented were the mass media of traditional Tigrinya society. They were platforms where the real opinions of the people were heard from the voice of its great minds - the oral poets. Whenever such events took place attending audiences were very eager to know what the oral poets had to say. There were even times when people travelled long distances merely to hear massé  or melqes, particularly when it was known that renowned oral poets would be present for the occasions.

Issayas: One would be curious to know what type of people the oral poets are to create poetic works of such significance.

Solomon: The oral authors of massé  and melqes, called masségnatat  in Tigrinya, are talented people who develop the skill of composing poetry as spontaneously as they recite it. To acquire such a skill they cultivate the faculty of thinking fast under high level mental concentration. They are the most enlightened elite and creative cream of the society with broad knowledge of various aspects of social life and human experience. They are highly observant critical thinkers. Because of their imaginative power and vision, masségnatat are sought after for new ideas and intellectual guidance. Some of them are even considered to have prophetic abilities. One such talent was the master poet Weldedingl Gedlu who lived in the 19th century.

Issayas: So they earn their living by performing oral poetry on respective occasions?

Solomon: No, they earn their living mainly as farmers. Though they occasionally receive gifts or honorariums from their hosts, masségnatat, unlike contractual performers, do not present their poetry for payment. They don’t perform for financial or material gains as such. Performing massé  or melqes is just honor for them and they do it only if they are invited respectfully.

Issayas: Your research goes a couple of centuries back, how was it possible to track down all these oral poetic works long after the death of their composers?

Solomon: To be more accurate my research covers some 250 years. The lapse of so many years was covered by the transfer of memory from generation to generation.  When we speak of this process of transfer we speak of a talent crucial to the preservation and passing down of the oral poetry to future generations - the talent of keeping memories through learning massé  and melqes by heart. People who are endowed with this capacity store the knowledge of the oral poetry and transfer it by telling. These depository tellers are therefore the custodians of massé  and melqes. It should also be noted that the most gifted among the depository tellers learn by heart instantly memorizing the poetry as it comes out from the mouth of the oral poets or the tellers, once and for all like the audio recording machine does. According to my research, so far, the earliest massé retrieved from memory was composed by a great oral poet Feleskinos around 1765 and was told by a great depository teller Teame Desta in 2008. The late Teame Desta , who passed away in September 2012 at the age of 88, was the only person among my informants to have kept the memory of that two-and-half centuries old poem along with the contextual information surrounding the poetic piece.

Issayas: Coming to another basic question, why do we need to study massé and melqes?

Solomon: As has been partly explained above when discussing the significance of massé and melqes, we need to study them to understand who we are searching for the true meaning of our past. Massé and melqes are expressions of identities, values, ethical behaviors, psychological makeup and world outlook of the society. They are expressions of culture in general. Moreover, they are a portrayal of history. We also need to seriously study massé and melqes for their literary and aesthetic merit. The imagery and fine language with which massé  and melqes reflect ideas, philosophical concepts and social reality makes them impressive. The impact of the vivid and at times subtle artistic expressions they employ is very strong. They are always appealing with powerful educational and entertaining effects. Hence the massive information embodied in massé and melqes deserves careful research and analysis for us to fully understand the period covered by the massé and melqes. But we should not limit ourselves to just studying them. We should disseminate the outcome of the study by all means possible. Most importantly, the study needs to be systematically integrated into the school curriculum up to the level of higher education.

Issayas: The idea of integrating the study into the Eritrean educational system being very important, how do you think it should be implemented?

Solomon: Of course, it is up to the Ministry of Education and institutions of higher learning to decide if the study should be part of the relevant school curricula, but I strongly suggest that massé and melqes be taught in schools as part of Eritrean literature. Consistent with the Eritrean policy of mother tongue education, the inclusion of this study, I believe, can certainly have commendable results in cultural education as a whole. And yet to achieve the desired outcome the training of highly qualified teachers is crucial.

Part two to follow.