Solomon Tsehaye’s Massen Melqesn Qedamot: A Nation Narrates History of 250 Years
Abraham T. Zere
The publication of the first volume of Solomon Tsehaye’s Massen Melqesn Qedamot (2012), the highest poetic forms of Tigrinya, is a milestone in preserving, documenting and analyzing the rich Eritrean oral poetry in general and the Tigrinya oral poetry in particular. Although there were earlier attempts by expatriate scholars to document and publish Eritrean oral traditions, most of them had visible shortcomings. They were merely documented and published to serve the colonial interest; and the authors who took the initiative summarily discredit the oral poets and only focused on the content. As spontaneity is very crucial, the main feature of oral tradition, the context in which the material was recited, was neglected.
Tsehaye, however, conducted an extensive research and did the painstaking job of cross-checking the oral poems from different sources; gave short biographies of the oral poets, and contextualized the oral poems.
With the obvious sensitivity of oral poetry because of its changing and unstable nature, and being at the verge of death with the greater literacy rate, Tsehaye has done momentous job that nearly could not have been better done at this critical juncture. The book, as he notes in the introduction, is the first volume of a trilogy on Eritrean oral poetry. Massen Melqesn Qedamot takes the poet Negash (Sagla) Baira’u (1921-2008) as a point of departure and coverage of 34 other oral poets whom Tsehaye considers have greatly influenced Negash Sagla.
The book gives an extensive coverage on the types and nature of oral poetry (33-148). In a sequential manner it then starts with the oldest surviving oral poetry of Ayte Felesqinos who was estimated to be born in 1735. The section on Ayte Feleskinos attempts to contextualize his oral poems, gives brief biographical sketch and documents three of his oral poems.
In various sections and programs of the national media oral tradition has been given due coverage but never did it before was compiled and published in a book as Tsehaye did. Ghirmai Negash’s oral poetry research that was serialized in the national newspaper in 1995, Brother Solomon Ghebrekristos’ serialized articles on the magazine Timtsa’e Mengistke were among the significant works that attempted to give wider coverage, but Tsehaye’s book is the biggest share now.
As the Eritrean society is transferring from oral to written collection of such works is always done against time and Tsehaye did a very good job at the right time. Oral poets are being replaced by poets and the banks of the oral poets, the depository tellers are also at the verge of extinction. A similar attempt to document such work after few months will not have the same result as Tsehaye has already collected now.
The book also attempted to document the context of the oral poems recited, which is very crucial in oral poetry. By doing so the book also reads as an Eritrean history of the last 250 years. As historical document lacks in most events of Eritrean history, oral history in general and oral poetry in particular greatly help connect the dots and fills the gaps of the undocumented history of a nation. Therefore, Tsehaye’s book will be an important contribution for Eritrean historians, literary scholars and sociologists for further studies.
Tsehaye contextualized most of the oral poems and attempts to give a clear picture of the event behind most of the oral poems. In addition to that he documented oral poems recited in some context
and brought all the poems recited at the same event. The oral poems recited as back and forth after certain events also gives a clear picture of the nature of the oral poems and the talent of the poets.
With its recurrent themes of bravery and heroism, the book documents all kinds of oral poetry that attempted to capture important historical incidents.
Tsehaye also did a tremendous work in creating access for the coming researchers. Towards the end of the book, he summarized his work in English for those who could not access the Tigrinya text;
documented the research works so far conducted in the area, and listed the names and addresses of the depository tellers, whom Tsehaye greatly depended for his research.