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MUSIC - DECEMBER 3, 2003

Have you seen Hussein?

Bringing Ethiopian tradition to East Lansing in the form of love songs and wisdom enriched prose, Temesgen Hussein is showcased on the first Saturday of the month performing a tranquil exhibition for the dinner crowd at Altu’s Ethiopian Cuisine.

A multi-ethnic state with 83 spoken languages and over 200 different dialects, Ethiopia has a strong oral culture. The Ethiopian narratives are enriched with thousands of proverbs teaching morality, culture and history. In tuneful delight Temesgen showcases the krar and the begena, two customary instruments used in the African nation.

The krar, a chordophone, is a bowl lyre decorated with wood, cloth, and beads. It consists of five or six strings that determine the pitch. While the tone is up to the musician’s approach; bowed, strummed or plucked. If plucked the instrument will produce a soft tone. Strumming on the other hand will yield a harmonious pulsation. The krar — not played at funerals — accompanies love songs and secular songs, which makes it an enjoyable additive to a cozy meal.

Escorting the onlookers on the path to lyrical illumination is the begena, a prestigious large sacred wooden harp found in Ethiopian manuscripts as early as the 15th century. Producing deep tones, it is a large lyre also known as “The King David’s Lyre.” Consisting of eight to 10 strings, a thin piece of metal or plectrum can be used to play the begena. Functioning as a bass, the harp calms the intellect for clearer perception of the deep poems that mark the dignified contribution.

Take the time to get charmed into melodious euphoria from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, at Altu’s Ethiopian Cuisine, 1312 Michigan Ave., by the Silver Dollar Saloon. Altu’s offers both meat and vegetarian Ethiopian cuisine.

— Chris Scofield - Lansing City Pulse


“I can move these all night long,” he says softly. “You can always find a better place, but not the best place.”

The straps, barely an eighth of an inch wide, add a cosmic box-spring twang to the begena, a 10-stringed instrument used to play sacred music in Ethiopia for at least half a millennium.

Without the scraps of leather, carefully wedged between strings and soundbox, the begena would be a pleasant but anemic-sounding antique lyre with a few extra right angles. As it is, Hussein's 3-year-old son, Ariah, calls his dad's ancient axe the “boom-boom,” and he's not exaggerating.

Imagine the electric guitar intro of every James Bond movie ever made, played not quite simultaneously, on a mountaintop more than a mile away. Such is the distant-sounding jangle set in motion when the begena's vibrations are just right.

On the first Saturday of each month, Hussein sets up solitary shop and plays this rare instrument for patrons of Altu's Ethiopian restaurant. Devotional and philosophical songs, all centuries old, buzz through a full house of diners Saturday night, penetrating yet respecting the hum of happy conversation.

Somewhere in Hussein's insistent thrumming lurks a dark thread of melody, easily heard when he sings along, much less obvious when he is not. A dark lace of decorative notes drapes the naked song, and that's the part of Hussein's art that intrigues him most.

“The fingers go through the strings very fast and the melodic notes are hidden in all the fingers running through the strings,” Hussein explains. “The melody is 'da, da, da, da,' but you hear 'drrdra, drrdrdra.' What I like is adding enough ornamentation so it sounds like water flowing, and the melodic notes are just in there.”

The traditional melodies Hussein plays are written down, not as musical notes, but as numbers that only tell the player which string to pluck. The lack of specificity opens more opportunities for self-expression. “There is no telling how long you stay for a note,” he says. “No eighth notes, quarter notes, stuff like that.”

Hussein and other members of the world's dwindling band of begena players believe their instrument to be the Biblical harp of King David. Latter-day enthusiasts like Hussein, a computer assisted design consultant, hope to keep this ancient sound in the air for another millennium or two.

Hussein is thinking of starting a begena school, with online sound files replacing the human teachers of old.

A lesser cousin to the begena, the banjo-like krar, is also in Hussein's arsenal. Unlike the begena, with its Biblical pedigree, the krar often expresses less lofty emotions and states of mind — romantic love, for instance.

With his scholar's face, crisp white tunic and quiet carriage, Hussein injects dignity into a room just by walking into it. As a musician, he neither confronts nor panders to his audience. One of his begena songs, “Dust to Dust,” bears a message that seems already embedded in his face.

“The song says that death takes you; it will take me; it will take the soldier, the merchant,” Hussein says. Like Hussein, the song has a leveling effect — reassuring to the right-minded, a reality check for the arrogant.

“People get different messages from that,” Hussein says.
As a young man growing up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Hussein saw a begena player one summer day on TV and was fascinated. He showed up at Addis Ababa's Yared School of Music and learned the fundamentals from his teacher, Alemayehu Fanta, in two months. Hussein learned so quickly his teacher kept asking him if he was sure he hadn't taken any lessons.

“I thought he was just encouraging me,” Hussein says, “but later, when I told him I didn't have a begena of my own, he gave me his.”
The slightly battered instrument, a hand-carved, three-sided wooden frame anchored by a gourd covered with animal skin, is the same instrument Hussein plays at Altu's.
A small cross, carved into the begena's bottom, bears witness to Ethiopia's culture of faith, unique among African states. Ethiopia is among the world's oldest Christian nations. Many of the traditional songs Hussein performs are devotional. After centuries of winnowing, Hussein laughs, the songs are “greatest hits of greatest hits,” but they are definitely not the same versions performed by the original artists.

Hussein came to Lansing in 1992, sponsored by an uncle, to study architectural design at Lansing Community College. He lives with his wife, Carol, and Ariah in a cozy, toy-littered condo near the Lake Lansing Meijer.

The Big Gulp culture is a far cry from Ethiopia — fabled as a cradle of civilization, if not mankind itself — but Hussein is a fan of opportunity and political stability.

“Nobody leaves their home country lightly, but there's always been civil war during my life,” he says. “If Addis Ababa were like Lansing, I would go back today.”

“Besides, when I lived in Addis, it was modernized, and we didn't have the resources to see many of the tourist areas,” he says. “People who come from other countries see more of Ethiopia than we did. I would like to go back and see these old places, which I've seen only in pictures and on the Internet, like everybody else.”

In the mid-'90s, Hussein hooked up with local friends to form a reggae band, Mau Mau. The members were from places as far-flung as India and the Sudan, but they traded in the world's truest forms of currency: the music of Bob Marley.

In recent years, Hussein hooked up with another friend, a recording engineer with a studio in Canada, to produce four CDs: a disc of reggae collaborations, “King David's Harp” for unaccompanied begena, and separate discs of vocal and instrumental krar (“Ethio-banjo”) compositions.

Hussein has also recorded a disc of haunting begena vocals called “Begena Bedtime,” a lullaby disc like no other. The CD was inspired by the “boom-boom's” salutary effect on the perpetually sweet and inquisitive Ariah. “When Ariah was born, we never had any sleeping problems with him,” Hussein says.
Friends and acquaintances, Hussein says with a smile, say they can't make it past the second track before nodding off.

Hussein's genial yet dead-level personality —he seems to suspend each word and gesture on a plumb line running down to the earth's core — make him ideally suited to give his listeners warm baths in icy revelations.
- Lansing


Temesgen Hussein – Keeping a Lost Art Alive

When one thinks of Ethiopian musicians in the Diaspora, what immediately comes to mind outside of contemporary artists who ply their trade at various Ethiopian restaurants, is the more progressive sounds coming from the younger generation. Hip Hop? Certainly. Neo-soul? You got it. Begena? Well, no…not normally. Temesgen certainly does his share of the progressive in smart collaborations with reggae band, Mau Mau but the instrument that he is most associated with and that really establishes his unique musical identity is that old Ethiopian instrument that you will have a hard time seeing even in Ethiopia unless you’re visiting Yared School of Music. You might think of the begena as the original bass line. It is not an instrument given to high melody. Its sound is deep and almost melancholy. For Temesgen, that sound instantly captivated him when as a boy, he heard it for the first time on a TV program in Ethiopia. He went on to master the fundamentals of the 10-string instrument in just two months causing his instructors at Yared whether he was really a beginner. He hasn’t stopped playing since and today, he thrills audiences in his adopted hometown of East Lansing, Michigan with weekly performances of spiritually tinged compositions that leaves listeners relaxed and at peace. A perfect fit for his motto…’Listen with your heart’. - Brian Burrell- ACX Staff Writer


And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. Samuel 16:23

The begena is one of several musical instruments that can only be found in Ethiopia today. But unique amongst such instruments is the lineage claimed for this instrument by Ethiopian tradition; it is said to be the same type of instrument that David of Israel played for King Saul in order to calm him down from the insomnia that came over him from time to time and threatened his very sanity.

There are in fact several references in the Bible to a ten string lyre or harp like instrument that give credence to the legend which says Menelik I brought the instrument to Ethiopia from Israel. But for historians, its actual origin remains in doubt, though Ethiopian manuscripts depict the instrument at the beginning of the fifteenth century A.D. (Kimberlin 1978: 13).

Known as the instrument of noblemen, monks, and the upper class and performed by both Amhara, Tigray, and Eritrean men and women, the begena was used primarily as an accompaniment during meditation and prayer. Though commonly played in the home, it is sometimes played during festive occasions. During Lent, the instrument is most often heard on the radio. One may compose one's own texts or they may be taken from the Bible, from the Book of Proverbs, or from the Book of Qine, an anthology of proverbs and love poems. Subject matter includes the futility of life, the inevitability of death, saints, mores, morality, prayer, and praises to God. A song can last a few minutes to several hours depending on the text and the persistence of the player. Though many texts are of a religious nature, the instrument is not used in the Ethiopian Orthodox church services, even if it is seen occasionally in religious processions outside the church.

Even though the begena has ten strings, only six are actually sounded by plucking. That is, the left hand plucks strings one, three, four, six, eight, and ten. The pointing finger plucks strings three and four while the other fingers are in charge of controlling one string each. The remaining strings are used for the finger rests or stops after the strings have been plucked allowing the plucked string to vibrate.

Thong buzzers are used as a method of sound amplification. Each buzzer is a U-shaped leather thong that is placed between each string and the bridge. The thong for each string is adjusted up or down so that the string, when plucked, repeatedly vibrates against the edge of the bridge, producing the characteristic buzzing sound which is more penetrating than music played without the buzzers.

Because of the instrument's relatively sacred role in society, it is difficult to find people who play the begena. Meditation and prayer are very private, personal endeavors, and hearsay suggests that the instrument is played by very few and is a dying art. However, in 1972 the Yared Music School in Addis Ababa began formal instruction in the begena and continues to do so today. So there is hope that the instrument’s august reputation will be maintained by a new generation of Ethiopian musicians skilled in its use.

Editor’s Note: Temesgen’s fascination with the begena began when as a young man, he saw it being played on TV. Very shortly afterwards, he went to the Yared School of Music and learned its fundamentals in just two months. Now, almost 20 years later, he is as passionate about this unique instrument as the day he first heard its unique notes on his TV set in Addis. Temesgen now plays his begena (and kirar) for appreciating audiences in his adopted hometown of East Lansing, MI on a regular basis and has released several CDs of his work with the begena and krar as well as a collaboration with reggae band, Mau Mau. You can find his CDs at CDBaby.com . For more on Temesgen, visit www.temesgen.com or check out his music at www.CDBaby.com. - Horizon Ethiopia


Discography

1. Collaboration Suite (World, 2006)
2. Ethio Banjo (Krar Instrumental, 2006)
3. King David's Harp (Begena Instrumental, 2006)
4. Begena Bedtimes (Begena and vocals, 2006)
5. Traditional Favorites (Krar and vocals, 2006)

Photos

Bio

Temesgen was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He has been playing the begena and the krar since 1990. He has studied with Alemayehu Fanta and Teacher Teshome at the Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa. It is Temesgen's dream to keep alive the ancient musical traditions of Ethiopia. He is in the process of setting up a school to teach the Begena and the Krar.

Visit www.temesgen.com for videos, music, lyrics, downloads and more