In my Radioshow I have given attention before to the interesting jazz period of Ethiopia (1969-1975), which showed a unique mixture of jazz, a specific, brilliant Ethiopian way of singing which sounds a bit Middle Eastern to our ears. It was thanks to Buddha Music we came to know the existence of this highlighting period. The guitarist from the Ex in 2001 went to Ethiopia to play some concerts, and he realised that today there was more music to discover, leading to some concerts with Ethiopian musicians, but also to the release of some local musicians on Terp Records. One of these musicians, discovered from a local tape, is Zerfu. They recorded this album with professional equipment at his empty bedroom at home.
I need to mention something of the story behind the instrument, the begena, a bass lyre which is remembered as being ‘the Harp of King David’ (dating from some 3000 years ago). It is known that the Ethiopian queen of Sheba had a relationship with King Solomon, son of David, in Israel. After a while she had returned to her people. When their son returned to his father, King Solomon, he took with him back the Arc of the Covenant around the 10th century, as well as the begena. The Arc is known to be kept away from public in a specific Ethiopian temple, together with early scriptures, like the book of Mary (Magdalene ?). Most of the Ethiopean scriptures were written down after a long oral tradition at around the 5th century. Ethiopia was already Christian in the 4th century, 500 years earlier than Europe, and also knows a rather mystic version of Christianity, compared to the much more derivative later forms. The queen’s dynasty lasted until 1974, until a military communist regime took over, which destroyed much of the possibilities (also with music) in the country until 1991.
The instrument has ten strings which are associated with the Ten Commandments, with strings called ‘beauty’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘spirituality’, while the left and right pillars stand for St.Michael and St.Gabriel, the upper bar is associated with the Almighty, the sound box with the womb of the virgin Mary. This ancient way of associations makes the instrument a tool to express a certain balance between virtues, as a secular form of music that can be felt directly. The sound of the instrument has a beautiful and powerful buzz which does not last as long as for instance the Indian sitar, but which fits well with a few other instruments from Africa based upon harps, lyres or other long string instruments. It remained a court or noble instrument.
The songs which are recorded on the CD are translated into English and show very much how the songwriters deal creatively with the Ethiopian interpretation of Biblical Christianity. Having the St.Michael’s pillar of the instrument in mind, one the songs says about St.Michael, “you rescue people from death”, just like an upwards movement, and about St.George “you come to rescue people from your fast horse”. It is possibly that certain periods there might have given certain meanings / teachings to certain positions on the harp to remember channelling and passing onwards certain spiritual thoughts and energies, where the strings could deliberately stimulate connections and combinations of healing and synthesizing energies, in a comparable way how the method of Kabala makes them aware, but only in theory. I’m not sure how much such teachings still exist, because I can only say that for this recording it are mostly a bit more comparable patterns that are being played, as if from a melodic-rhythmic tradition, but in harmony with the singing inspiration. It is generally known that each music form often tends to fall back on more recognisable patterns that are more connected with what certain groups of people who listen most often understand well (Middle Eastern, Turkish, Irish and Balkan music all tends to fall back on similar patterns, while they also have more possibilities). Once another combination is performed it immediately shows more effect. But I can assure that the buzzing string sound alone will leave an impact on the listener, and also with certain rhythmic patterns it gives a hypnotic effect as if listening to the warm comfort-giving sound of the purring of a cat, but then taken in a beautiful song context.
The songs themselves of course we don’t understand directly (but you can read along the lyrics with the meaning of them if you wish to), so that part won’t have the same moving storytelling effect as on Ethiopians, while also this combination will still work, in a slightly meditative way, of feeding the soul in a more universal way we hardly can understand rationally why this is.
The effect of it is religion itself in a real sense, as if the hidden but true effect is the true synonym for God. Of course also a writer’s opinion participates in the songwriting, revealing slightly hidden descriptive double meanings related with certain conditions of events.