Ethiopia: Gifted in Engrossing Hearts With Harp

Today's guest is Megabe Sebihat Alemu Aga. He is master of the Begenna, similar to the Harp of King David or the Ethiopian harp. He was born and raised around Entoto. He has been superbly playing the Ethiopian traditional instrument since he was a 12 year old boy. He is on familiar terms with the nuts and bolts of the Harp of King David as he was trained by a renowned master, Aleqa Alemayehu Wolde-Ammanuel, who was his neighbor and tutor at his school. At the end of the day, he graduated from Addis Ababa University with BA in Geography.

After that, he had taught the Harp of King David at Yared Music School for several years. More often than not, he gets himself involved in doing research concerning the Begenna, apart from playing a number of ecclesiastical songs with his melodious voice.

Furthermore, he had successfully trained countless students as far as this. Likewise, Megabe Sebihat Alemu has been acquainting people with the Harp in various parts of the world over and over again. A case in point, he has been staging Begenna concerts since 1994 in different parts of the world such as Austria, Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Holland, Israel, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and what not. Furthermore, so far he has released four Begenna CDs and three audio cassettes.

The Ethiopian Herald had a short stay with Megabe Sebihat Alemu with the intention of familiarizing his personal and professional life with esteemed readers. He has touched upon a number of mesmerizing issues concerning the Harp of King David, the Ethiopian Harp. Excerpts:

What does the address marker Megabe Sebihat mean?

At the outset, the word Sebihat is bordering on praising God while Megabe means one who presents reverential songs. Therefore, a person who every so often does a praise to the Almighty is referred as Megabe Sebhat. While we are on the subject, the way how I got the title is quite different from the customary norms. The thing was, on one occasion, I was invited to play the Harp in a certain fund raising campaign. Quite a number of people and two bishops had partaken in the formal procedure. Earlier than taking the stage to play the instrument, the stage conductor, Afe lek Niguse Aklilu set in motion saying a few things about me. He was addressing me with the title Ato at that specific juncture.

The stage conductor said, "Ato Alemu Aga has lived all his life praising God bringing into play the Harp of King David. But he is not given a church title yet. Hence, as of today, I will call him Megabe Sebihat given that he has been praising God from time to time through the Ethiopian Harp. This time, all the attendees gave me a big hand. From that day onward, I am called by the title Megabe Sebihat.

There is a saying that you resigned from Yared Music School revolted by the atheism the Derg regime. Is it true?Given that you were a graduate of Haileselassie I University how come Begenna became your means of ekeing out a living?

Yes, it is very true. I gave up teaching Begenna for the reason that the Derg regime was anti-religions at that time. The regime was in the habit of hating to death religions. If one shows a bent to religion s/he would be an object of ridicule and ultimately sideline.

I was the first to teach Begenna at Yared Music School for eight years. At the end of the day, I set in motion running my own business. In my stay in the school, I had brought into play eight Begennas, to train my students.

I started school at Entoto Selassie and later I joined Amaha Desta School and attended there up to grade six. Having spent a successful time there, I joined Teferi Mekonnen and attended there up to grade twelve. In due course, I joined the then Haile Selassie I University and recived a Geography degree. I studied Geography considering my inclination towards the subject.

While I was in high school, often I was awarded with various certificates provided that I was excellent at the subject. If truth be told, all students were awarded certificates based on their excellence in different subjects such as English, Science, Geography, Physics and the rest.

In reality, I studied geography thinking that my future bread would be buttered well if I pursue the subject. But as I did not find a suitable job in the field I specialized in, I began teaching at Yared Music School. I had a good skill and nimble hand in the Begenna, at some stage in the emperor regime.

When and how was the Yared Music School founded?

Yared Music School was born into life by the aid of the Bulgarian government. Before that, various musical instruments were taught at Dagmai Menilik School. At that point, due focus and attention was given to foreign musical instruments such as piano, saxophone, and the rest. Sooner or later, the school incorporated Ethiopian traditional instruments.

All our traditional instruments are learned by seeing, listening and practicing time and again. These techniques were employed to teach the traditional instruments at that juncture. Actually, the same techniques have been used to train traditional instruments. Nothing is changed yet.

The school gives due weight and attention to foreign music. It does not seem to care about traditional instruments. They do not as well do research on traditional instruments concerning their whereabouts. Most traditional instrument players that are seen in various night clubs of the country have developed the experience on their own ways. They are self trained.Sadly, at this moment in time, Yared School does not offer the Begenna lessons.

What is your reflection on the current status of Ethiopian Harp?

Begnna is an ancient instrument. It is made of animal skins, wood products and other related aspects. It has been passing down from generation to generation for many years without changing its shapes and forms. Mostly, it is used for religious purposes. The Ethiopian harp generates sound which could not be generated by other traditional instruments. It is used only for religious purposes. Moreover, it is completely impossible to fine-tune or orchastrate the instrument with other traditional instruments such as Kirar, Begenna, flute and so forth. Currently, there are Begnna Schools in various parts of Addis Ababa and thus the number of Begana players is increasing over and over again. The instrument is as well played in the course of epiphany to accompany the Ark of the Covenant. It is also used by Sunday school students.

Sadly, there are some people who play the Ethiopian harp at mourning houses and wedding ceremonies missing the intended target. Usually, the instrument is listened at some stage in lent across the country by the faithful. Generally speaking, mostly the Begenna is affiliated with men. But at this point in time, a lot of women are playing the Begenna. As to me, as Begnna is a special instrument that the country is known for, special care must be given with the purpose of passing the instrument from generation to generation without missing the intended target.

What makes Begnna different from other traditional instruments?

Well, the Harp of King David is used for prayer. It as well used to praise God. Quite the reverse, the other Ethiopian traditional instruments are mostly used during occasions of dancing and singing . But we do not take advantage of the Harp for other purposes as the instrument is very different. The instrument takes people far deep in thought apart from creating an electrifying effect in people from head to foot.

At the time when the instrument was on the brink of distraction, it was tried to orchestrate the Harp of King David with other traditional instruments targeting at revitalizing it. But the deep sound it produces and the vibration it releases could not be harmonized with other musical instruments. As such the orchestration effort did not get acceptance.

How long does it take to learn the Begenna?

To the best of my knowledge, talent should be given due weight and emphasis as it helps students learn the instrument within the shortest time possible. By their very nature, people with talents understand the instrument with no trouble. They do not spend too much of their time to learn the instrument. In music education, the most important thing to be taken into account is distinguishing the different voices of music. People who understand the different voices in music can learn the instrument without difficulty and as a result, it is difficult to decide a certain specific time that the Harp of King David takes to learn.

When I was teaching at Yared Music School, I was in the habit of teaching students twice a week. In the course of the first day, I taught them how to familiarize themselves with a number of melodies through practices. On the morrow, I made certain to what extent they had understood the whole lot. As music is experience of knowledge and skills, if my students failed to do so, I made them practice over and over again. But if they performed better, I would give them additional steps. In this fashion, it was possible to prove success in the Ethiopian Harp in a little while.

At this moment in time, a two month, a six month and a nine month Begenna courses are offered at different schools consisting different credit hours. When students bring to a close their studies, they keep on practicing single-handedly with the aim of broadening their skills every so often.

In shapes and sizes, does the Harp of King David differ from Begenna?

In the beginning, the Harp of King David, Begenna is an ancient instrument with ten strings hanging from a diminutive tavern at the top fastened together by two analogous sticks as well as a leather-made sound-box at the bottom. All Begennas are one and the same. Mostly, the size of the Begenna relies on crafters of the Begenna instruments. Previously a size difference was noticed. At this point in time, there is no anything called small-sized, medium-sized and large-sized.

What was the reaction of foreigners towards the Harp of King David?

They all feel affection for the instrument with all their hearts. One fine day, I was in German, Frankfurt. It was during the millennium celebrations. There was an Ethiopian pavilion consisting of different icons of St. Marry, St. Michael, St. Gabriel and other saint's icons, various crosses and other related materials. A lot of people had partaken in visiting the museum. I was invited there to play the Harp of King David in the course of the closing ceremony. There were as well Ethiopians who got themselves involved in the program. Then, I magnificently began playing the Harp of King David. As it happened, a certain women showed up. As all the seats in the hall were taken, she stood leaning against a wall. Most of the attendees were forefingers. At the end of the program, the woman came within reach of me and said,

"When I heard the music something that I cannot express in words galloped down my spines spreading a reverberating wave in the entire of my body! I do not understand the secret behind. I could not control my feelings. I still feel it inside."

How do you describe your social involvement?

More often than not, I partake in Senbete,a sort of religious party, which takes place once in a week at St. George Church positioned around Piazza. Members prepare a big feast for the destitute. We invite impoverished people ranging from 1000-1600 on Sundays. They have Injera(A home made flat bread) with Wot(stew) .They also drink Tele with mug. We invite them on Sundays. After we have seen them off, members of the Senbete set in motion enjoying the feast. Likewise, we prepare a big feast in the course of St. George's day and do the same.

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