Several weeks ago, I distractedly picked up my ringing phone to hear a colleague ask, ‘haven’t you been trying to get in touch with Bereket Mengisteab?’ I had, in fact, wanted to interview the Eritrean music legend for quite some time. ‘Well’, my colleague continued, ‘he has just stopped by the VOA’s Horn of Africa service.’ Later that afternoon, Mr. Mengisteab was kind enough to spend an hour in the studio talking with me, through a colleague who interpreted, about his life and music. At seventy one years of age Bereket Mengisteab still looks strong enough to plow a field or spend another harsh winter in the mountains of Eritrea, and his powerful voice still stirs the emotions of listeners throughout Eritrea and her Diaspora.
Bereket Mengisteab was born in 1938 in the small village of Hazega, located about eighteen miles north of the Eritrean capital of Asmara, and this is where he spent the first two decades of his life farming. During these years in Hazega, Bereket taught himself the Krar (a five stringed lyre) and honed his musical skills, participating in all of the musical rituals that punctuate rural life. Then, after spending a few years in Asmara (which was part of Ethiopia at the time), Bereket moved to Addis Abeba in 1961. And it was in Addis that Bereket made his stage debut, as a member of the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra; during the previous year he spent in Asmara he never performed outside of his circle of friends. Bereket stayed with the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra for a little over a decade, performing with the group throughout Ethiopia, in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal (at the 1966 Festival mondial des Arts Nègres), and in Mexico (at the 1968 Summer Olympics). During these years he also made his first recordings, nine singles for the Philips label (I don’t know the exact dates and have not been able to find any of these singles).
In 1973, the year before Haile Selassie was overthrown, Bereket left the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra and started his own group, which he called ‘Megaleh Guayla’ (which can be translated as the ‘echo of the dance’). Just a year later, however, Bereket decided to leave the concert halls and nightclubs of Addis for the mountains of Eritrea, and in 1974, he joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the fight for Eritrean independence. As did all members of the ELF, Bereket underwent military training, and participated in the Eritrean liberation struggle both on the battlefield with his rifle, and in the military camps with his revolutionary songs; music played a crucial role in maintaining the morale and determination of those fighting for Eritrean independence.
Bereket, to this day, remembers one soldier in particular, a fighter whose courage and battlefield exploits had made him a legend, who always claimed that he would die happy if he could only ‘see the lights of Asmara and hear Bereket Mengisteab’. When this fighter finally got to see Bereket perform, in a military camp, his emotions got the best of him. As Bereket tells the story; ‘in the middle of a song, this soldier got so excited that he stood up and started to fire his rifle in the air. His weapon was immediately confiscated, and only after being threatened with sanctions did the soldier calm down. A few songs later, however, he once again stood up and started shouting with enthusiasm, waving a hand grenade in the air. After this second breach of military discipline, he was subdued by fellow soldiers and ultimately arrested.’
After five years of fighting in the mountains of Eritrea, Bereket laid down his rifle and, in 1979, moved to Saudi Arabia. (By the late 1970s, after years of internal political struggles, many ELF fighters had gone into exile in Saudi Arabia). Bereket settled in the coastal city of Jeddah, where he would live for the next ten years. During this decade, Bereket recorded ten cassettes, and frequently performed in Saudia Arabia, Sudan, and Djibouti. In 1980, he made his North American debut, bringing his love of Eritrea and revolutionary songs to the Eritrean Diaspora. When full independence came to Eritrea in 1993, Bereket was invited to tour the country, performing in Massawa, Keren, and Asmara. With the war finally over, he returned to Addis Abeba and re-opened the music shop that Bereket and his wife had run before he joined the liberation struggle twenty years earlier.
When war broke out again between Eritrea and Ethiopia, in 1998, Bereket left Addis Abeba and settled in Asmara, where he still lives. Over the last eleven years he has continued to compose and record new songs, releasing at least a cassette a year. He is currently working on a ten song CD that will feature his arrangements of traditional songs. When not on tour, Bereket looks after his business, the ‘B. M. Music House’ located on Babylon square in downtown Asmara.
In the last fifty years Bereket has, by his own count, composed 250 songs, of which he has recorded about 200. Near the end of our conversation I asked Bereket which of his songs he was particularly proud of. After protesting that choosing among his songs was like asking a father to name a favorite child, Bereket admitted that his 1970 composition ‘Melay’ has a special place in his heart. Bereket sings, ‘If in your travels you see my beautiful Melay, please say hello to her. Ask her when she is going to come home, I am waiting for her. Melay, I miss you’. After singing of his love and longing for beautiful Melay, Bereket repeats several lines replacing the name ‘Melay’ with ‘Ere’, an affectionate diminutive for Eritrea. Understood in the context of the times, this sentimental love song expresses the dreams of a generation of liberation fighters. This version is not the original recording but a rearrangement that Bereket released several years ago.
The lyrics of these next two songs also had deeper meaning and resonance in the context of their times. In ‘Ufey Biriri’, also written in 1970, Bereket sings, ‘Who is going to tell her how much I love her? Nothing in the world can compare to her. She is beautiful and God created her with special care, may she soon come back to me. If anybody sees her, let her know that I say hello. That I miss you.’
This next song, ‘Nei Shew Beli’, a 1964 composition, is another declaration of love. Sung in the Tigrinya language, like all of Bereket’s songs, this composition is built on a Tigre rhythm, the ‘Bilen’ (the Tigre are one of Eritrea’s nine main ethnic groups, and not to be confused with the Tigrinya people of Northern Ethiopia). Bereket sings, ‘come soon my love. How are you? I am missing you, I am suffering. I’m begging you. The winter is past and the seasons change but you are still not coming. I am still waiting’. Bereket then goes on to describe the beauty of the mountains and valleys of Eritrea.
Bereket’s latest CD is called ‘Hizbi Alem’ and was released in 2008. Through his songs he continues to support Eritrea, and in the title track he sings, “If the people of the world respected each other there would not be so much distrust. Respect can only be built on justice. If there is respect there is no need for the poor to wait for leftovers. Eritrea needs to be free. Free from aid and donations. We must try our best to live freely, to live on our own’.
Music continues to be part of Eritrea’s efforts to define herself. Recognizing the importance of culture as a tool for nation-building the Eritrean government brought together, back in 1994, a group of musicians who had previously performed in several different ‘revolutionary’ music groups. These musicians became Sibret, the national music and dance troupe. Today, under the direction of Kahsay Gebrehewet, Sibret-which translates as ‘heritage’-are staples of Eritrean radio and television programming and represent their country throughout the world, performing songs and dances from each of the country’s nine ethnic groups. In August of 2005, a few days after they had performed at an Eritrean cultural event in Washington DC, Sibret stopped by our studios and recorded half a dozen songs. I thought I’d round out this post with a few of my favorite tracks from these sessions.
This next song, in the Bedawiyet language, is a traditional Hedareb song. (Eritrea’s nine major ethnic groups are the Afar, Bilen, Hedareb, Saho, Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, Tigre and Tigrinya. The Bereket Mengisteab cassette sleeve posted above pictures these nine groups; the cassette is called ‘Hizbi Eritrea’ or ‘People of Eritrea’.) This is a song played during wedding celebrations for the friends of a young married couple.
Next up is ‘Tikredi’, a harvest song in the Kunama language. The final track is a Tigrinya instrumental that features the amplified krar, bass krar and percussion.
Thanks to Tewelde Tesfagabir for his help with the interview and to Berhan Hailu for her help with translations. I would also like to thank Mr. Felix Pierre-Louis, a Haitian listener who listened one night in his hotel room in Djibouti to a program I did on the Haitian twoubadou legend Coupé-Cloué, and enjoyed it enough to send me a postcard from Eritrea.