As you may know, I've periodically been posting classic and hard-to-find music from Ethiopia here. For some time, I've wanted to make available Lebäy (Toteel Music), a 1984 cassette by Eritrean musical legend Bereket Mengisteab (and yes, Eritrea is now an independent country, but in 1984 it was part of Ethiopia, so technically it qualifies). This is the only recording by Bereket that I possess, and I've long wondered about this enigmatic singer.
Once again, I've been scooped by one of my fellow bloggers, as Matthew Lavoie of Voice of America's African Music Treasures devotes his latest post to this iconic musician. With his usual meticulous attention to detail, Matthew supplies a wealth of background information on his subject, having interviewed the great maestro personally in the VOA studios. There's nothing more I can add, but here's a small taste:.
Francis Falceto writes, in the liner notes of his excellent compilation Ethiopiques 5: Tigrigna music Tigray/Eritrea 1970-1975 (Buda Musique 82965-2):
. . .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). . .
Of course, you need to read Matthew's post and enjoy the musical samples he provides. For those who want more, here's Lebäy, in all of its wild, wailing wah-wahed-out glory:
. . . Tigrigna music, dominent in Tigray [province] and Eritrea, is quite distinct, both rhythmically and melodically, from "Ethiopian" music, although both share the so-called "pentatonic" (or five-note) scale. The instruments and the traditional musical practices are similar, while their names may vary. The massenqo (single-corded fiddle played with a bow) and especially the krar (a six-corded lyre) remain the most prevalent instruments. In Tigrigna country, the massenqo is more commonly termed tchèrewata and the same wandering minstrel that Ethiopians of the central highlands call azmari is better known here as a wata. Ethiopians call the lepers and beggars who sing at dawn lalibèla: here they are termed hamien or arho. Sometimes the krar is even called massenqo. In a notable development over the last few decades, many Eritrean musicians have encouraged the spread of the electric krar, used here widely (far more than in Ethiopia), and many excel at the instrument. . .
"Lebäy" means "my heart." It can alternately mean "my emotions":
Bereket Mengisteab - Lebäy
"Wind of the Desert":
Bereket Mengisteab - Nefas nay Bäräkha
"Wäzzamu" = "handsome":
Bereket Mengisteab - Wäzzamu
The title of this song means "wicked flute." He is scolding the flute, probably because her sound evokes bad memories:
Bereket Mengisteab - Täkkalit Shanbeqo
A comb made of ebony, worn as adornment:
Bereket Mengisteab - Zebbä Mästära
Part of a proverb, the title of this song means "restless hyena":
Bereket Mengisteab - Hewwekh Zeb’i
Bereket Mengisteab - Färäsu
Bereket Mengisteab - Deqdeq S’elmat
Many many thanks to Andreas Wetter for transliterating and translating the song titles. Andreas has recently started his own weblog, Kezira, devoted to music from the Horn of Africa. Of course, it's highly recommended.