Yemane Barya: The Eritrean Griot
How do you write about passion, love, revolution, flawless poignancy, inexhaustible hope and painful yearning for freedom? How do you capture the heartbeats of millions and channel it through your soul and into the world? How do you become both timeliness and timelessness itself? As for the answers to these questions, I simply don’t know. The challenge I faced the moment I began writing this article, however, has more to do with this question: how do you write about the person who captured all of these complex elements during his short stay on this earth?
How do you write about Yemane Barya, the prolific Eritrean griot?
Addressing these questions will only create a series of articles I won’t dare venture into at the moment. Neither will I navigate this piece to capture all that is Yemane. I will, instead, bow out of the challenge and resort to writing not about the phenomenon but about some of the elements of the phenomenon we have come to know and love as Yemane Barya.
Love, depth, poignancy, inexhaustible hope, painful yearning for freedom are some of the most common residents of his soul. As gracious of a host he was to these residents, he was never hesitant to put these very residents to work. With the sighs of anguish of millions of Eritreans as his tank of oxygen, Yemane dove into the oceanic depths of his own soul to search for the words and the melodies that would capture it all. When he emerged, he shared his discovery not with a triumphant voice that boasts of his talent but of the strong, beautiful and painful familiarity he accrued from his journey inward. The familiarity about the reality looming outside and around. What one hears when Yemane oozes out of the speakers is the sound of sincere nativity that is birthed when the struggle of the human spirit impregnates a sincere voice.
During an interview in the early 1990s, when a journalist asked him where he gets his heartfelt lyricism from, Yemane replied, “The source of my lyricism is based on the conversations I have with people. It’s from the depth of these conversations that I get and arrange it all. I could write something complex but if the common man cannot understand what you are saying, then it is almost as if you haven’t written it at all”. His understanding of the human nature, namely, the desire to be felt and spoken to directly, helped shape the heartfelt messages he conveyed through his music.
“Yemane eloquently captures tragedy. He has a voice that reflects the oppression and wrongdoings unleashed on the masses,” once remarked the legendary musician Berekhet Mengisteab who characterized Yemane’s passing as a loss of unimaginable proportions. Yes, Yemane was the people and the people are Yemane.
On January 21st, 1949, the revolution that dared to be broadcasted arrived as a bundle of joy to Mr. Gebremichael Bisirat and Mrs. Azeb Gebrehiwet. Yes, this date marked the birth of the Eritrean griot whose revolutionary and defiant music would force him to flee his beloved Asmara 26 years later. Yemane’s interest in poetry began to bubble into the surface when he was in 7th grade at Camboni School. Soon after, his interests expanded into music and theatre. As time progressed, Yemane found himself gravitating into the world of performing arts; to the dismay and relentless opposition of his parents. Completely overtaken by the passion that gave him the power to defy his parents insistence that he should solely focus on his studies at Kidisti Mariam, Yemane would eventually drop out of school when he was only in the 9th grade. Although Yemane was an excellent student, he simply could not resist his true calling. With his heartfelt approach to his passion for music and his knack for moving lyricism, Yemane soon began to grip the imagination of the youth in Asmera.
Yemane’s passion was growing against the backdrop of hectic political unrest in an Eritrea that was gripped by the feudalist system of Emperor Haile Selassie. Any vocal opposition against the regime’s annexation of Eritrea resulted in dire consequences and any Eritrean voice was closely monitored and heavily censored. It seemed inevitable then that the combination of youthful vigor and strong commitment to the rights of Eritreans would soon bring trouble to Yemane. The very first song Yemane wrote, entitled “Lula” landed him in prison. The song’s content -about a man whose soul mate was snatched by a cruel intruder- was considered to be a veiled political message addressing the annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia. Here is a translated verse from the song “Lula”:
Harmoniously and in love/she once lived with me A certain someone has taken her/and trouble has befallen me He forcefully invaded her sending his subjects She was once with me but now he has taken her to his country How dare he snatch her away from me How cruel he is/to poke my eyes out like this
The practice of veiling a political message as a romantic song was and has been a common practice by some Eritrean singers. I believe this practice speaks for both the love many Eritreans have for their country and the level of danger they are willing to take to speak on behalf of the oppressed and the voiceless. Inevitably, fearing the consequences of the revolution they carried out with their musical talents, many singers have left their beloved nation and people for a life in exile.
The Eritrean judge, who was deeply concerned about the possibility that Yemane could face death for his lyrics, prolonged the case to buy time. Fortunately for Yemane and, in retrospect, for the people of Eritrea, his case was dismissed when Haile Selassie’s regime was unseated by Derg. Taking advantage of this chaotic time of transition, Yemane Barya did what he always wanted to do but couldn’t (for fear of endangering the lives of the people who bailed him out when he was jailed); and joined the Eritrean revolution. In 1975, Yemane joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and underwent 3 months of military training. During his time, since there was no electricity in the base, Yemane was performing without a microphone. He later left for Sudan and then to Saudi Arabia; where he continued his revolution through his wonderful deeds and music.
Yemane’s inexhaustible kindness, generosity and love for his people is not something that is merely to be pointed out with simple references to his powerful music. He was a man who walked his talk. While in Sudan, he aided hundreds of Eritrean refugees cross over into Saudi, Europe, the US etc. where they were able to make better lives for themselves. “His generosity knew no boundaries!” says his mother Mrs. Azeb Gebrehiwet, recalling the time when she visited him in Sudan. “He had a sack full of sugar outside his door and a tea kettle with some cups. All who came to his house didn’t have to be asked if they would like some tea, they felt so much at home that they would simply go ahead and make tea as much as they please.” Concerned that her son’s generosity was bordering foolishness during such a difficult time when sugar was as scarce and as expensive of a commodity as everything else was , his mother thoughtfully advised Yemane’s wife to at least put the sugar inside the house. His wife replied matter of factly, “Aye adey! He will simply buy another sack and put it out there again.” Yemane was not a man of wealth, but he shared the little he had with his people. There are several Eritreans who would recount about how Yemane personally helped them get to where they are now. Yemane knew all it took to help his fellow men was nothing more than the will to do so.
Even after independence, Yemane never ceased to be the man who stood for the voiceless and the poor. His sister, Ms. Asefash G/Michael recalls the time when Yemane, disturbed by the economic hardships the poor faced, asked, “When will this people see a better time?”. Curious, she inquired why he asked such a question. He replied, “How great it would be if the poor and the wealthy could exchange places only for one day! Each would see and understand the other’s reality. It breaks my heart when the poor and the wealthy pass away without tasting each other’s poverty and wealth.”
While the Sudanese, recognizing the extent of his love for his people, affectionately called him “The Ambassador”, Abo dikha or “The Father of the poor ones” was the title his fellow countrymen gave him. After the Eritrean independence afforded him the opportunity to finally return to his beloved Eritrea, Yemane continued his philanthropic deeds by engaging in countless shows to fundraise for the Eritrean tegadeltis who lost their limbs during the revolution. Off the stage, he was the father figure for many mentally challenged youth who were treated as outcasts by many members of the society. When this powerful griot and champion of love finally left his earthly existence in 1997, the heavy grief felt by the thousands who came to bid him farewell was further accented by the heart shuttering cries of the poor and forgotten who called Yemane, their father.
On the same day of his death, Yemane Barya was slated to start recording a compilation album with some other notable artists. In addition to planning the remixing of his music in various languages, he was also preparing to tour abroad. It is painful to lose someone as inspirational and talented as Yemane was, but the lives of revolutionaries are hardly lengthy. I suspect there’s a lesson in this fact that just may be as powerful as the lesson in the purpose they serve. When he departed, the man who lent the veins of his heart to Eritrea so that she can strum on them as if they were the strings of kirar was only forty eight years old. Yemane was a half-century old revolution that lives on even today.
I was playing the legend’s tunes as I began to write this piece. Although appreciative of the acoustic clarity affording me the opportunity to appreciate the sounds of the artist who inspires me beyond description, there was something constraining and unholy about putting Yemane’s music in my plastic, artificial and distanced ipod. It almost felt as if I was defiling his timeless and pure voice, and I somehow drifted into the past when I used to listen to Yemane’s purposely unmarked tapes.
During the Derg’s era, it was dangerous to get caught with his tape in hand. However, something in his music and his words awoke a certain rebellion spirit, no matter how timid, quiet and tamed. His tapes were dubbed and passed among my friends so many times that the string would often break. I knew that my mother would go crazy if she found out what happened to those tapes, so I used to glue those strings back up using her nail polish. It was quite amusing to witness her become puzzled about how fast the beat went from a single tempo to derb, skipping all of the noticeable substance in between. Anyway, I was lucky enough to appreciate Yemane Barya’s music the way I did and the way I still do. I could hear what he is saying and what he meant because it is sang in the language I know very well. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but ask myself a question I already knew the answer to: why do the young Eritreans in the Diaspora whose Tigrigna vocabulary doesn’t go past the basics, love Yemane Barya’s music? The answer is obvious, he speaks to and with their souls. No translation is needed. His voice tells it all and wordlessly they nod back saying, we get you Yemane.
May our powerful griot rest in peace. May we recognize, nurture and love our future griots; the griots who speak for the voiceless, for the downtrodden, for those deprived of justice and their God given rights!
Legends are destined, not made. Purpose is sought after, not relayed.
Rest in peace Yemane Barya.
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