TEZETA: an Ethiopian nostalgia

Ethiopian identity is haunted by the notion of uniqueness. Its history is riddled with mythical narratives that tend to paint the nation, as an exception – an attractive anomaly. It is as if history has entitled and immortalized the country to remain at the cusp of greatness, never quiet achieving it but always allowing a tantalizing glimpse of possibilities. Tezeta is a polysemic Amharic word. It is the name of one of the four Ethiopian scales, including: Ambassel, Bati, and Anchi Hoye. It is a ballad sang of love lost. Many prolific artists in Ethiopia have produced such songs including: Mahmoud Ahmad, Seyfou Yohannes, Aster Awoke, etc. The third translation of Tezeta is its meaning: a feeling of nostalgia clad in Ethiopian connotations. It is a sentiment seeped in Ethiopiawi flavor due to its immediacy to melancholy and its admittance that what is lost will never be regained. Nostalgia trails at the back of a blow that committed the violence of separating two entities: the thing that yearns, from that it yearns for. The music is produced in that space of lilting limbs reaching for what they see but never touch.

Azmaris, troubadours native to Amhara region, introduced Tezeta to Ethiopian music-scape. These poet-musicians borrowed their musical style from church and situated their performances in rebellion to this institution. Before the middle of twentieth century, all Azmaries were either dropouts or failed students from the church curriculum that constituted the only education system in the region. The Azmaris occupy the lowest strata in the social fabric. They usually perform at tej-bets and social events including: wedding, christenings, etc. Their place in the society and their skills in poetic lyricism allow these artists to vocalize facts and circumstances that would otherwise be left unsaid. Their frankness earned them stingy and pointed epithets. Poet Tsegaye Gebremedhin resituates the Azmari’s inclination to facts, saying: “the azmari reflects the dreams and aspirations, the laughter and the tears of the people. He cannot be otherwise. He takes it from the people, and he reinterpret, with his talent, what the people already know about themselves.” Their crude articulation of reality lets their listener collide with his/her everyday living, unprepared and without a buffer. Azmari, whose livelihood depends on identifying what is true from what is assumed to be true became the harbinger of nostalgia

Tezeta is an Ethiopian sentiment in that it thrives in the cultural alienation and identity crisis of its populace. Ethiopians live in the Kingdom of Axumite, in the Reign of Queen Sheba, in the victory of Adwa. We allow a reconciliation with the present only in the longing of the past, which admits its detachment from the past only in the act [longing] itself. This adamant refusal to progress is manifested in different aspects of everyday living in Ethiopian society. The staple national food injera looks the same and is made the same way for []years. The coffee pot [jebena], fashioned in the same manner, leads a coffee ceremony that has kept its essential elements intact. Dance motifs have maintained their subtle and eccentric qualities throughout the years. These artifacts owe their existence and preservation to Tezeta.

This sentiment has for the longest time kept at bay modern influences on traditional dances, including the recent trend: Tradipop. One of the arguments for the opposition of this genre is that it contributes to the erosion of culture by allowing foreign influences to penetrate essential elements that are used to express one’s identity, in this case: traditional dance and attire/costume. In a local idiom, Amharic speakers translate Tradipop as “BahelZemenawi”. Those who stand in disagreement with the practice of tradipop believe that Zememnawi [contemporary] stains the essence of Bahelawi [cultural]. Although Zemenawi can be used to refer to both modern and contemporary dances, its transliteration stands closer with contemporary since both words are of reference to time. Most* traditional dancers place Bahelawi and Zemenawi in opposition. Nonetheless, the proper analysis of the terms reveals that they are not mutually exclusive. Bahelawi means of cultural, while zemenawi refer to the temporal nature of the activity, meaning: timely, of/related with time. The quotidian usage of these words created a rivalry between them that does not exist in their ontological interpretations.

Tradipop is primarily a musical genre that is sonically derived from indigenous culture, with a lyric containing immediate social topic addressed in local language.* Tradipop music is increasingly popular in Ethiopia since traditional sounds started to get recreated using modern instruments. The 2thousand17 most popular music in Ethiopia is a tradipop song by a local artist Teddy Afro, who in his new album utilized traditional sounds from Gojjam and Gondor, to address current political issues relevant in these areas. The response from the audience has been tremendous, contributing to the increasing visibility/audibility of the work. Audience plays a crucial role in the sustainability of a tradipop song in the cultural sphere. The importance of audience is made visible in live tradipop performances. Even as a passive participant the audience influences the performance in its degree and nature of response. Two inherent characteristic of this genre enhance the influence of audience in its performance. The first is that Tradipop is mainly performed for entertainment purposes. Although the content tends to be riddled with contemporary issues, the aim still remains to inform while entertaining, placing the audience at the navel of the performance. The second characteristic is tradipop’s elasticity in incorporating improvisation. This tendency gives the audience an agency to either prompt or eliminate moments when the performers could improvise. In Ethiopia, the audience at a live concert usually yells the word “Yedegem, yedegem” requesting the song to be repeated.

Tradipop has a very utilitarian value. In addition to entertainment, this genre could be molded to fit various desired purposes. In Ethiopia, Tradipop is mainly used as a means of blending modern and traditional movements in dance performances. Local dance groups have been using tradipop songs to perform modern dance motifs or choreograph pieces that fuse the modern with the traditional movements. Modern dance, here refers to dances with heavy African and black-American influences including popular African dance and Hip-hop. This trend has been met with a fierce resistance from traditional dancers and cultural bearers of those traditions whose dances have been incorporated in various Tradipop pieces. Nonetheless, it is possible to find a middle ground between the adamant refusal to alter the state of traditional dances and the loose attitude towards outside influences on these traditional dances.

Ethio-contemporary is a dance practice that incorporates movements that have organically grown from selected traditional motifs. These changes merit the name organic because they are integrated by dancers who claim identity to the nation from which the dances originated from. Furthermore, Ethio-contemporary practice is conscious of the historical and cultural contexts of traditional dances when it amalgamates these traditions with various dance types. The awareness of the background and relevance of the movements incorporated in a contemporary piece eliminates the misuse and irreverence to tradition that could take place in practices like Tradipop. Furthermore, productions that use Ethio-contemporary methodology infuse their pieces with sentiments that are innate to the creators, sentiments like Tezeta.