Time for Begena

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Choir members playing the Begena (Photo:thereporterethiopia.com)
Ethiopian Orthodox Church Choir members playing the Begena (Photo:thereporterethiopia.com)

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – This time around during the lent season, while traveling in mini-bus taxis, having coffee at a café, or wandering around the churches one can hear the deep-sonorous voice.

Ten strings hanging from a short bar at the top joined by two parallel sticks and a leather-made sound-box at the bottom are the parts of this very ancient and biblically played instrument called the Begena (an instrument that belongs to the family of the lyre.) Begena, which is also named as the Harp of King David, has distinguishing features that differentiate it from the harp. The number of strings, the construction of the wooden frame in which the strings are coiled and the way the musicians handle it to play are the visible differences that anyone can point out. It is a kind of psaltery that dates back some five thousands years roughly estimated to be some 3,800 years before the birth of Christ.

Ethiopians were introduced to such a sensuous and spiritually powerful musical instrument through either of the two commonly cited ways. The first, that makes its argument depending on the analogy of Ethiopia’s archaeological evidences that puts it as the origin of human beings, and the second relies on the historical travel that the Queen Sheba made to King Solomon of Israel. Whatever the way to be introduced to the instrument, it at once became the most prestigious Ethiopian traditional musical instrument. Nevertheless, it has never come on the way it could be played together with others to perform a secular music because of the profound and rigorous relation it has with religion. It was first played in the palaces to enchant the kings and queens and also at ceremonious events inside churches and outside the churches like on weddings based on biblical and historical accounts.

Although a number of Ethiopians were playing it, including the kings and the queens, there were a few who became popular enough playing it on media and public gatherings. It was during the reign of Haileselassie I that the first preceptor, Aleka Tessema Woldeamanuel was called to the capital to teach at the Entoto Secondary School. The then 12-year-old Alemu Aga became one of the first boys who stepped into the classroom. Alemu, who is well acclaimed for playing the begena and of course enjoys much reverence, has been the most important musician to play the instrument. He has played a large repertoire of ecclesiastical songs with it and trained more than 600 students. Moreover, he has become very popular in the international arena playing the begena. He has had many opportunities to play it oversees, still having several concerts every year. Read more

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