- The Eritrean armed struggle is mostly known for surpassing the conventional form of ‘war’ and setting a path of its own whereby every national participated in a historical, humanitarian and cultural revolution. Tons of books should be written on the endless aspects that made the Eritrean Armed Struggle rare in the history of humans, but, for today, I present you an interview with a veteran freedom fighter, singer and song writer and see if we can get an unpretentious look at the concept of arts (music in particular) during the Eritrean armed struggle for independence; while on the way we get to know veteran freedom fighter and singer Wedi Tikul.
- -Thank you for being on our page Wedi Tikul, you are commonly known by your nick name…
It’s true. I rarely hear my name anymore; my name is Tekle KifleMariam and I was born and raised in a village called Tikul. When I joined the armed struggle I was baptized with the nickname that completely took over my name. It was common for freedom fighters to bring up nicknames; we did it sort of for fun, plus since we were all young we naturally enjoyed doing such things for giggles. My nick name originated from the name of my home village, the Tikul boy, but nicknames would be easily brought up by almost everything: funny incidents, one’s looks, habits or special occasions.
- -When did you join the liberation movement?
In 1976 going on 1977, and I was 17 years old.
- -Did you always want to be a singer? Like a childhood dream or something?
Absolutely not. I didn’t even know I could sing. However, I knew how to pull some kirrar strings. After military training we got placed in our respective units and I would simply play some songs for my comrades.
Back then our people had no freedom to document history in books. So instead, we have many legends and their folk music with metaphorical lyrics that preached freedom, the peoples’ longing for independence and exhaustion of continuous torment on every national. Those songs were like our gospels; they touched the deepest of every national’s heart. Therefore when all of us young freedom fighters away from our families would sit and think of home, those songs gave us hope and consolation. And in that moment… when we would simply sit together under a small desert tree shade and we would cheer up each other and entertain ourselves.
- -So how did you exactly become the singer you now are?
The front had a strong vision. In times of no war, everybody would go to school under big trees, we would also go to work, do cultural events and sports even… and just do about every activity that ordinary people would normally do. So the front was extremely rich in human resources; we had doctors, engineers, pharmacists, professionals of all sorts. The front had people from all walks of life, starting from professors and PhD holders of top universities to peasants who never saw a single letter all their lives. Nevertheless, we all contributed greatly in the things we knew.
And so I was told to sing, my comrades told me to sing for them. I was not a musician nor was I a lyricist ever before but those who had a musical hunch would assist me in making sense out of my Kirrar strings. That is how it worked. We all contributed, and there was no such thing as private ownership or private idea, lyrics or track… absolutely not. All of the songs I sang then are not mine. They are ours; my comrades and I contributed equally. Even the artist I am today is not an accomplishment of my own but of my brothers and sisters many of whom are martyrs I left behind… my comrades made me.
- -Help me understand how the front tackled cultural affairs
Okay. I was singing for my unit and along with comrades who had the talent to sing we were chosen to form a band for our brigade. Similarly every brigade in the front, which were 3 in total, would each accordingly set up a band. The bands had the task to entertain the freedom fighters in the front and nationals around the country and abroad.
We would also do inter-brigade tours, where we would do tours amongst the brigades. It was so beautiful and rich in cultural diversity. When needed, the 3 troops would join hands and form one single cultural troupe for tours outside of the country.
- -You did tours abroad during the armed struggle?
Sure thing we did! I first visited Europe, the Middle East and America with my freedom fighter typical afro hair and Congo plastic sandals!
- -Unbelievable! Can you tell me more?
The front had strong and intense networks. You know, to begin with, going out of the liberated areas and organizing cultural shows for the people with enemy’s soldiers hovering over our people is not easy, not for us or for the civilians. But we did it anyways. Our people missed us greatly, and they’d do anything for even a single hour of reunion with us… we were all the people’s children. They loved us incredibly. Therefore we did tours within the liberated or almost liberated areas in the country and countless of people would come from every corner of the country as if it was a pilgrimage.
And for our people outside, with the help of EPLF offices all over the world, we would plan tours that sometimes lasted multiple months. We would pack our instruments and cross the borders simply to tell everyone that we were doing okay in the burning mountains of Sahel and deserts of our country.
- -What would you normally sing of?
The themes of our songs were vast and not complicated but carried messages of hope, homesickness, victory, pride in our fallen heroes and more. Some of the songs told of our battles and our war days, some of memories of home, some were entertaining and some very emotional. The themes were simple to grasp but had within them divine significance. Contemporary big mouths dare to call them propaganda songs, but I would like to use this occasion to vow otherwise. Those themes had no intention of propagating anything at all; they were letters to our people.
- -What about the studios for recordings… Did you record in the field?
Yes we did. You are probably imagining sound proof recording systems with high tech equipment, but no, we had small recording gadgets accompanied by video recordings. We play and someone records. In 1978 with the launching of Radio Dimtsi Hafash things got a lot better.
- -Music now and then
I don’t even dare to compare them. Sometimes I feel guilt for the fact that soon after independence, we, my self-included, focused more on the profits. Nothing can top the artistic production of the armed struggle, it encompassed the passion, vision and devotion of many.
I have so far published 7 albums and I try to do remakes of my old songs as much as I can, while staying true to patriotic and national themes, which again, are not propaganda but simply themes of development, peace and stability.
- -A message to young artists
The first generation of artists after independence have still a hold of patriotic themes and I hope the second generation, too, will be able to follow the senior’s footsteps and express the profound history of our armed struggle comprised in forms of art.
- -At the end
I want to remind young people: journalists like yourself, artists, historians and whomever else, to keenly document the Eritrean struggle for independence and development.