When I walk in Asmara, I always take a walk down the memory lane to the first time I set my feet in the city and contemplate on my first impression. Especially when it gets dressed in bright color lights and flags to celebrate Eritrea’s independence.
The reason I correlate my sentiment of Asmara with the independence of Eritrea is because of my aspiration to see Asmara become a reality after May 24 1991. When I put my foot in Asmara it was more than a fascinating city with its edifices. Thanks to the 1972 World Heritage Convention that serves as an instrument for identifying and conserving heritage. Eritrea is endowed with rich and diverse natural and cultural heritage.
My impression is more inclined to cultural rather than natural heritage. Probably it is because I think of cultural heritage as a manifestation of human ingenuity. Asmara is a pioneering city to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a modern heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa. But my new impression is not of its beautiful architecture. It is of how it is rich in songs sung for its honor. My memory lane takes me back to the occasion of our independence.
I think one of Asmara’s broadly shared psycho-social feature is its capability to impress people including those who have never visited. During my childhood I was enchanted by tales of my friends about its ice-cream and cakes. We looked forward to hearing great stories about the city’s cinemas and hotels from friends who spent their summer in Asmara. It instilled in me a desire to set my foot in Asmara.
My familiarity with the buildings started way back in 1991, the first three months of our independence. In the early months of independence I was so excited and longed to see the city with great expectation. With most of my comrades we walked all the way from our military barracks to the center of Asmara. We didn’t feel tired. I remember at that time how big the FIAT building looked. As a matter of fact it towered its surroundings.
In 1991 I appreciated Asmara’s buildings for their height more than their artistic beauty. The Nyala Hotel is one with a special memory. In my eyes it was a lot more important than the cinemas and other buildings which now made Asmara to be selected as a modernistic African city. During my visit to the Nyala Hotel with my friends we would go up and down the stairs at least twice. It is strange how I was impressed more with its height rather than the artistic beauty of Asmara. Throughout the last twenty seven years of independence I have got more familiar with this charming city. But in festival 2017, I got also a new angle of Asmara’s embedded beauty; it is rich in songs.
From the concert at the 2017 festival, I have come to know Asmara as a city famous for songs in honor of its remarkable buildings, its beauty spots, and its social value and for its lovely ghetto. We have timeless poems and songs for events and individual heroes in our tradition. But it is not common to have songs for places in our tradition. For instance in the ancient times Keskese, Metera, Adulis were centers of broader economic and social interaction. But to this day I have not come across any traditional song sung for their value. But Asmara brings a paradigm shift in our modern lyrics. Veteran singers sing about Asmara’s modern architecture as laurel wreath. So what my intuitive assumption tells me that Asmara also become a source of lyrics because of its beauty and social composition for Eritrean lyricist.
I am not sure but from the special concert of 2017 I learnt Asmara has dozens of songs dedicated to it. The songs sung for Asmara have the capability to pull in even people who have never been to Asmara. Some of the songs which have been sung by the young singers were sung thirty to fifty years back. Ato Atewebrhan segid sings about how rich and benevolent Asmara was but because of the aliens it was not convenient for its natives. Alamin Abudletif, said farewell to Asmara’s ghetto, Abashawl, a place which is appreciated for its strong social bond but was to be demolished by town plannels, Yemane Gebremikael (Barya) praised Asmara for its motherly care for its residents with no social marginalization. Hagos Berhane yearns for Asmara’s glamorous edifices and Alganesh Yemane (Industry) song, during the armed struggle, about how much she missed Asmara but was sure that sooner her native sons will get back, Aron Abrha’s post-independence song, Asmara Shuker, tells us how joyful Asmara is. This and other songs are legendary songs for Asmara. I think this may add value to our national intangible cultural heritage. Because I have a feeling that there will not be a city like Asmara affluent in songs especially in Sub Saharan Africa.
Finally, I would like to thank those who chose Asmara as a site of modern world heritage. Today, even we, young Eritreans, have begun to appreciate what we have. The photograph session by bridal parties in front of the best buildings of Asmara is becoming a common practice for newly married couples after the crowning of Asmara as a world heritage site. We appreciate Eritreans who built Asmara with their sweat and hard work. Same goes to the brilliant minds that designed the buildings and to those who identified its unique character. Above all, to the Eritrean singers who sung for Asmara and those who organized the music concert of 2017 Festival Eritrea in Asmara-Expo, which may become a source of lyrics for modern lyricists in Eritrea. Samson Yohannes