History has shown that music profoundly shapes the goals and objectives of people, moving towards collective identity, cultural nationalism, and political independence. Music also transmits ideologies and political demands to adherents and activists of political, cultural, and social movements. Eritrean nationalism emerged in many ways, but music played a vital role in furnishing emotion and ideological cohesion, and fueled the excitement and sustainability of nationalist identification, leading up to and following independence. The Eritrean struggle for independence and the emergence of uniquely Eritrean revolutionary songs are inseparably linked and illustrate how cultural forms, like music, are important forces in shaping a collective national consciousness and in establishing a democratic political organization that leads the struggle successfully.
The secular nature of Eritrean nationalism is based on an African and, more specifically, Eritrean ideology. It is rooted in common history and culture. Music was a common identity platform, which influenced the sense of community for Eritreans. Music represented a form through which Eritreans expressed their satisfaction and disappointment with the practices happening in Eritrea and also reflected the regional and global practices.
In the past, prominent artists of the federal period and revolutionary singers evoked in Eritreans an awareness of their socio-economic and political realities, cultural traditions, and prospects for the future. The timely message carried in appropriate lyrics and melody has been absorbed by the people to empower and energize the mass and to create a common understanding across the society. The tune and flavor of our cultural and spiritual music and our traditional instruments indicates that music is part of life for Eritreans.
Music maximizes its ability to foster social cohesion and national identity if its meaning fits with the ideology and general condition of the moment. The effectiveness of music is measured by the degree of congruency between the message and the aspiration of the people. Music must externalize and visualize the desires, hopes, dreams, worries and complaints of the population. The artists of the federal period and the subsequent period following annexation, including Dr. Bereket Mengesteab, Ateweberhan Segid, Alamin Abdelletif, Tewelde Reda, Tebrih Tesfahuney, conveyed their nationalist sentiments with high subtlety to disguise from the repressive Ethiopian colonial administration. The resentment against the Ethiopian empire was found in the lyrics and popular songs. In this connection Ruth Eyob, in her book ‘the Eritrean struggle for independence 1941_1991’, has described the general mood of the time in the following words: “although the shows were censored by the authorities the artists camouflaged the political message in the intricacies of traditional ballads. In the cultural arena, both the new and old traditional nationalists were united in their desire to combat Ethiopian hegemony” (Ruth 1995, 103). The power exerted by the popular songs of the 1960s, like Shigey habuni (give me my torch) and aslamay kstanay (Muslim and Christian), in their call for independence and unity was incalculable.
Revolutionary artists, standing on the foundation laid by their predecessors and powered by the revolutionary sentiments, publicized further the internal desire of the people for independence. Their music tightened the national cohesion and consolidated Eritrean nationalism to its highest peak. One foreign observer described Eritrean revolutionary songs as something that “serve more than bullets”. We have not only defeated our many and mighty enemies by the sheer power of bullets. The position of our enemies was equally trembled by the sound of the music that echoed the justness of our struggle. Similarly, Eritrean nationalism and Eritrean national identity are not only crafted by war and the military victory gained out of it. The mental effect of our revolutionary songs in the consolidation of the socio-psychological conditions of Eritreans was principal. Through the use of nationalist lyrics and feverish beats, revolutionary songs increased public awareness and mobilization. They were inspirational, demonstrative, educative and penetrative. They boosted the morale of the fighters and the people and, at the same time, ruined the moral of the enemy. The songs of all the martyred and alive tegadelti continued to be a symbol of artistic beauty and national story to this day. They fit the overriding ideology of the moment and also represent the unchanging belief of Eritreans for all the times to come. Our revolutionary songs were clear, straight and to the point.
During the 30-year long struggle for independence music and other forms of culture made equal contribution as the political and military wings in terms of mobilizing and impacting the people of Eritrea and introducing the revolution to wider international audience. This tradition of supporting the socio-economic and political conditions of the country with cultural activities more importantly music, continued well in post-independence Eritrea. The music that helped Eritrea to achieve independence was transformed to the preservation of independence invasion and the implementation of the ongoing national development drive. For instance the songs of Teckle Kiflemeriam (wedi tkul) like “sawa” and “gobez teshamo” in the 1990s played a great role in reinvigorating and transferring Eritrean nationalism and patriotism to the new generation.
The national music of post-independence instilled a sense of importance, strength, and pride among the new generation in Eritrea, while indicating the challenges of maintaining independence and building a prosperous country.
Music is meant for the people. It is a powerful tool for externalizing the people’s collective emotion. Music must be an active and living force and be made compellingly relevant to the environment in which it exists. More importantly, music must represent the society and must serve the common good of the people. Artists are the invisible leaders of the society. Therefore our artists should continue to act as leaders of the present and future generations.
National identity comprises both a political and a cultural one. Music is an effective tool that can influence the socio- psychological status of the people and reinvigorate nationalism. Nationalism and national identity are to a great extent forged and maintained by music. The closer we get to Eritrea’s national songs, the easier it is to see that the issue of identity is directly related to music. Without the subtle resistance and revolutionary music, neither the Eritrean revolution nor the Eritrean national identity would ever have been established. The role of post-independence national music in the defense and development campaign has been extraordinary. Without the post-independence national music we would not have found a way of surviving and prospering. Music is not only part of the Eritrean culture but also is a transmitter and symbol of our national identity.
The national charter of Eritrea stipulated that “We must tirelessly strive to make Eritrea a country where culture can flourish. Art, including music, literature and visual art, should freely develop, assuming a national character …” Therefore all creative nationals must strive to develop and promote Eritrean culture by preserving and enhancing the traditional and revolutionary cultural heritage. Music is an essential building block of our national identity and an instrument of nation building. Let thousands of albums be produced that describe Eritrean independence, self-reliance, patriotism, gender equality, and that commemorate our martyrs. Eritrean artists must refrain from blowing whichever way the wind blows and must persist in producing harmonizing, uniting and inspiring music as ever.