Estifanos Abraham, mostly known as Zemach is one of the most renowned Eritrean singers. Starting from the armed struggle times, he has been responsible to teaching and producing young musicians and led bands which played significant role during the war for independence. Despite his serious injury, he managed to tour around the country with rides which are uncomfortable to motivate and inspire Eritreans across the country.
Today, he is here with us to share his journey as a musician.
- -Welcome to our page. Would you please share a little about yourself with our readers?
Thank you for having me. It is truly a pleasure. I was a very hyper active kid. My mother wouldn’t let me be home without a prize. So I had to be really good in my studies. I remember I was the first kid the teacher would ask to sing in front of the class before we start our lessons. This added up to the singing passion I developed through time. I started to listen to some of famous songs of the popular singers of the time like Osman Abdelrehim, Alamin Abdelatif and Breket Mengsteab.
During my high school years, I moved to Addis Ababa to continue my education. There was a campaign in Ethiopia, in which all high school and college students were reqired to teach the society. It was called Zemecha in Amhric. Actually, that is how I got my nick name. That is when I decided to come back to my country and wanted to take part in an altered campaign in my homeland at the end of 1974. After my arrival, due to the various writings and pamphlets we used to get from the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front), I joined the movement.
- -How was your time at the field?
I don’t know how you would describe it if you had the chance to experience the armed struggle times. But I tell you, it was challenging and hard, which is expected. Once we were there, it was just a matter of minutes for us to inherit a spirit of heroism from the people who had already been there. They managed to give us hope and strength and the true willpower of freeing our land and saving our people.
In 1975, I was in the army units in karneshim. After participating in numerous battles, I sustained my first injury when I was just 19 years of age. It wasn’t a hefty injury, so I was back in my division after I had a proper medical treatment. However, that was just before another injury I had to endure in 1977. It was the time we battled to free Keren city. I lost my leg at the battle and that is when I was assigned to the educational department in Sahl, at a place called zero. I became an English teacher for the 2nd grade.
- -How did you end up as a singer at the fields?
I sometimes think that I had gotten it from my father as he was a priest. But then again, I just think it’s all me. Music was born within me. That is what I believe. So, when I was in the army, my team heads would always order me to sing over the walkie-talkie we used while on duty guarding. This means all the other staff using the walkie-talkies would get to listen to me. I didn’t tell you how I exactly got my nick name. So, by the time I was in the army, I used to slip a little Amharic in my accent. One of my team leaders asked me where I was from and I told them I came from Ethiopia. He then asked me why I didn’t join the Zemecha campaign and I told him I would rather do a different kind of campaign for my own country. From that day on they started calling me Zemecha, which then turned to Zemach.
To get back to your question, while I was teaching at the Sewra School, I started to give the students lyrics for songs. But it is when I went to get my Cadre courses in the 8th round, I had my first song which I wrote titled Tselae’ Te’egergere which describes how dedicated the Eritrean freedom fighters are to free their country no matter how hard the enemies try.
- -You became a music teacher for the red flowers cultural troupe?
Yes. I was assigned to teach academics in keren before that. That is actually one of the stories I love to tell. I had my first love with one of my students in Keren. I was young and shy. Her name was Semira. She knew I liked her and she liked me as well. She tried everything to show me that she was interested in me. She used to come to our house and make coffee for us and used to take me out to the cinemas of the city. After the strategic retreat we made, she and many students joined the armed struggle, and I didn’t get to tell her how I felt. She is the first lady I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I looked for her but couldn’t find her until we met one day during a show the red flowers had. We were excited to see each other. She told me to meet after the show. Nevertheless, her team leader wouldn’t let her see me and I saw her walk away with tears in her eyes, waving good bye. That was the last time I saw her. She was one of the heroes we paid to get free Eritrea.
I wrote a song for her, Semira. It took me years to come up with words to describe her and how I felt. I made a video clip in the same places where we met and used to hang out. Even though I paid a lot of money, the clip wasn’t as good as it should have been. It is one of my favorite songs.
She is gone, without knowing how I felt
My first love, Semira
She stared at me one last time.
Her beautiful eyes are the only memory I have.
After I came back from Keren, I became a teacher and guide for the red flowers. But first, I had to learn music if I was going to teach, and that is the first thing I did. Red flowers played a significant role in encouraging the people to join the struggle. Red Flowers conveyed a clear message of EPLF’s aims and goals. We toured around the country. It was dangerous, as we were targets of the enemy. I was surrounded three times with my crew, but we got out as we had the unlimited support of our people.
- -Was it challenging for you, with your leg injury, to accomplish this much in the armed struggle?
Never. Martyrdom is something that freedom fighters came to pay as a price. We were there to free our land and people. That was a freedom fighter’s only goal, as a matter of fact. So, my injury was never the issue for me. We travelled across the country, and I did it with the support of two sticks. After touring all over Eritrea, we made our way to Sudan where we were compared to some of the Sudanese artists of the time. Articles were written about us. We were well recognized.
I was also a teacher and guide of the marching band that was formed in the field. We had the instruments imported from abroad. They were actually the first marching band in the country. After that I was assigned to the central musical troupe that was formed. Four bands were formed representing every region. I was a leader of the band in Massawa and Assab. That is all after independence. I continued to be active in music.
We formed a band with some of the legendary singers of Eritrea- Osman Abderihim, Bereket Mengsteab, Idris Mohhamed Ali, kehano, an afar, singer, Kahsay Berhe and I. The band traveled around Eritrea for a year before it went on a tour to Europe and America.
- -You have written almost all of your songs, haven’t you?
I had the potential of coming up with my own lyrics. I did all my singles and albums, until my fourth volume. There were people who helped me in the melody, people like Ali Asina who is a talented legendary musician.
- -After all these years, you are now one of the judges of the Shingrwa program, the talent show that looks for a star musician.
It is a great show is watched by a big audience. This year, we are traveling around the country to find the star. Not only do we look for the star, but we also get to explore the various cultures we have as a nation. Eritreans have the potential to become great musicians and can compete with the greatest artists of the world. That is what the show is all about, to elevate the standard of the music industry of the country. We have gone two levels, in which we have met some great potential artists. The contestants will be taking classes after the third level which they can benefit from.
- -Your son was part of the competition…
Yes. He was one of the contestants. He wanted to show the people his talents. I admire his decision. He has made it through the first stage and we will see how his journey is going to be.
- -Do you have anything you want to share with us before we say our good byes?
I want to work hard on producing talented musicians. Now that our nation is experiencing a bright future with peace, I wish to work in teaching young musicians. Also, I wish to work for the advancement of Shingrwa show. I believe the program can be made significant in upgrading the level of musicians and introduce a new star every year.