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Shingrwa Academy: discovering talent and bringing the family together

At the end of a grueling 18- month journey, which saw it tour the entire country in search of talented artists, proceed through 4 rounds and 660 contestants in three different categories, Shingrwa held its final round on December 29th at Cinema Roma, one of the capital’s most beautiful cinemas. Finalists from Asmara, Massawa, and Gash-Barka dance groups battled it out for the title, and a visually-impaired contestant won the musical instrument category.

Shingrwa’s first edition was broadcasted on Eritrean television when satellite dish channels were increasing in number. Compared to the previous era when Eritreans watched Eri-TV together as a family, the satellite dish led to new viewing habits. Specifically, it divided the family. Shingrwa at the time offered a chance for families to come together. When Shingrwa became popular, the television audience began to be divided into little categories: grandparents and parents wanted to watch the news, older males preferred to watch football, the females would rather watch movies, and the little ones preferred cartoons. However, Shingrwa brought these different groups back together.

With Shingrwa, multigenerational television watching was suddenly back in vogue: mom, dad, grandparents, and the kids all gathered in one room to see participants perform covers of older songs which were remixed. The show quickly became one of the most-watched programs in Eritrea.

Shingrwa was a truly beautiful show. Eritrean viewers, both in the country and around the world, could imagine that there was something quite Eritrean about the way the program used former talented artists to find up-and-coming artists and inspire them to achieve fame and wealth.

According to Mr. Asmelash Abraha, director general of Eri-TV, the recent edition of Shingrwa (which was fourth), saw the largest-ever number of participants and reflected cultural diversity. Eri-TV staff sometimes worked for 15 continuous hours in order to broadcast the show to viewers. Over the course of the last 18 months, Eri-TV produced 44 hours and 54 episodes which were beamed to viewers across the globe.

Notably, the program helped rising artists to present themselves to the public. On the show, contestants performed covers of other peoples’ songs. The format of the competition also illustrated the role that talent, hard work, and intangibles play: the things that can’t be faked are what set contestants apart. The singers, judges, and fans were constantly negotiating the fine line between personal expression and widely accessible entertainment, between maintaining an identity and hitting the notes.

There were few people who were able to change history with the power of their voice and message. In our own case, we could think of the late Yemane Baria and Dr. Bereket Menghisteab. The voice of the former was used as one of the most effective weapons by Eritreans against the Derg during the struggle for independence. The latter, distinguished and defiant, galvanized Eritreans, first Yikealo, and then Warsai. He is cherished by his compatriots.

It was not a surprise, then, that during the finale of the Shingrwa singing contest, two of the six finalists chose to sing a song originally sung by Yemane Baria, while Bereket Mengisteab performed the first song of the afternoon to officially open the 5th and final round of the show.

The cinema was packed with people lucky enough to get a ticket, while the unfortunate had to settle for the comfort of their couch. The cinema cheered loudly as the legendary artist Bereket performed one of his early hits, “Dehai”, which he wrote when he was in Addis Ababa. Mr. Bereket, who was my brother’s favorite singer growing up, still sounds the same as ever. I guess that it is true what they say about having the gift to sing: it neither withers nor disappears with age, it only gets better like fine wine. Such was the case when Mr. Bereket took to the stage on Saturday. He wowed the audience with his legendary voice. At the end of his performance, he told the audience and the judges to do him a favor: look after the upcoming new generation, he asked.

Soon after, the finalists – Awet Teklemariam, Merhawi Tewelde, Meron Estifanos, Filmon Mahray, Fiori Daniel, and Huruy Ghirmay – took the stage, one after another.

Notable performances came from Awet Teklemariam, who won the competition by the end of the night, and Merhawi Tewolde. The first sang Yemane Baria’s famous song “Stehaina Berika”, which transported the older segments of the audience back to their younger years and brought a positive vibe to the younger viewers who still play Baria’s hit songs on their car stereos. Merhawi performed the late Abraham Afwerki’s love song “Bebizelenayo”. To this very day, Abraham’s songs are powerful. They are works of art equivalent to those of Bob Dylan.

One of the most endearing stories of this year’s Shingrwa was the participation of Meron Estifanos, who is the son of one of the judges on the show, Estifanos Abraham. The kid not only has his father’s height and looks, but his singing talent as well.

The dance category saw performances from Aklilu Mussie’s group, Osman Hussien, Haben Tesfai’s troupe, Jezira Hassen, and Ruta Mulubrhan.

The dance category was included in Shingrwa for the first time. However, dance is not new or unique. It is unlikely that any human society has denied itself the excitement and pleasure of dancing. Like cave painting, one of the earliest purposes underlying dance was probably ritualistic. But losing oneself in rhythmic movement with other people is an easy form of intoxication and pleasure that was surely also a factor.

During the long struggle for liberation, the freedom fighters danced between battles. It heightened their morale and helped them to temporarily forget some of the devastation they experienced. They danced also for joy, as when a battle was won and when casualties were avoided. They danced to entertain the masses and also for the simple sake of dancing.

Dancing not only kept fighters’ morale high, it consolidated feelings of patriotism among the Diaspora. Special dance troupes toured Europe and North America and through their music and dances assured the people that everything was okay and that independence was around the corner.

Perhaps the inclusion of the dance category in the 4th edition of Shingrwa was a way of paying homage to that proud legacy.

The participants, all of whom performed cultural numbers from Eritrea’s different ethnic groups, caught the imagination of the crowd. In the end, Ruta Mulubrhan dance group, which performed a dance routine from the Kunama ethnic group, won the category.

The dances of the Kunama group showcase great variation and complexity. The Kunama way of dancing has its own particular rhythm and carefully coordinated steps, which involve unique taps of the feet to the rhythm of the song.

Ruta Mulubrhan dance group wowed the audience that evening. Dressed in bright clothes and unique straw hats, the men danced and vigorously beat their feet on the stage.

The female dancer in the group, who was clearly the focal point of the routine, danced her heart out. By the end, she was overwhelmed with joy when she found out that her group won the contest.

Playing musical instruments, the last category of the night, saw amazing performances from three amazing individuals.

Bereket Goitom fine-tuned his kirar (a traditional musical instrument) and performed a well-known Eritrean song, “Lilo” (Dancing Falcon). This was a category to demonstrate one’s talent. Memorably, Bereket upped the ante on the night when he discarded his pick and began playing the kirar with kitchen utensils. He began with a spoon, before going on to use a tea cup and then a spatula. Later, traditional drummer Alamin Ibrahim, from Agordet, played drums of different sizes using only his hands.

However, the winner of the category was Daniel Tesmichael. As he strummed the kirar, Daniel, although visually-impaired, demonstrated a 6th sense. He astonished the audience with his control and enjoyable melodies. At times, it was as if he was telling a story through his music.

As one of the directors of the show, Mr. Barnabas Mebrahtu, stated during a speech he gave on the occasion of the finale, in an era where playback singing is resulting in aesthetic decadence, where singers hide behind music studios and produce music that is auto-tuned and then uploaded to YouTube for money or fame, Shingrwa Academy still focuses on talent and skill in its nationwide search for artists. Artists that have originality, character, perseverance and, of course, musical talent.

While watching Shingrwa brought many families back together, the most striking and important aspect of the show was the genuine talent that it has discovered. Shingrwa Academy is certainly on the right track. As the curtain came down on another edition of the program, many Eritreans were already looking forward to its next installment.

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