“You can be rational all you want; but the instincts for home, Eritrea, will always be the same” Eritrean ballad Star Amanuel Momona.
THE KING OF BALLADS, MOMONA, HELPS US CELEBRATE SAWA’S SILVER JUBILEE WITH OVER TWENTY-FIVE- YEAR-OLD MEMORIES.
Amanuel Weldegabir, now 42, is one of the first young Asmara boys who joined the very first round of trainees that went to Sawa in 1995 when he was no more than a young boy who had just turned seventeen. Well famed singer and song writer Amanuel, mostly known by his stage name, Momona, has big part of his life and his identity linked to Sawa. We present you fragments of our interview with the star of ballads as we dedicate this interview to the commemoration of Sawa
Momona took his stage name after the title of his first single that remains memorable since its release in 1994. Young Momona Trough his music and Kirar, as was the trend, loved battling with other neighborhoods representing his own, Arbate Asmara. After going to Sawa he joined several bands realizing many singles and full length albums. ‘Momona Sawa’ charted out contemporary albums in 1997. Accordingly Momona released full length albums in 2002, 2008, 2010, 2012 and now in 2019 he is back with his new album entitled ‘Kemey Zeinafik’ meaning ‘Why I wouldn’t I long?’. The king of ballad has a soft touch for his Kirar and Guitar having made memorable pieces in the length of 25 years.
- Thank you for your time! I am trying to imagine you when you were a teenager headed to Sawa…
Oh, I was one hot blooded young man, ready to experience a new world. My mates and I were extremely enthusiastic about Sawa. We were happy, we were energetic and thrilled to be away from our home, thinking of Sawa as the first step to manhood. Back then Eritrea was thriving beautifully, registering growth in almost all sectors. People were busy restoring a war- torn country. We were too young to participate in any of the restoring and building activities but we were blessed to spend our teenage years in a dynamic atmosphere. And when the National Service proclamation was made official we jumped out of joy. We felt like, finally, we were being allowed to contribute in making our country the African Singapore; that is what every single person in Eritrea had aimed for.
- It is interesting how you say “We felt like, finally, we were being allowed to contribute in making our country the African Singapore”. Why did you feel like you were being allowed to do something?
The narrative of Eritreans sure is different; as if it was taken from a classic novel. Before independence people had suffered so much under successive occupations. And the armed struggle had shaped how the people eventually rationalized the intuition of the Eritrean identity. Despite continuous suppressions, Eritreans never felt any less Eritrean. The awareness of a sovereign state and solid national identity united the people and helped them be certain of a future in which Eritrea would surely be a sovereign state. I was not more than ten years when Eritrea got its independence, but, just like the other children of my age, we were way too clever for our ages.
We envied young Tegadelti (freedom fighters) boys and girls in all parts of the country. Before independence, when the times got ugly in Asmara and people were being slaughtered, countless families started seeking refuge in villages. My family too did run away from Asmara so many times. Every time we’d run away, we’d find the assistance of Tegadelti. Because we were young we really didn’t understand that the time of crises was bloody; for us it was a golden opportunity to meet young Tegadelti. And once we were back in Asmara we knew to keep the adventure of having met Tegadelti to ourselves because if the Ethiopians knew we would put the whole family in danger. So, that was our little “privileged fairy moment” that had to be kept absolutely a secret. We wanted to grow up so fast because we were envious of the older ones, our siblings, who were joining the armed struggle. In fact, to the contrary, the younger ones were often sent back home by the freedom fighters. In my case, every time we went to the country side, my older siblings and my youngest aunt, were one by one staying there. It was quite obvious where they were headed. You just don’t talk about it with anyone. Not even within your family. And then, there was 1991. Eritrea got its independence and I still remember it as if it was yesterday with mixed emotions. Many never made it back home, including my brother. But then we had the biggest reward we ever wished for. Our people greeted free Eritrea with tears of joy and at the same time tears of longing, learning that many of your family members will never comeback. This is the Eritrean Pride. So, back to your question now, going to Sawa for us was finally our chance to do something, anything for the sake of our people and country. If everything had continued to move as it had started we could have achieved unimaginable things.
- How was Sawa in 1995?
Definitely not like what it is now. There were no buildings, no roads… it was an open area in harsh conditions of the desert. But there were us. We were sleeping in tents and getting our military training, and political education and dreaming of how to contribute in the nation building. And, oh, at night we were busy holding on to our tents.
The winds in the lowlands are strong. We didn’t want our home to fly. Then, however, after our busy days we agreed to build the so called “aghefa”. We built some assemblies made out of leaves and branches of trees common in the lowlands. And then, we extended the tents atop the roof to take care of some leaks.
- Wasn’t it tough?
Back then we stayed in Sawa only for six months and spent the remaining twelve months in other areas and fields. Then we’d get released from the military. I went on to be trained to be a military trainer myself. I trained cadets until 2009. I did my music on the side obviously having put out several full length albums until now. But Sawa was tough; of course, the nature of it was harsh. However, we had bigger purposes; bigger than the six months we’d spent holding onto our tents. And the love we had for each other was above everything. We laughed a lot back then. We rejoiced in being together and facing challenges together. We learned a lot and we made jokes of everything. We were young. But Sawa grew bigger as time went on. It evolved to be a whole rounded institution.
- Where are your mates now?
All over the world, the country and up in the sky; many died in the war during the Ethiopian invasion. Others are still serving the nation in different areas.
- You were most probably in your early twenties when the war broke. How did you feel? Didn’t you and your mates feel too young to be soldiers?
You may be able to rationalize many things but when it comes to home, the instincts are all the same no matter the age. Eighty percent of the comrades who stood at the frontiers of our country were children of Sawa. They stood strong and fell for its sovereignty. Where did we learn to be selfless and think of our people as one big family worth giving our time and lives? We learned it in Sawa. I admire my compatriots. I saw them falling protecting our brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers at home. War has no gain. When I think about it, Ethiopia did lose many of its young ones too. And what was it for, really? For nothing! They died for nothing; shed their blood on rocks. My brothers and sisters, my heroes, however, gave their lives to protect our home. I miss my friends a lot. I made it out alive out of the war. I now have my own family. Every time I open my albums filled with photos I took with my Sawa Family I tend to stare at the pictures for long. My daughter who is eight years old noticed this and asked me once why I take my time in turning the pages of the photo album. The pages feel heavy; she obviously wants to move fast through the pages, I can’t.
- What do you have to say to younger members of the ‘Sawa Family’?
What we all learn in Sawa is equality. All Eritreans are the same. Who am I to think I am better off or more lucky to have made it alive and with no wounds from the war? Who are my parents to think they are better off to have met their grandchildren when what many parents are all left with is pictures of their daughters and sons? …This is home. I don’t believe there is more that needs to be said. This is home and we all do our part. That better tomorrow is not that far.
- On the happy note, you will be holding a concert in the almost one-week long national festival to be held in Sawa for its Silver Jubilee. How do you feel about performing for a younger audience?
My band, Walta, has prepared so much for the occasion. How do I feel about playing for a younger audience? I am honestly thrilled. Can’t wait to feel young again! Sawa has that special power of making everyone young.
- Thank you so much, Momona. And best of luck with your soon-to-be-released album ‘Kemey Zeinafik’. It is good to have you back.
Thank you! Happy celebrations!