Aysnefn is Rai Band’s first studio album. It contains eight tracks, five of which are covers of songs by renowned Eritrean singers/ songwriters. Released on the same night as the band’s promotional live performance, the album was distributed in the form of a mobile phone application that could only be opened with its particular QR access code. This made it possible to listen to the songs at any time and any place, while also protecting the album from unauthorized copies. The app comes with the lyrics, as well as a contextual backstory, of each track.
In this debut, Rai Band experimented with different musical styles that range from funk to classic blues to metal rock. The album opens with Raena, a fast-paced, funky piece that may well be the band’s theme song. In this track, the short lyrics are backed by an exciting back-and-forth between the guitar riff and the piano chords.
Aysnefn, the titular second track is, in my opinion, the best original song in the album, and provides a taste of Rai Band’s authentic sound – which I should certainly like to hear a lot more of in their next album. It is this song (and Track 08) that I would use to make the case that the band is more than capable of writing new songs and melodies.
This is where we first encounter the deep-throaty voice of singer and rhythm guitarist Aron Keleta. The rich texture of his vocals mirrors and accompanies the song’s somber piano melody. A declaration of courage and resoluteness, Aysnefn gradually crescendos into a resonant battle cry. The fall and cadence of Tigrigna’s words complement the song’s rock rhythm. I was quite impressed by this track’s arrangement.
Track 03 (Genzeb Metaleli) is the band’s first cover song. This shortened version of Hagos Berhane’s famous, reproachful song is played in the typical style of rock. It preludes with a slow piano accompaniment and bursts into an exciting rhythm where Aron’s heavy vocals are balanced nicely by the choir.
The fourth track (Embir Embir) is another cover of a popular revolutionary song from the time of the armed struggle. This delightful earworm continued to echo in my ears for the rest of the day after I first listened to it. Rai Band interprets the piece by almost completely transforming it and yet somehow managing to retain recognizable elements of the original. Percussions are featured prominently in the song. The smooth voice of Naomi Andemeskel along with the mournful violin carries the listener fluidly from beginning to end. The result is an arrangement radically different from Zeineb Beshir’s raspy, upbeat rendition, but no less appealing to the ears.
It is difficult not to dance to Track 05. Yonus Ibrahim’s already lively song is heightened to a cheerful interplay of guitar harmonies and drum rolls supported by the piano’s zippy notes. Msaki Yehsheni is a wonderful cover that, despite its remorsefully doomed lyrics, lifts one’s spirits.
Track 06 (Enka Wsedo’zi Libey) made me reconsider my assessment that the second track might be the best song in the album. Played in the classic blues arrangement, this sentimental rendition of Amleset Abay’s iconic song is absolutely beautiful. The vocals are stunning. I almost wish the band would just work within the blues genre exclusively. Both Aron and Naomi can clearly move gracefully in the style. If you don’t think you have time to listen to the entire album, listen to Track 06.
The next track in the album, a cover of Yemane Baria’s Nafqot, was the one song that did not leave its imprint on my ears. Unlike the other cover songs, I had difficulty finding Rai Band in the new arrangement and kept reverting back to Yemane Baria. Perhaps a song can grow too iconic to be sung in any way other than its original.
I am particularly taken with Aron’s deep almost rough voice. It is perfectly suited for the blues–rock fusion the band leans towards. But at times (as in Track 07), the strength of Aron’s voice can threaten to overpower the rest of the music. In this case, a more elaborate musical composition would be necessary to counterbalance it. Aron could also focus on his inflection for the production of more nuanced vocals.
The last track in the album, fittingly, is not a cover song. Nzkrekum is a moving, catchy piece that again made me wonder why the band didn’t venture with more original compositions. The backstory explains that the lyrics are an homage to the pioneers of Eritrea’s political struggle in the 40s and were inspired by Weldeab Weldemariam’s article written after the death of his friend and comrade Ibrahim Sultan. The clarity of Huruy Ghirmay’s inspired vocals carries the song very well.
Rai Band are at its best playing in the stronger tempo of blues rock. That is, with the exception of the second and fourth tracks in their unhurried paces are engrossing. Aysnefn is a highly enjoyable collection of songs. I look forward to what they’ll do next, and of course, recommend it to all who are lovers of music.
In this debut album, Rai band has also aspired to balance the modern with the old. They arrange iconic Eritrean oldies in their own newer styles. They have created an interesting niche for the Tigrigna language inside typically Western genres of music, and even the traditional act of “releasing an album” designed to cater to the instruments of modern technology is sufficiently out of the ordinary.
To really understand this point, think of the last time you or anyone you know went out and bought an album. In an age of singles and one-off music videos, reverting to this conventional album method of releasing one’s selected songs sets a very important precedent of professionalism for all of our artists.