Adem Faid is widely regarded as the father of Nara music. According to celebrated music composer Mohammed Salh Hussein – through whom I had the pleasure of meeting the famous artist – Adem is responsible for elevating Nara traditional music during the armed struggle and beyond. He is also a man of many talents: he has (as Mohammed Salh attested) a critically acclaimed voice, is a distinguished Koboro (traditional drums) expert, a gifted dancer and the best Mesenqo player in Eritrea.
- So, Adem, how did you get to become a musician?
I started playing the Mesenqo in Golij, when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. A Mesenqo is a pluck-string instrument, much like a guitar, but usually made of hollowed gourd covered in animal rawhide to make the base (or resonator) and five strings connected to a wooden rod. My father was a good Mesenqo player himself so I had been accustomed to hearing him play. I remember I contracted some illness at the time, so I couldn’t play or work alongside my friends. One day, I was so bored that I decided to build a Mesenqo and learn how to play it myself. So I set out to find the material to build one: I managed to find bits and pieces here and there, and even found cowhide cast away along a riverbank. When I finally built one, I showed it to my father, but he did not take it well. When he saw me with the Mesenqo, he was worried that it would cause me to stray from the right path, so he took it from me and broke it down. Fortunately, I did not give up very easily. I went and made another one. And another one! By the third time, my father realized I wasn’t going to relent, so he finally gave me his blessing to continue. And in return, he made me promise that I wouldn’t start any habits that are considered Haram in our faith.
After that, I started learning how to play by listening to others, and then trying to recreate the songs on my Mesenqo. I never had any formal training; I just practiced the same song over and over again until I got it right. With time, I became the youngest and the best Mesenqo player in my community, and people would invite me to play at weddings, amazed that I could play the Mesenqo so well at my age.
- And did you start singing around the same time?
Well, singing was a more complicated matter. You see, in Nara tradition, the men normally only dance and play the Mesenqo whereas the women only sing and play the Koboro (traditional drums), and those lines were never crossed. I think in my case, because I had been invited to play at Tigre weddings as well, I had the opportunity to see men sing, so I started normalizing it. It was only in 1977, several years after I started playing the Mesenqo, that I decided to sing a song to celebrate the liberation of the town of Tesseney from Ethiopian occupation by the Eritrean Liberation Front. This shocked my community at first, they were outraged, but with time, people realized that my song meant something more- I was singing about the unity of our people, and the dream to see our country free from oppression. Ultimately, my family conceded that my songs were for the greater good. Thankfully, nowadays, it has become rather normal for Nara men to sing.
- I heard that different modes are attached to different themes or meanings in a Mesenqo. Can you tell me more about that?
A Mesenqo has three different modes or scales, each named in Bedawyet [one of the nine ethnic groups in Eritrea]: Besay, Dubarbay and Shamber. Each of these modes conveys different themes of songs. For instance, when you’re tuned on Besay, the listeners automatically know (from the scale and rhythm) that the song is about war, bravery, strength and manhood. Dubarbay deals with heavy themes meant to make the listener meditate and reflect on subjects like community, unity, cooperation, compassion and perseverance. When someone is playing in Dubarbay mode, the custom dictates that the audience listens aptly, without uttering a word, letting the song transport them in their minds where it may. Sometimes, in these sorts of circumstances, the women there prepare soup or stew for the men to eat, and set the bowls in front of them as silently as they can.
Shamber, the third mode, is lively and upbeat in nature. It’s pleasant to listen to and it deals with lighter themes like love. Much of the songs in this mode are inspired by the sounds of birds and other animals. Because of its bright nature, it can be played in the background, or early in the morning to set a positive mood for the day. The interesting thing is that people can easily learn to differentiate between the songs’ themes based on these modes, even if they don’t understand the words that are being sung.
- Ok, now that I understand the different modes, can you give me some examples of songs for each of them?
So firstly, there’s the song Hjum (ህጁም), which means “Attack” in Arabic, played in Besay mode. Hjum is a very well-known call-to-arms song among our people, especially during the armed struggle for independence. After I joined the liberation struggle, I was part of the cultural group, and I had the privilege to modify the song and make it my own to perform in various parts of the country and abroad. During those years, the song also helped to motivate many young Nara men and women to join the armed struggle.
There’s another widespread traditional folk song called Chilico that’s played in Besay mode, named after an indigenous bird in Gash Barka Region: it’s white and has a red beak [possibly the Red-billed tropicbird]. This specific bird normally lives around water bodies and has a taste for crop like Sorghum, so it irritates the men and women in the villages who want to leave their Sorghum to dry in the sun. The first verses express admiration for the bird’s beauty and grace, but as the song progresses, it gradually morphs into a menace (which explains why the song is in Besay mode). The tune demonstrates that not everything is as it appears to be on the surface: the bird seems beautiful at first, but deep down it’s a sly creature looking to steal food, just as the song may seem innocuous at first, but then turns out to be anything but.
Having said so, I must give a word of caution: Besay songs generally provoke strong emotions within the listeners, so it’s not to be sung lightly. We reserve it for times when they are absolutely necessary.
Secondly, there’s my original song Surkumba in Dubarbay mode. Surkumba means “ከደረይቲ” in Tigrinya. I wrote the song as an ode to the beauty of a dark-skinned woman I saw at a wedding, but more than that, the song is an ode to all our women with glorious ebony skin. To me, a dark-skinned woman is the personification of Africa herself, and it reminds me that we Africans are all one; our cultures and lifestyles may be diverse but ultimately, our hearts all beat as one.
And thirdly, there’s the folk song Kilmoyas (ኪልሞያስ) in Shamber mode, which is an elegy to a loyal dog sung by the owner after the dog’s tragic death.
- These stories are all so fascinating! Do you mind if I ask for one last song?
Alright. I suppose I could tell you about a traditional song called Jehanie (ጀሃኔ) in Besay mode, named after a valiant camel. According to legend, Jehanie was an incredibly fast and fierce camel, the fastest in his village. He was considered a hero too, because he never failed to catch the thieves who tried to rob the villagers of their possessions. One day, the thieves decided they had to get rid of Jehanie, and so devised a plan: they laid out a trap for the camel to fall into. So when they baited him to run after them, poor Jehanie ran fast and fell into a hole, where a sharp sword had been carefully propped to cut off a limb. Jehanie lost a front leg, and once he recovered from his injuries, started walking with his remaining three legs, generating a unique rhythm that a musician decided to mimic on his Mesenqo. The rhythm was subsequently called Dris Gerabay, or the Limping Camel.
- How interesting! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.