Bilen Songs: Manifestation of Unity

By Luwam Kahsay H .

Bilen is one of the nine ethnic groups of Eritrea. Mostly situated in the semi-arid areas around the western escarpments of Eritrea, Anseba region, the Bilen ethnicity is known for its distinctive drum beats and songs.

Based on a research paper conducted by Daniel Araya, a high school teacher in the Anseba regional capital Keren, songs in the Bilen culture, like other cultures in the country, are accompanied by the drum (kelembura). The kelembura is mostly played by a woman, while the rest of the women in the gathering accompany the drums by ululating and clapping their hands to keep the atmosphere alive. They also have krar, a string musical instrument, played mostly by the men.

The kelembura, almost invariably, is made from a metal cylinder with a circular opening on both ends over which the drumhead (made from welltanned animal hide, mostly of goats or cows) is stretched. While the krar is made using a hollow wooden box to amplify the sound of the music made from the strings (slk) attached. The research paper states, in the use of these instruments, that the young men and women are the main players in major occasions because the drum requires strong hands for the beats to be heard in neighboring hamlets. Based on Daniel’s research I will try to mention some of the main cultural songs as they are still very much alive.

Chefera

Chefera reveals the real social life of the Bilen society in an artistic manner. It is much cherished in the society but cannot be played by anyone within the ranks of the ethnic group because the meaning they bear inside is profound.  Hence, exceptionally talented individuals who have the ability and mastery to wield the language in a very expressive and metaphoric manner can play Chefera.

Chefera is played by both the Tigre and Bilen ethnic groups. That is why many of the Bilen Chefera plays borrow words from the Tigre ethnicity and vice-versa. This is because there is a concept of borrowing and lending of words in languages as neighboring cultures. However, there is a difference between the Bilen and Tigre Chefera; that is, the Bilen usually begin with a sort of tunes and then the Chefera comes, while in Tigre Chefera, which is more like the modern rapping, directly begins.

The Bilen Chefera in its largescale talks about braveness, weakness, admiration and so many other daily life activities. The beauty of Chefera lies on the sorts of melody and authentic word composition.

The traditional way of playing in Bilen culture varies according to the age of the people. The elders including young adults can sing songs like hoy, Chefera, shelil, horya, alelewo, and so on. In the contrary, the children play various traditional activities like eshkle, yalel, tabrik, korit, shok, merkob etc. The children’s play does not demonstrate gender selection in songs, both male and female children play together.

Awlo

The word awlo is also part of the Bilen traditional songs, which are practiced during the eve of marriage ceremonies or other celebratory events, and are done by a group of people with good humored atmosphere. Basically, awlo is played among a group of people in a tent (das) mostly during the eve of a marriage ceremony. The message of awlo here is to express admiration to the host family of the marriage for their charm and hospitality. Besides, these admirations can go way beyond and uplift the ancestors of the bride or the groom’s family. Hence, after some admiration, the people can get some gifts in return. In case the people are not satisfied by the gifts, these admirations might shift into a slur; but this happens rarely. 

The Bilen awlo is no different from that of Tigrigna. Thus, both these cultures use the word awlo together. The main difference according to the Daniel’s research is that the Bilen use awlo during festivities and for admiration, while the Tigrigna can use it both for admiration or menacing a subject. In addition, during awlo there is no need for drum or any other instrument for that matter. It only needs the vocal with rhyming and carefully selected use of words. Besides, the audience most of the time keep their voices down and ears open to get a full taste of the awlo.

During awlo, the most common gift one can offer is a goat, sheep, or traditional beverage. The person who is in a mood for awlo can say his awlo to any one whether they are rich or poor. Then the one who is glorified has to offer them some gifts to make them continue the admirations. This is not a rule but an obligation.

Hoy and Kés

As I mentioned before, the Bilen songs are rich with sublime eloquence, order of signification, poetic construction and responsive messages that all match with natural beauty of meaning and the usage of words. These Hoy and Kes too are part of the Bilen song genre. Both of them are played together respectively. The meaning of Hoy implies that “please stop singing (kes) once and listen to me I have something to say”. Meaning, at any time Hoy is said in between a song (kes), the person who is singing is forced to stop and listen. Furthermore, Hoy has diverse content such as one’s fault, gossip and other related ones. Besides, there are exceptional Hoys about admiration, braveness, and other virtues.

Therefore, if any person wants to say Hoy while the song is going, he can simply say Hoy and the people who are singing can stop for a while and listen curiously. This is because they want to listen to what he has to say because it is where most of the time the gossips in the village are said out loud.

Nevertheless, although it rhymes, Hoy by cannot be a song by itself; it has to be accompanied with songs. To wrap it up, even though the content of Hoy is about putting one’s faults on the table, indirectly we can say that saying what is in your heart is one of the virtues of our society, especially as it manifests the love of brotherhood. In this respect, individuals with bad habits in the Bilen society have to drop their bad habits in fear of Hoy.

Wesombia

Generally, wesombia songs are mostly practiced during the eve of marriage occasions. Basically, they start playing wesombia early in the morning. During wesombia, the women first start to sing with all sorts of their melodies and drum while siting, and the males reply with all sorts of their melodies and dances in front of them.