Faux Patriotism in Ethiopian Music

After spending an entire summer suffocated by Teddy Afro’s Atse Theodros anthem, I think it’s time to divulge into the new world of popular Ethiopian music. Specifically, the  incursion of Habesha nationalist historiography unto contemporary Ethiopian public culture.

Even a slate pop culture/media staff writer would find it difficult to exalt “All my friends are dead, push me to the edge” as a reflection of America’s national mood. While contemporary American music primarily serves as an escape, unfettered by nationalism fervor. Ethiopian music is foregrounded by an exalted and conscious appreciation of the land. Irrespective of the album’s corpus, a nod to “Emiye (mother) Ethiopia” permeates Ethiopia’s pop charts. From world renowned female balladist  Aster Aweke to up and coming hearthrob Esubalew Yetayew,  each pay homage to Ethiopia in a theme that embodies the Amharic “Hager Fiker/love of country”. Unable to find a definition for Hager Fiker, I can only offer up my own. Hager Fiker is an ode to the homeland that articulates the relationship between place and identity.

Popular Hager Fiker tracks

Abonesh Adinew- Balageru
  • Serving as a great entry point is Abonesh Adinew’s Iconic Balageru. Don’t conflate the upbeat folk tempo and plug on #ShitHabehsaGirlsSay for a party song. Balageru is a song of longing. An urbanite Abonesh, with an  imploring heart;”Be bahil nuri”- Live in your culture   “Balger hedesh, be imnetish nuri”– Go to the country side, live in the faith  =  “sefedun seftesh, gebs abtiri”- sew a basket and fiter the grains.  Harping on a list of chores didn’t sell me at 8 years old! Now, it sticks. becuase intertwined in the menial chores Abonesh convulses the elixir of life “Menfess ina Nuro”- day to day and activities “Hiwot ena tsega”-life and happiness “bunaun titesh, gorebet siri”– invite your neighboor to coffee. Seek the place which connects you to the source of existence .
  • Jolting us to 2015, is Wandi Mac’s Shire, a euphoric tour of Ethiopia through the microcosm of Addis Abeba. This has become a standardized style of Hager Fiker used by modern artist; name a hodgepodge of regions with their ascribed lovable descriptors.
Jah Lude
  • In a riveting display of Hager Fiker’s diverse range, is Jah Lude’s Wegen Alegn. To me this is the most powerful Hager Fiker track. In lieu of Abonesh’s verbosity, Jah Lude offers thin bars of simple testaments rollicked on a reggae string.  Without any pronouns Jah Lude describes an insatiable relationship; My happiness, is her happiness. The one I love, as she loves me. She’s never tired of me, and I’m never weary of her”.Jah Lude relishes in being adorned by this deep unwavering love “Lebso, Lebso- Kaba/Fiker lebso”. Transposing reggae, a genre created by the psychological trauma of displacement, the chorus proclaims  “Wogen Alegn. Hager Alegn” -“I have a people. I have a country”.

These songs trigger feelings of happiness, security and belonging. It’s not mechanical but emotional. Typically the context harps on the bucolic beauty of the landscape, merriment and virtues of the people; lyrics can be florid or simple. To me the scenes it unfolds- tug at a basic desire, to be loved unconditionally. Hager Fiker is an embrace of Ethiopia as she is. Almost akin to a mother’s love.

Politicized Identity

Listening to Ethiopian music now is a conscription into a nationhood building project.  In recalling my first forray; Selam Ye Hager Sew by Birhany Tezera. I remember the sounds of  discordant revelries coalescing just in time to shout “be-enatem Habesha, be-abatem Habesha/ through my mom I am Habehsa, through my dad I am Habesha” – at every Ethiopian community function.  Cushioned under the capacious umbrella of “Hager Fiker” are songs such as Ye Hager Sew that posture as the inspirational wing of these Emiye Ethiopia tracks. In contextual application these songs are a hegemonic attestation of Ethiopia’s identity. Conveniently toggling politics, sociology, and history to instill a faux-patriotism merited on the basis of unity through Habesha-ness.

The prominence of these anthemic asides could be a response to the ruling Ethiopian parties purported penchant for ethnic division. At the helm is Teddy Afro. Fetted an Ethiopian Icon, Teddy Afro scorned the ruling party’s governance with Yasteseryal. Subsequently, naive play by the Ethiopian government, Teddy Afro was arrested –  cementing his infamy and validating public opinion of systemic corruption. The formula of these songs are as follows;

  1. Glorification of the Ethiopian Empire- as if Axum had been shortlisted from the three great empires of antiquity.
  2. Depoliticization and canonization of its imperial autocrats.
  3. Idealization of tribal and sectarian relations.

I’m not denouncing Paen’s to troubled figures (Teowdros, Meinelik) because It’s true, human societies have a storied  tradition of calling upon certain facets of our history to inspire us towards what we already want. What I am flagging is the product of sale-  a Habesha Ethiopia.  The conviction of these singers and their marketability makes me question the cognitive processing of my contemporaries in the U.S. and Ethiopian residents. Is there no place for reflection? or is the Habesha apparatus so strong that it is unquestioned? There is a depth of indignation, starting with the erasure from history and coupled with the subsumption by Northern identity.

Music is a powerful tool it can; galvanize, focus attention, crystallize feelings, and make the remote more real. The state of Ethiopian music/patriotic music, champions a Habehsa identity. It crystalizes the inequities of memory; the literate North gets to share their story as Ethiopia’s story. The losers of the Abyssinian monarchy’s expansion- a mostly illiterate people- have their narrative snubbed.

Ethiopia is not a Habesha state. Habesha’s are a demographic; austere religionists, posterity of the Gee’z language, architects of the monoliths of Lalibela and Axum. Northern Ethiopians made great contributions to present Ethiopia but focusing on that history alone is problematic.  Matter of fact, co-opting that history as the blanket history of Ethiopia is a national security issue.

The Habesha social project failed circa 1974.