A Look Inside

Much of my taste in music is greatly influenced by my Ethiopian-American identity. I vividly remember sitting in my dad’s car on rides to school, surrounded by a swirl of Ethiopian Orthodox hymnals, the ethio-jazz of greats like Mulatu Astatke and Tilahun Gessesse, as well as the sounds of early 2000’s Atlanta hip-hop. Growing up in a culture that values music as a vehicle for introspection, whether religious or secular, has directly led into my great love for music. It would be impossible for me to invest fully into this blog without inviting people into my own scattered and storied sonic theology. To this end, each article in this new series will spotlight a different face of the Ethiopian musical landscape.


In middle school, I was fortunate enough to live in a public school system that provided free instrument classes. I could choose from any instrument in the entire orchestra. I was immediately drawn to the brass and percussion sections. As a chubby pubescent, I was seduced by the immense volume that these instruments could produce. As I kept perusing the instrument racks, I then noticed the string section. I’d never really seen a violin or a cello up close before, and I was taken aback by their beauty. To my young mind, where the brass and percussion were loud and rambunctious, I thought that the stringed instruments could get their point across with the musical equivalent of a raised eyebrow and a curt smile. Their smooth ligato floated the notes into your ears, and the fierce staccatos of the downbows sent shivers down your spine. But for me, the greatest of these instruments was the double bass. I was drawn to it not only because it was large, sleek, and beautiful, but also because its musical register reminded me oddly of the begena.

Designed after the biblical harp that David himself played, the begena’s sound resembles the pizzicato of the western double bass. Ancient Ethiopian Orthodox texts trace the history of the instrument back to the large influx of Jewish immigrants into the region during the 14th century BCE. As one of the instruments of the church, the Begena is primarily used for times of great contemplation and mourning. During great fasts, the instrument is brought out and played outside churches as common people would gather to hear stories of pain endured. The slow strumming of the instrument paired alongside the vocalists lyrics of shame, hunger, and loss would often drive people to tears. It was this same raw emotion that I witnessed frequently grip my parents whenever they listened to this music. That same emotion often grips me as I listen to these songs today during fasts. In a way, my decision to learn to play the upright bass was in hopes to fashion a deeper connection to my parents world, while in a foreign land.

Here is a link to a traditional song with a begena pairing. This song is often sung during the great 40 day fast that precedes Christmas. I hope you enjoy it along with my translation of the lyrics:

Your forgiving nature, you’re a forgiving king
He is just. He is patient. He is a sympathetic creator.
Even when the Son of Man is wicked, He came close to them, knocking on their doors.
Our Lord, born in a manger, was born to save us (x2)

He came from his high throne with his fatherly love
He was dressed in flesh, stripped of his glory
He was treated as an enemy, his wealth lost
He was dressed in flesh, so that his family would betray him.
Our Lord, born in a manger, was born to save us (x2)

He will go from grace and glory, to starvation
He will return to his throne, only by the grace of his father.
He will mourn and cry out as he travels through the shadow of death.
He will be given life as he wipes away his tears.
Our Lord, born in a manger, was born to save us (x2)

When the prince of peace was born from the virgin,
it was as though man regained his lost grace.
Born from the virgin, as foretold by the angel Gabriel,
he made us all inheritors of the kingdom of Heaven.
Our Lord, born in a manger, was born to save us (x2)

As we flail and try not to live a pointless life,
his birth is our standard.
He wore our flesh, and came to serve us.
May he be praised on high forever.
Our Lord, born in a manger, was born to save us (x2)



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