In the past, most Ethiopians were acquainted with the begena as a traditional musical instrument during the time of Lent, when it was constantly played over the radio, particularly during the reigns of the emperors and the aristocracy. The begena was almost the only instrument played during the long fasting period as the church was an equal partner of the aristocratic state and was described as “the third estate”, with a dominant position in all aspects of national life, including that of culture. So, the state had made it a rule to play the begena on the two month fasting period when it was obligatory to praise God, meditate or ask the divine powers for mercy and absolution.
It was played and appreciated during the 1960s and 1970s and started to decline progressively as the country turned to socialism in search progress and all religious music was banned from the airwaves together with any religious preaching or church rituals. Begena was subscribed as a dying musical instrument confined to a narrow circle of art connoisseurs and high class people. However, begena came out of the shadows after the establishment of the Yared Music School back in 1972 for a rather brief period.
It then sank back into obscurity as the self-styled socialist cadres took over political power and imposed their brand of revolutionary music on the entire society. Young music students were taught the skills of playing the begena and other courses were given in and outside the Yared Music School before the banning. The instrument is still played although on rare occasions.
What makes the begena from other Ethiopian traditional instruments is that it is played by a lone man sitting on a stool and touching the strings with his fingers so that the instrument releases a sonorous or what musicians call a high-pitched melody that has often the tendency to knock hard on your mind and create a feeling of spiritual melancholy. The begena is often accompanied with someone who sings religious songs although the lyrics are entirely spiritual in nature.
What is important the singer is expected to play the begena at the same time. The lyrics are either invented by the singer/player or are poetic sentences taken from religious texts. The lyrical compositions are however deep in their messages and meditations on human nature, the destiny of the soul or the afterlife. They often have double meanings like the Ge’ez kine or poetry with double meaning.
The words are also taken from the Bible and other religious or holy texts used by the church. Sometimes, this rule is broken when the singer introduces some secular themes to his composition by singing about love alongside such moving themes as the futility of living in this world, the inevitability of death, the punishment for sin and the state of the afterlife.
According to the connoisseurs, playing as well as tuning the begena is not an easy matter. According to information by the Wikipedia, “When all ten strings are plucked, one method of tuning the begena is to tune each pair of strings to one of the pitches in a pentatonic scale. When using five of the strings, only the first, fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth strings are tuned and plucked to give sound.” The complexity involved in playing begena can readily be realized from watching people play it with difficulty and a great deal of concentration.
Unlike the other traditional musical instruments, the begena seems to be often overlooked by young and modern musicians some of them have used kirar or kebero or washint together with the guitar, trumpet and other western instruments. Not so with the begena which has not yet found its way in the imagination of modern Ethiopian musicians. Even Dr. Mulatu Astatke, the internationally respected doyen of Ethiopian Jazz, has not found the begena either attractive or easily playable, maybe because of its bulk or the nature of its sound that defies combination with modern instruments.
As indicated above, historical evidence suggests that the begena was known to Ethiopia since the 15th century and played largely in higher circles of the clergy and nobility in Ethiopia both as a religious and secular musical instrument although it was mainly used and is still used as “accompaniment during meditation and prayer” and is used in the context of religious occasions.
Most Ethiopians are readily acquainted with many of the traditional musical instruments like the kirar (stringed instrument), washint (flute), kebero (drum) from early childhood because these instruments are played everywhere, in alehouses or public houses both in towns and the countryside. However, the begena was a rarity, sometimes played over the radio and on special occasions. The begena is played in the northern parts of the country where Orthodox Christianity was originated and developed by creating its own brand of melodies, lyrics and instruments. This is also an addition to the diversity of Ethiopian culture or faith.
The diversity of Ethiopian ethnic groups can be seen from the diversity of their beautiful cultures and traditions, their music and musical instruments. Ethiopia is believed to have more than 85 ethnic groups and more than double that number when it comes to their food cultures, their religious rituals, their dances and music and the variety of their musical instruments. What make Ethiopia such a colorful and an amazingly diverse country is obviously the rainbow nature of all these cultures, the melting pot nature of its material and non-material cultures and practices.
Ethiopia is therefore an inexhaustible mystery not only to foreign visitors but also to its own people. It might take a lifetime to see, hear, taste, live and breathe the Ethiopian experience which is so deep so complex and so rich.
The harp (begena in Amharic) is not an everyday Ethiopian traditional musical instrument. It is used outside the realm of religious worship is limited. Although the harp in the West is largely used in secular artistic context, by large musical orchestras, the harp on the contrary is largely confined to religious purposes, like praising God and stirring the feelings of worshipers to divine or spiritual meditation. What makes all the more spiritual in purpose is the fact that it is mostly used during the big religious festivals or rituals like the times of fasting and during special occasions when it is found suitable to promote spiritual inspiration to attain a divine objective.
The harp or begena is a bulky traditional instrument that looks like a lyre, and Ethiopian harps are bulkier than those used in Western countries. The materials used in the making of Ethiopian harps are also different. According to information on the nature of the begena, Wikipedia encyclopedia says that, “the begena is an Ethiopian string instrument with ten strings belonging to the family of the lyre. Oral tradition identifies the instrument with the kinnor of ancient Israel. Played by David to soothe King Saul’s nerves and heal him of insomnia and later brought to Africa by Menelik I. Its actual origin remains in doubt, though local manuscripts depict the instrument at the b beginning of the 15th century. Regarding the origin of the name begena, the same source says that, the name is derived from the terms, “to buzz, pluck, play”. Etymologically, begena is related to the Hebrew “tough/play as a string instrument”
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In the last three years, reforms have been taking place in almost all walks of national life but Ethiopian music and musical instruments do not seem to have found a kind of artistic renaissance as the begena, together with so many instruments, have not yet found public acceptance and appreciation. There is no one in the music world here at home or abroad who has been inspired to reinvent the begena or play it in combination with other local or foreign musical instruments.
Nevertheless, the begena continues to fascinate many foreign music connoisseurs and ordinary music lovers who are impressed by the size and utility of the begena because there is rarely a religion or faith in the world that uses an exclusive musical instrument of its own invention and history. How many cultures around the world use musical instruments to make their fasting period deeply religious and/or deeply meaningful?
Ethiopia must be the only country in the world where a 600 years old musical instrument is still used to give meaning to a religion that is almost 2000 years old. This is also what makes Ethiopia unique in the world; a point which is often unknown if not deliberately and totally ignored. This harmony between fasting and music, between the needs of the body and the spirit is simply amazing.