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Instrumental Arrangements from Eritrea.
©2002 Yonas Ghirmay. Made in Canada 

Reviewed by
Cynthia Tse Kimberlin, Ph.D.

1974 was a watershed year in the Horn of Africa, a time in which major events sowed the seeds of an accelerated Diaspora movement. These migrations took place at a time when new technological advances were being made in transportation and communication and which Eritreans and Ethiopians have astutely exploited by creating their own networks in the form of virtual communities. A result, these factors produced an environment of invigorated music creativity of which this CD is emblematic.

Instrumental Arrangements from Eritrea contains music that is collaborative, transnational, and no longer bound by geography and language constraints. As part of the Eritrean community in the New Orleans area, Executive Producer, composer and arranger Yonas Ghirmay and others like him are redefining music within the framework of the global community of music and music making. Most of the music selections on the CD are renditions of jazz using recognizable traditional melodies accompanied by Western instruments. The one exception is the use of the ‘ud played by Brian Prunka. According to Prunka, “The 'ud (also known as the oud…is a musical instrument common to all Arab cultures. It is also an important part of the Turkish musical tradition and may have originated in Persia…”

A key factor in this recording is that the creative process retains strong elements of one’s ancestral roots that form the basis for ‘new compositions’. What is distinctive about this music is that this is an approach not commonly practiced; that is, this instrumental ensemble does not accompany singing.

There are ten examples whose titles are given in transliteration with the musician’s name and include: Kem kobob, Entezefelit Nayre, Adey Kitweldeni, Zey – meflate mehashena, Ala leye la ley (Parts 1 and 2), Hel – mi Wegahta, Ewan meseye, Yeantey, and Tenebre Nayra. Musicians and the instruments they play are Yonas Ghirmay (piano), Brian Prunka (acoustic guitar and ‘ud), Matt Rhody (violin), Michael Jenner (saxophone), Michael Skinkus (percussion), Andy Wolf (double bass), and Jason Marsalis (drum set).

Yonas’ major strength is his bi-musicality. First, his music arrangements are a testament to his educational training in music composition at Loyola University in New Orleans where he gained greater knowledge and practice of various art and popular music forms. Second, not only is he knowledgeable in the music of Eritrea and Ethiopia, but as a former seminarian who trained to be a priest in the Ge’ez rite, he is also a practitioner of Ge’ez chant with a strong interest in preserving its tradition. He is acquainted with 30 to 40 ex-seminarians living in the USA who know from memory the Ge’ez liturgy and they formed a chapter, meet annually, and are devoted to this music. As a result Yonas is in the process of forming a national Ge’ez chorus and intends to produce a recording of this choral group.

This multi perspective towards music making is evident in this CD. According to Yonas “it contains a variety of arrangements of ethnic (folk music) and also modern. I totally avoided the use of electronic instrumentation. It is absolutely acoustic with the idea of me being in New Orleans; it has [that] ‘Gumbo’ flavor.” (Feb 2, 2004). Although this music does not accompany singing, some of the music would be suitable for accompanying dance.

Since Yonas’ solo piano composition found on track 7, Hel-nu Wegahta, possesses a style and mood so different from the rest of the examples, I would recommend that this composition, as an example of intercultural music,** be issued on a separate CD along with other examples of this nature. This piece is based on a traditional melody, and it would be interesting to know from where the inspiration came to compose this piece. Personally, the tracks having a special appeal for me are 5 - 9. Tracks 5, 6, 7 and 9 primarily because their evolution can be clearly discerned in that musical ideas are developed from a basic core idea, and then expanded.

The cover layout and design features lead me to believe the CD is meant for the Eritrean communities worldwide. If it was intended to cultivate a broader based audience, the song titles could have been described and/or translated into English, and the sparse liner notes been expanded to accommodate listeners less familiar with the music. A brief description of each selection could have been given, as well as brief bios of the musicians. In addition, the listeners in general, and musicians in particular, would be interested in learning about the creative process taking place when these arrangements were being developed and which are based on essentially traditional melodies.

Lastly, if Yonas continues to explore and capitalize on his strengths, with his penchant for exploring new avenues, he will bring forth a freshness and spontaneity that is long overdue.

* For the chorus singing Ge’ez liturgy, instead of having the chorus sing a single melody in unison as traditionally practiced in Ge’ez chant, Jonas has arranged some of the chants in four parts where the various parts imitate each other at different pitch levels and interval sequences. This practice is reminiscent of the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) counterpoint as epitomized in his chorales, preludes, and fugues. Yonas says his approach to choral music may prove to be a challenge for the untrained musician or individual trained to sing in Ge’ez. Yet, he consciously incorporates new elements into a traditional musical practice so that it would appeal to a wider public and that others might develop an interest in this genre of music. 

**For a definition of the term see the "Introduction" to Intercultural Music Volume 1 edited by Cynthia Tse Kimberlin and Akin Euba. Centre for Intercultural Arts, London U.K. and Bayreuth African Studies Series, Bayreuth University: Bayreuth, Germany. 1995:2-5. It can also be accessed online at 


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