If Modern Eritrea is a story with a soundtrack, then surely Alamin Abduletif can compete for top billing of the artists who can take credit for its music. And among artists who sang in Tigrayt, none can come close to the title of the Great Popularizer because his art was accessible even to those who didn’t speak the language.
In the mid-1990s, dehai.org published a series of interviews with Eritrean artists of the 1960s and 1970s, including Alamin Abduletif. In the interview, Alamin Abduletif casually narrates a remarkable story, without bragging or taking credit: just very matter-of-factly and it goes something like this. When he and fellow musicians went to Eastern Sudan in the late 1950s or early 1960s, his music had a massive reception because people were hungry for music sung in their own language: Tigrayt. Why? Because, at the time, even in the Eritrean lowlands, at weddings and festive occasions, Sudanese artists were brought to sing in Arabic.
Well, sure, there was the legendary Idris Wad Amir, one of the inspirational sources of Alamin, but Wad Amir’s poetry was not exactly pop music. Alamin, an unabashed pop-artist, knew what the people wanted and he gave it to them.
Alamin’s breakthrough as an artist coincided with the arousal of Eritrean consciousness and he was at the forefront composing and singing songs and performing them to Eritreans who were just awakening to themselves. Along with the other members of MaHber Theatre Asmara (Ma.t.a, or the Asmara Theatre Group) such as Teberh Tesfahunen and Ateweberhan Seghid, etc, Alamin would tour Ethiopia, performing three acts per day–per day!–to enthusiastic Eritreans. Well, he did, until the Ethiopians wised up to The Awakening and stopped the tour because, among other things, Alamin Abduletif was wearing traditional Tigre clothes–semadit–which the Ethiopians considered a provocation. Imagine: wearing a traditional attire was considered stealth recruitment for the ELF.
Which, actually, it ended up being. In the same interview, Alamin Abduletif mentions that the large contingent of Eritreans who moved from Ethiopia to the Eritrean field was shortly following the Ma.t.a. tour. But, I am getting ahead of myself: this is looking like a shabait tribute to a nationalist, instead of to the artist.
I. Alamin Mini-Bio
Alamin Abduletif (sometimes spelled Abdeletif) was born and raised in Asmara in the Aba Shawel neighborhood. He was smitten by music early in his childhood where he was part of a neighborhood “band”–Rab’at in Tigrayt–who performed at engagement and wedding parties. His strongest influences were Ateweberhan Segid and Idris “Wad Amir”, which explains his ease with, and fluency in, singing in both Trigrinya and Tigrayt.
The title he was known for–Memher/Teacher–was not just a sign of respect but the fact that he was, indeed, a teacher at “Jaliya”, an Arabic-language community school in Asmara.
By the time he joined Ma.T.A. in 1962, he was already an accomplished songwriter and performer. Between 1962 and the mid-1970s, he penned a string of huge hits (more on that later) and, in 1974–when Haile Selasse I was overthrown by a military junta, the Derg, he–along with many of his Ma.T.A. contemporaries, joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF.)
After that, it was a life of exile–in his case Saudi Arabia–where he, in 1987, composed perhaps his best-known song, a tribute to his mother (more on that later.) After Eritrea’s independence, he immediately returned to Eritrea and resumed his passion as a performing artist and songwriter, often traveling to Diaspora communities to perform his hits.
On Monday, August 7, he passed away in Asmara, in his beloved Abashawel and was buried the next day at the Patriots Cemetery in Asmara. He was 78 years old.
II. Alamin-The Songs
When Dehai interviewed him in the mid 1990s, he said he had composed about 250 songs, some of which had never been performed. And, he said, he continued to write songs. Here, in no particular order–except first and last– are the songs of my childhood.
1. Fatma Zahra (Tigrayt music): In the imaginary interview Eritreans have with their artists, this one has to top the list, “who is Fatma Zahra? Is it the name of a girl you were in love with or is it a pseudonym for Eritrea?” This is because Fatma Zahra shows up in a couple of his songs, and on different versions of the song. In the interview with Dehai, Alamin Abduletif says it was about a girl, and that ordinarily, artists are activists and the audience follows the lead but in the case of Eritrea of the 1960s, the audience was ahead of the artists. We were always saying “this song is about politics!”
Children of Keren and Asmara!
if you have seen her at Mai Zara,
Give my regards to Fatma Zahra!
This, explained Alamin Abduletif, has a striking resemblance to a song by Bereket Mengesteab–Meley–proving that there was a mind-meld among Eritrean artists of the era:
Passerby, if you come across her,
Give my regards to her.
2. Selam (Tigrayt music) – “Peace/Greetings! A beautiful song where Alamin just lists towns and compliments its residents and you can imagine why homesick Eritreans exiled in Sudan, Ethiopia or anywhere else would go crazy. Hrgigo, Edaga, Emeremy, GhindaE, Keren, Sahel, Mai Adkemo all get their tribute.
3. Selam Blesi – Tigrayt music – “Return my greetings” Fatma Zahra makes an appearance again here in Selam blesi. There was every possible reason for us to assume this song is not about a girl named Fatma Zahra (although it was) but a code word for the Eritrean flag which had just been banned and was raised by the ELF and its fedayeen operations:
…they said she showed up at night in Asmara
I, myself, saw her traces.
4. Seb – Tigrina music – “Mankind.” The longer name is “man(kind) doesn’t live just for his belly (self-satisfaction)” and there was absolutely no way that it wasn’t a chastisement of not just selfish people but the compact Emperor Haile Selasse and his pomp and circumstance as his country literally starved to death:
When you were born,
You (too) gave (your mother) birth pangs,
You (too) will only need a meter-long shawl
Don’t claim the world all for yourself.
5. Krbay t’tlewale – Tigrayt music – she sways like a branch. This is a tribute to a girl whose moves Alamin finds very graceful and compares it to a tree in the wind. You haven’t lived until you listen to the Ma.T.A. announcer (link provided) tell his Tigrinya-speaking audience what the song is about and he translates “t’tlewale” as lwywywy.
6. teHalfeni-tu Gebie – Tigrayt music – Will This Pass? This must have been written at one of Alamin’s lowest points or, he is such a great performer, he created a character who narrates, with a heart-wrenching music, something that many Eritreans are going through: waiting patiently for change and change never coming:
t’Halfeni dib ebl we dib etemne (As I await and hope for it to pass)
Haleef abiet adunya wa abiet sene (this world refuses to pass and mend)
The character in Alamin’s song talks about his raggedy clothes, worn out shoes and his dry bread (the have-nots), and contrasts it with the life of the idle rich (the haves) but what’s amazing is that his idea of relief from wont is not better clothes and better food but to sit with his peers (weqebet snat etgese) and “to speak when I can and to listen when I can’t.”
7. Amset Hliet – Tgrayt Music – She Is Expecting: What I love about this song is not the song but the story behind it: the song-writer (not Alamin) was singing about his expectant wife and the child she is carrying is a friend of mine, himself an accomplished musician. (None of your business.)
8. Anta guhuy lbey – Tigrinya Music -: My Broken Heart. In this song, Alamin chastises his heart for being so naive it raised his expectations. It is the mind telling the heart that it is disappointed and amazed that the the heart has affected it:
8. Abbai Aba Shawl: Tigrinya Music: A tribute to his birthplace in the slums of Asmara, Aba Shawl, which was being threatened by Asmara Municipality (for the umpteenth time) to be demolished for proper city planning. Growing up, I never understood why anyone would bemoan the destruction of a slum, but home is home.
Abbai Aba Shawl – Grand Abashawl
lomi kdefela – let me sing a song for it
Cherisha bKula – while it is whole
keyferest kela – before it is demolished
9. ‘gl’t’thade tu ‘t MaEshura – Tigrayt Music -: She will be wed on MaEshura. I may be mistaken but I don’t think it is an original song but a remake of a traditional song about the absurdity of arranged marriages. In “niesenety diyu“, Tekle Tesfazghi talks about a girl he is in love with whose parents rejected him after conducting a credit check (He was broke.) Here, Alamin sings about a girl who is going to get married on a certain date/season (“maEshura”) but she (the bride) hasn’t heard of the wedding yet.
10. Nai Akal Vitamin/Tefetawit Qosli: –Tigrinya Music :Vitamin for the body, beloved leaf. If you are from my generation, you know only two things about this song: (a) the tefetawit qosli (beloved leaf) refers to the Eritrean flag (green olive branch on a bed of blue) and (b) this was an Osman Abdurehim song that was “stolen” by Alamin. The first one is true, the second one is absolutely not. How do we know?
The songwriter, Neguse Haile “Mensa’ay” was recently interviewed by Lye.TV’s Weini Suleiman and he says that, yes, tefetawit qosli (to get past the Ethiopian censors) was about the Eritrean flag and no, the song was not written to be performed by Osman but by Alamin. The deal Mensa’ay had was for every one song written by the artist, one song had to written by him (“because the songs written by them didn’t appeal to me”, said the Mesa’ay) and then both are submitted to the censor. When the song that was written for Osman by Mensa’ay did not pass the censors but Osman’s did (Osman’s original was the amazing sgr bietna which would eventually be, um, borrowed by Sami Berhane), Alamin voluntarily allowed Osman to sing the song composed for him by Mensa’ay. Are we all clear now?
11. Yihamekini/Eekitiki Yhaze – Tigrayt music – I don’t blame you/nor wish you ill-will. This is similar in tone to teHalfeni-tu gebie in its melancholy. It’s not your fault; I just am not lucky. It reminds me of someone I knew a long time ago, who used to sing it (nonstop), when she was doing household chores. It makes me even sadder to know that that person doesn’t listen to the song, or any music for that matter, now, because it is Haram (forbidden! Sin!)
12. Yimma – Tigrayit Music – Mother! This song, which Alamin Abduletif composed in 1987 in Saudi Arabia, is a tribute to his mother. From its very distinguished opening riff (guitar), to the call-and-response horns, to the absolute call-for-the dance-floor, the song is an absolute joy ride. The lyrics are very simple and when you are paying tribute to your mom what more do you need.
These are just a sample from the hundreds of songs he composed. I haven’t even listed all I know including “ana lbye bgoha”, “selam kbleki selam mlesley”, etc. The man was quite prolific and I doubt anyone has his entire catalog. If you do, and you are posting it in youtube, it would be a great service to his legacy if you tag it properly for ease of searching.
III. Alamin & You
Everyone has a favorite Alamin story. This is because he was a very accessible man, a man of the people, a smile always fixed on his face. I will tell you mine and we will use this occasion for all of us to share ours.
1. It is the late 1980s and he is at a concert in Los Angeles. And what Alamin and people of his generation excelled at was telling politically incorrect jokes, long before we all became snowflakes offended by everything. He told these politically incorrect (and therefore very funny) jokes between sets and some of the people I came with were offended (of course.)
After the show, I met him and told him about my father–then he did what men of that generation did that those of us in the Diaspora (West) are very uncomfortable with: he held my hand and wouldn’t let go.
2. It is 1991, and the Eritrean football federation was hosted by the San Francisco Bay Area and it happened to be two months after Eritrean independence. There is a post-game dance and we are at an airport hotel and…”Ymma!” is on. The room and the dance floor has a maximum capacity sign–but two months after Eritrea’s independence? Forget the warning signs and so we all promptly ignore the sign, there is a mad rush to occupy every square inch of the dance floor and yell “Ymma!”….and the hard-wood dance-floor caved in.
3. During the Mekete years…he was wearing a camouflage uniform. Skip.
4. About seven years ago, for reasons known only to its organizers, Eritrea held a beauty pageant and, again, for reasons only obvious to the organizers, the event was not called “Ms Eritrea” but “Ms Independence.” This is where the host told us, without any irony, that a model was now going to do “akayda dmu” (catwalk.) Somewhere in the middle of the audience, you can see two men with white Afros: one is my dad and the other is Alamin Abduletif. Very good friends forever.
5. There are many people who I blame myself for not appreciating them enough and celebrating their work until after they die. Alamin is not the case: I celebrated his life and his music every chance I got. Sing his songs, post them in social media for no reason. For those of you who are fans of Family Guy’s Stewie and his annoying “mom, mom, mommy, mother, mother, mother….”, I have a friend who does a drop-dead impression of him and my payback was to do Stewie doing Alamin doing Ymma.
And so, the best tribute one can give Alamin Abduletif is to say that he had a full and colorful life. Alamin was A Man In Full, as Tom Wolfe would put it. Always elegant, always smiling, and he could hold a note forever.(Check out Selaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam.) Just before he died, he had the satisfaction of knowing that his beloved Abashawl was, along with all the art deco buildings of Asmara, named a World Heritage site. Demolish That, Baby! For a man who wrote so many great songs, he was not a rich man. Why? Well, Mr. Neguse Haile Mensa’ay explained it in his interview with Weini Suleiman: because we never ask who wrote a song. And the copyright laws in Eritrea, as in many parts of Africa, are pitiful. Not everyone is into money, the only value of money is independence and perhaps he could have the independence to tell PFDJ to go to hell when they asked him to do international tours and collect money for them. Money he never saw.
Few artists can touch the lives of generations of Eritreans, in two languages. Few artists can say I helped resurrect my culture and heritage. Alamin could. Few people, never mind artists, can say I had a long, happy, eventful life that is the soundtrack of my people. Alamin can. Happy Trails Alamin Abduletif!