Wednesday , January 19 2022
Home / Negarit / Negarit 91: Of Sandalwood

Negarit 91: Of Sandalwood

[This topic was published as a book review on.  Now it is satirized and adopted to fit the audio audience on my YouTube channel Negarit]

Today’s Negarit 91 (ሰንደላይ – of Sandalwood – الصندلي)  will raise two topics, actually three: 1) to prove once and for all that Keren is culturally superior to Asmara and Addis Ababa, 2) to re-introduce you to the book, ‘Gift of Incense’, and 3) To silence all those who are fond of mocking Keren.

‘Gift of Incense’ was written by Judith Ashekleh, Abubaker’s wife for 32 years. To me reading it was a pleasure because I can personally relate to the main subject and stories in the book. My father, a very close friend of Saleh Ashekeh, Abubeker’s elder brother, an MP during the reign of Haile Selassie, never answered my question about Abubeker when I was young. I think he was discouraging me from thinking of emulating him and end up a singer – who among us didn’t want to have a guitar and be a pop star when we were young? But years later, he confided to me that his peers, including Abubeker’s brother Saleh, were jealous of Abubeker because he was always well dressed, elegant, clean haircut and perfumed something that embarrassed the less elegant.

Those of us who come from the “bowl of Keren’s mountains” (Senkil, Lalemba, Etaabir, and Zbaan) cannot help talking about Keren for any reason let alone when we get an opportunity to do so. This book offers a marvelous opportunity… to boast. That bowl surrounded by mountains gave birth to many people who contributed in many aspects to the lives of both Eritreans and Ethiopians. A glimpse of this captivating book rightly shows Keren to be a place out from a fairy tale that it is. It offers movie-like stories about the colorful town of Keren during and after the defeat of the Italian colonizers in WWII. Those were Abubeker’s childhood years.

Gift of Incense is written by Judith Ashekeh as told by her husband of thirty-two years, the late Abubeker Ashekeh. It is a story of “Sendelay”, Yimma Zeinab’s pet name for her son Abubeker. Who is Abubeker Ashekeh?

Sendelay – Abubeker Ashekeh

Raised in the Ad Habab neighborhood of Keren, Abubeker thought “the world ended at the top of [the] mountains” that surrounded Keren, “never mind that [his] relatives came on camel caravans (page 290, guzo..we have to teach you Amharic!) from beyond those mountains”. Abubeker “wed Mohammed, wed Hamid, wed Idris, wed Ashekeh, wed Mender, wed Oqba Micael, wed Araadom, wed Hinit, wed Be’ument, wed At’Keme [Asgede’s brother]” was born in Keren around 19342; lived in Asmara in his late teens; worked briefly as an oil pipe welder in Saudi Arabia in the early fifties; returned to Massawa and stayed there briefly; moved to Asmara for yet another brief stay; lived in Addis Ababa, “the oversized village” from 1961 to 1978; migrated to the USA in 1979; and died in 2000 in Lakewood, Ohio – “Sendelay” the exceptionally talented pioneer artist, died half a globe away from Ad Habab, Keren, his birthplace.


In the bowl-surrounded-by-mountains town, Abubeker must have been sneaking to wedding parties and numerous harvest season goylas, dances and feasts like Mariam Daari and Ad Sidi before falling in love with the Oud. Only Abubeker and Julio Mekhelef [Metcalfe]3 who grew up a few houses away across the yard of Bombet Ab Rayet, were the two people known to have been obsessed with the Oud in Keren. They must have been influenced by the young Sudanese soldiers who arrived with the British forces and policed Keren after 1941. At weddings and private parties, Abubeker watched very closely as the Oud players plucked the strings hoping to discover the secret of imitating the sounds. Thanks to his father’s wind-up gramophone, he was already introduced to Western music. Eventually, Abubeker owned his first second-hand Oud which he bought it from one of the soldiers leaving Keren. This must have been a fierce confrontation between him and his relatives and older brothers who “directed their disapproval at [Abubeker’s] willful determination to be a musician”.

Born to a traditional and conservative Muslim family, it is understandable how Abubeker must have been frustrated for not being able to pursue his musical hobby freely. But those who know him say that Abubeker was a rebel from his childhood. That frustration might have been the cause for his aggressive adulthood when he was considered “a one-man army” committing adolescent mischief that terrorized his teachers and challenged other adults older than himself who showed off in town. Keren must have been too small and suffocating for him. He wanted to go beyond the mountains and discover the world. And if you are born in Keren, the edges of the world started in Asmara. Keren was its center.

Abubeker left the center of the world to the edge of the world: Asmera, a city that was beginning to develop a few music and entertainment talents after the end of the Italian occupation. One sunny day, Abubeker must have arrived in Asmara equipped with an old Oud and his astounding skills of singing and playing Oud, mandolin, guitar and Violin. Important: a determination to make it big. In Asmera, he became an instant sensation. His most remembered song is a eulogy “Aba Hbesh Moytu Frqi leyti”. You know how it goes:

Kuarenti, ny Leiti
Aba Hbesh Moytu Frqi Leyti

His first big opportunity came when an Italian company hired him to play Oud background music for a movie, called “Eva Nera” which was being shot in Asmara. The producers liked Abubeker and offered “to get [him] a passport and into a music school in Italy”. Abubeker traveled to Massawa to board a ship bound for Italy. But his elder brother, Osman, having discovered the plan, alerted a close friend the chief of the Eritrean police, the late Colonel (later general) Zeremariam Azazzi who had Abubeker “arrested overnight until [the] ship left” port.

I can imagine Abubeker’s frustration. His opportunity for going to a music school demolished, Abubeker, started to play in night clubs and shows with similar aspirants of his age, names like the late Amleset Abbay, the vocalist who was “already famous”. She is mostly remembered for her immortal song: Sadulaye. Naabaye; Yehhshenni do msaKha mqnnaye!

In search of a better opportunity , Abubeker left from “Imberemi beach” near Massawa to cross the Red Sea on a sambouk to Saudi Arabia.

After eighteen months, Abubeker returned to Massawa from where he returned to Asmera and played at “the Odeon Theater and Asmera Theater [where they] had live musical production once a month … playing violin and Oud and composing new melodies”.

Beginning 1958, Eritrea was chocking because of the erosion of the federation by Haile Selassie, rampant unemployment and political instability. The music business was being heavily censored and on May 15,1960 [Abubeker] took the bus to Addis Ababa, the big village.

‘A Gift of Incense’ will certainly massage many Eritrean egos. The book has surprises and introduces the reader to yet another Eritrean, an individual who was instrumental to the success of the Kbr Zebegna Orchestra (KZO), Haile Sellasies’ Body Guard Orchestra: Lieutenant Girmai Hadgou. He was an officer who was shipped to Korea a day after his graduation from the officers school and served with the 1st. Battalion under General Aman Andom4. Lieutenant Girmai Hadgu, played the accordion, mandolin, piano and electric organ. He was a composer and musician for the Imperial music department.

Liuetnant Girmay heard Abubeker play in a nightclub and later helped him get a job with KZO “as a civilian”. He auditioned Abubeker in front of the “two generals, Girmamey, and his brother, Mengistou Neway5, as well as other officers.”

The organizational and promotional skills of Lieutenant Girmai were vital to the success of the orchestra- of course, the KZO was a propaganda tool for the king and no doubt it was generously funded and had its segments on the radio station. But we need to realize that it is excellent singers like Telahun Gessese and Mahmoud Ahmed supported by the skills of Abubeker and Lieutenant Girmai who made the KZO what it was. And it was Girmai and Abubeker who spotted the talents of the shoeshine boy, now famous vocalist, Mahmoud Ahmed and brought him to the limelight to be hired by the KZO.

During his time as a composer of the KZO, Abubeker composed hundreds of tunes that made many KZO singers very famous. The KZO popularized those songs, but Abubeker’s name, after staying on top of the Ethiopian music world during the sixties, vanished into the basements of Addis Ababa’s nightclub business. The great musical genius slowed his production of music yet he left his mark on the Ethiopian cultural scene:

There are a few songs that are not original but “Ethiopianized” by Abubeker. However, not many know the songs are adoptaition of Sudanese melodies introduced by Abubeker Ashekeh. Here are two examples:

  1. Shegitu-Shegitu.. wey nana yageriye lijji, wey nana.., is considered Telahun Gessese’s song but in reality, it is an adaptation of a Sudanese song, “wen yanas, Habib alrouH, wen ya nas ana gelbi mejrouH, by Ahmed AlMustafa.
  2. Telahiun gets credit for, “ye hiwetye hiwet…. But that is also a Sudanese song produced in the 1930s by Khelil Farah, “Azza fi hawak….

And many other songs… at one time the cultural ties in our region was healthy but now it is poisoned. That’s why a few people know that one of the major character of this efforts is “Sendelay”, Abubeker Ashekeh, the talented Kerenite musician who Ethiopianized many famous Sudanese hits. Ethiopians owe Keren a lot!

The reader would not help but feel disappointed that Abubeker didn’t produce much music after the end of the sixties. I felt that when I came across the painter and architect Abdella Kekia’s6 name in the book, another famous Eritrean who contributed greatly to the Ethiopian urban lifestyle.

Links to some of the Sudanese original songs and an adopted Ethiopian song;

About Saleh "Gadi" Johar

Born and raised in Keren, Eritrea, now a US citizen residing in California, Mr. Saleh “Gadi” Johar is founder and publisher of Author of Miriam was Here, Of Kings and Bandits, and Simply Echoes. Saleh is acclaimed for his wealth of experience and knowledge in the history and politics of the Horn of Africa. A prominent public speaker and a researcher specializing on the Horn of Africa, he has given many distinguished lectures and participated in numerous seminars and conferences around the world. Activism was founded by Saleh “Gadi” Johar and is administered by the Awate Team and a group of volunteers who serve as the website’s advisory committee. The mission of is to provide Eritreans and friends of Eritrea with information that is hidden by the Eritrean regime and its surrogates; to provide a platform for information dissemination and opinion sharing; to inspire Eritreans, to embolden them into taking action, and finally, to lay the groundwork for reconciliation whose pillars are the truth. Miriam Was Here This book that was launched on August 16, 2013, is based on true stories; in writing it, Saleh has interviewed dozens of victims and eye-witnesses of Human trafficking, Eritrea, human rights, forced labor.and researched hundreds of pages of materials. The novel describes the ordeal of a nation, its youth, women and parents. It focuses on violation of human rights of the citizens and a country whose youth have become victims of slave labor, human trafficking, hostage taking, and human organ harvesting--all a result of bad governance. The main character of the story is Miriam, a young Eritrean woman; her father Zerom Bahta Hadgembes, a veteran of the struggle who resides in America and her childhood friend Senay who wanted to marry her but ended up being conscripted. Kings and Bandits Saleh “Gadi” Johar tells a powerful story that is never told: that many "child warriors" to whom we are asked to offer sympathies befitting helpless victims and hostages are actually premature adults who have made a conscious decision to stand up against brutality and oppression, and actually deserve our admiration. And that many of those whom we instinctively feel sympathetic towards, like the Ethiopian king Emperor Haile Sellassie, were actually world-class tyrants whose transgressions would normally be cases in the World Court. Simply Echoes A collection of romantic, political observations and travel poems; a reflection of the euphoric years that followed Eritrean Independence in 1991.

Check Also

“Goush the Shepherd Did It”

In a village council, when it was on a consultation break, a restless young man …

  • መሃንድስ-ምዕባለ

    ሰንደላይ በል ክትድረር!

    ኣብ ክንዲ ወያነ ‘ባ በየነ
    ታሪኽ ናይ ሰንደላይ ስምዑ
    ዝጠቅም ታሪኽ
    ኣብ ሓንጎልኩም ክትሰቕሉ

    ወያነ ሞይታ-ተሳዒራ
    ጽንሕ ኢልኩም ድማ
    ወያነ ዓድና ክትወራ
    ትብል ኣላ
    ተሓዋዊሱና ኳ ሕጅስ

    ምቁር ታሪኽ ሰንደላይ
    ንታይ በሃላይ?

    ኣፍ ነሕጽር
    እዝኒ ንገትር
    ገዛ ክዕምር

    ወያነ ደሓን ኣይትእተዉ። መኣዝንና ‘ኳ ኣጥፊእኩምልና።
    Game over ‘ናበልናስ ሕጂ ድማ ኣለኹም?

  • መሃንድስ-ምዕባለ

    ብሩኽ ዓርቢ!

    ሰብ ከረን
    ርእሰ-ከተማ ናትና ያ ይብሉ
    ከመይ ‘ሉ?

    ግን ከኣ ‘ንተተመሰለልና
    ‘ንታይ ‘ለዎ ከተማ ተቐየርና?

    ደሓር ከኣ ከረን-ጻዕዳ ዶ ኣዮኮነትን?
    ኣነ ኣይበልኩን እዝን-እትን

    ምናልባሽ ህግደፍ መንደፍ
    ከረን ተጸሊኡ ዓዲ ይግደፍ
    ኣፈይ ይስዓር

    ግንከ ከመይ ክሊማ?
    ሃሩር ተኾነካ ህደም ንኸበሳ

    ፉል መዓመር ያዞል

  • መሃንድስ-ምዕባለ

    ሰላማት ሳልሕ:
    ብጣዕሚ ደስ ዘብል ዘረባ! መስሓቕ ድማ።
    ሕጂ ግን ነገር ዝደለኻ ኢኻ ትመስል።
    1. ከረን ርእሰ-ከተማ ክትከውን ረፈረንደም ክግበር? ዲጅታል ጥይት ዘይሕልፍ ጃኬት ምግባር ኣይትረስዕ።
    2. ንሙሳ ኣሮን ድማ ኣጊህድካ ምጽራፍ ምሓሸካ ኔሩ። ማውንተን ማውንተን ዘረባ ግደፎ። ጭርቃን ገዲፍና ግን ስእልታት ሙሳ ዓርክኻ ክጽብቕ መዓት ‘ዩ።

    • Saleh Johar

      ኣይትጋግ: ዓርኪ ኣቦይ መሙሳ ክኸውን ዓቅሚ የብለይን:: ግን ክሳብ ኣስፊሐ ዘዕልለኩም ናቶም ቅንኢ እዩ ምጽሓፍ ዘጀመረኒ:: ጊድየዎን ወዶም’ዩ ዓርከይ ብኽእለቱ ተኣማሚነ እየ ድማ ከረን ዋና ከተማ ክትከውን ዝበልኩ::

      • መሃንድስ-ምዕባለ

        Selamat SaleH,
        It was a copy & paste error, when I copied it from the English to Geez converter that I use. ጊደዎ was cut but kept the ን 🙂
        I meant ጊደዎን ሙሳ ኣሮን

  • Paulos

    Selam Aya Saleh,

    I can already see you itching to make your next video on the hero of Abination and Horizon–ብሪጋዴር ጀነራል ካሳየ ጨመዳ and please please do.

  • Paulos

    Selam Moderator,

    Sorry to post unrelated but wasn’t it too soon you closed Dawit Mesfin’s article comment area?

    • A.Osman

      You may have experienced a problem with disqus, as I don’t remember awate closing comments on an article to move to the next one.

    • Saleh Johar

      It’s not closed. I just checked and I see comments posted after you pointed to the closure of the comments. Maybe you had a glitch. At any rate, it’s not closed.

      • Paulos

        Selam Aya Saleh,

        ኣነ’ኻኣ እቲ ዋርድያ ናይ ለይቲ ዝሰርሕ እተን ‘ስታንሳታት በዚሔንኦ ተጋግዩ ልኬቶ ጌሩ ዝዓጸዋ መሲሉኒ፣ ይቕሬታ!

  • Brhan

    Ustazuna Ya Salam Kalam Jameel
    I heard about Abubaker from an Eritrean friend of mine who is a muscian. He told me even that he is celebrated every year in USA or Ethiopia.
    I like how you like Keren. There are more qualties in this city than any other Ertirean cities but I believe its diversity comes first. The people of Keren and surrounding can teach Erireans tolerance among ethinic and religious groups. If there is presidential election in future Eritrea , I believe a Kerenaite will make a better canadidate. Oh sorry this article is about music and I shall say about it.
    I know music has no religion, ethnicity or nationality and this can take you as far ast Peru and Thailand. I for example enjoy Yossou Ndour and I blieve SAAY enjoys Habib Koite of Senegal and Mali, respectively, eventhough I do not know Wolof and I believe SAAY does not know Mandinke ( he can correct me).
    For Abubeker to go to Addis Ababa , ትልቅ ገጠር ነበር፡ ( I do not know Saleh if you saw Addis, since 1991, the city has changed a lot) and become its finest lyricist to its giants Tilahun and Mahmoud, shows that again music is like love: blind. I love both artists songs specially ከመሞት ኣልድንም and ኣይባባ ሆዴ respectively.
    Abubaker must have left Ethiopia, due the Derg and its brutuality both in Ethiopia and Eritrea. I have not read the book ( strongly wants to read it though) but also there must be a reason the relates to his conciounes about Eritrean politics for him to do so because the others like Tilahun and Mahmoud not only stayed with the Derg and EPRDF but joined the propoganda of the two regimes with their songs.
    Ustaz you opened one of my big appetite and I can continue but let me stop here and comeback again with another prespective…maybe I will try to beat you with how Asmara is better than Keren at least in music , with the help of my Asmarinos.

  • Zula

    Nice article.
    Just to add my 2cents about Abdulla Keckia, he was the architect of the large hotel complex that was build in 1980s in Sodere Resort in Ethiopia among other projects

  • Abi

    Selam Ato Saleh
    This is a great relief from the daily bickering.