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East Lansing artist puts modern twist on ancient Ethiopian music

Sep 23, 2016

As part of our Songs from Studio East series we're exploring music that combines both contemporary and traditional music from around the globe.

Today we meet Temesgen Hussein of East Lansing. He was born and raised in Ethiopia. And he’s one of just a few outside that country who plays the begena.

It’s used mainly in religious festivities almost exclusively, but Temesgen is breaking with tradition and introducing the begena to contemporary music.

The buzzing sound is what makes this harp unique. Not only does the begena sound different, it looks really different.

It’s made of dark solid wood and stands about 4 feet tall. At the top of the frame is a cross bar where the strings are tied to wooden tuning pegs.

"It’s a 10 stringed harp. The strings are gut strings. And it has a square box at the bottom. And the strings are tied at the bottom of that box. That’s the sound box," said Temesgen, who in his day job is an architect.

The box is covered with stretched hide. Like a guitar the instrument has a bridge, but there’s something else.  

"And on that bridge are leather pieces they’re also known as buzzers. That’s to use an English word because they create the buzzing sound of the begena that you don’t hear in any other instrument."

In Ethiopia, the begena is mainly used in meditation and prayer in the home. Temesgen says it’s a very private ritual.

"For example the popular prayer, Our Father, our Lord ’s Prayer -- in Amharic there’s a version of it and there’s a song that sings that prayer. So when you choose, you can sit down and pray, meaning play Our Father on the begena."

The instrument is very much connected with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It’s rare, even for people in Ethiopia to hear it. That’s because begena songs are heard only once a year during Lent. Sometimes the songs can go on for an hour.

"So that time, the radio plays begena songs. On TV, you see begena music videos, so I would hear it growing up every year, but I never thought anything of it," said Temesgen.

But, sometime after high school he says he fell in love with the spiritual nature of the music and its history.

No one knows the exact origin of the begena, but Temesgen says it goes back thousands of years and it's referred to as "King David’s Harp."

According to folklore, the Queen of Sheba traveled to Israel to seek out the wisdom of King Solomon. He was the son of King David. When she got back to Ethiopia she had a son, Menelik I.

"Emperor Menelik I, when he got old enough to inquire, know his father, he went up to Israel to meet King Solomon, his dad. Upon his return, he brought back his grandfather’s harp, the begena, King David’s Harp, and also a lot of other biblical artifacts," explained Temesgen.

The begena is not for entertainment. And it’s not commonly played in public. But, Temesgen is testing those limits. 

"Not to make it ordinary or non-special – I don’t want to take away from how special it is. It will remain special, but there’s no reason why it cannot be used with other instruments, I decided, because after playing it for a long time I heard the musical notes that come out of the begena, just the same as I hear the others notes coming from contemporary music."

Temesgen wants people to know this instrument exists, so he collaborates with contemporary musicians. 

The begena is originally associated with the elite. But, Temesgen says another instrument called the krar was made for the masses. It’s a smaller 5 or 6 string harp with a much higher register.

In Ethiopia, the krar is played to popular tunes.

Here’s Temesgen on other collaboration with Detroit artist Mike Ellison. 

If you want to learn how to play the begena or the krar, Temesgen has got you covered. He has eager students from all across the country and as far away as China.  

His wish is to reach as many people as possible. He's pulling the songs out of Ethiopia and offering them up to the world.  

"It’s not supposed to have boundaries and it cannot have boundaries."

Songs from Studio East is supported in part by the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.