TEZETA: Documenting the Ethiopian-Armenian Romance
Visitors to Ethiopia can easily spend weeks or months in the country without noticing the Armenian influence on Ethiopian culture and society. However, when you start exploring the old Piassa and Arat Kilo neighborhoods of Addis Ababa you pass by some of the few remaining old Armenian houses that have not yet been demolished to give space to the new high rise buildings that are changing the capital’s skyline. And when you dig into the sound and the history of Ethiopian music from the last century you invariably come across the Nalbandian family.
The Armenian impact is there but until now it has not been very well documented nor preserved. Luckily this is changing thanks to Armenian-American film maker Aramazt Kalayjian who is currently producing a documentary film TEZETA exploring the collective reminiscence of Ethiopian Armenians. In Amharic, Tezeta translates into memory but it has a deeper meaning to it. As Aramazt explains, it conveys a sense of longing and nostalgia lost in translation. It has been used as the title of the memoirs by several Ethiopian authors and it has given name to distinct Ethiopian musical sub-genre covered by vol.10 of the Ethiopiques.
We asked Aramazt about the historical and contemporary Armenian influence on Ethiopia culture, the challenges and rewards in producing TEZETA and about the various efforts – other than his film – taking place in order to preserve the unique Armenian legacy in Ethiopia.
How is the production of TEZETA progressing?
Production is going great. I’ve teamed up with Tamirat Mekonen (known for his Tekur Sew music video for Teddy Afro) and Marie Claire Andrea of Sabisa Productions. Since my return to Addis, we’ve hit the ground running. We have already interviewed 15 members of the Armenian community and are attempting to interview all possible members living in Addis. We’ve also interviewed legendary Ethiopian musicians including Alemeyahu Eshete, Marawi Sitot, Getatchew Debalke, Dawit Yifru, Abate Mokuria and Dawit Frew, and we are looking forward to interviewing some of the younger musicians like Gurum Mazmour and Samuel Yirga. We also had a chance to sit down with scholars like Boris Ajemian PhD, and Francis Falceto to give their perspectives on both the musical and non-musical contributions of Armenians to Ethiopia.
What has been the biggest challenge in the project so far?
Scheduling and communication has been the biggest challenge by far. Many of our interviewees are business persons, community leaders, and musicians with busy schedules, which makes scheduling a challenge. Another, albeit smaller, challenge is the willingness of some people to sit down for interviews and open up. Some of our interviewees initially express some reservation when I approach them about doing an interview. It’s as if there is a diplomatic shroud keeping people from opening up to share their story, which is somewhat surprising to me. I would have expected this type of reservation during the Derg regime, when fear of government and censorship was omnipresent. Ethiopia is a free country now, and I feel its time for people to feel comfortable in expressing positive and constructive criticism of their government representatives, their society and, most importantly, themselves. Though we have faced many challenges, we’ve also had great support from our Kickstarter backers and our in-kind sponsors, Adimassu Tours and Hassen Tours, who have been generous to our film production.
The importance of the Arba Lijotch (the forty children) and their instructor Kevork Nalbandian in the birth of modern Ethiopian music cannot be overestimated. Did they bring any particular Armenian elements of inspiration with them or is their legacy more due to Kevork’s knowledge of European scales, instruments and brass-band music?
The importance of the Arba Lijotch is sometimes overestimated but it’s undeniably important. All in all, the action of Emperor Haile Selassie I by taking in 40 Armenian orphans from Jerusalem as the first official imperial orchestra of Ethiopia was a huge leap of faith and undoubtedly created ripples internationally. Though the musical influence and contributions were more foundational than revolutionary, since brass instruments and the study of European scales existed in Ethiopia before the arrival of Kevork Nalbandian, it wasn’t until after they arrived that these instruments and scales became popular and widely accepted. You can say that the major contributions of Kevork Nalbandian and the Arba Lijotch, besides the huge honor of composing the music for Ethiopia’s first national anthem, was the popularization of brass instruments that paved the way toward the boom of Ethiopia’s Golden Era of music between the 1950s and 1970s when Kevork’s nephew, Nerses Nalbandian took Ethiopian music to a new level.
As you point out, the composer, arranger and music teacher Nerses Nalbandian played a huge role in Ethiopian music from the 1950’s to his death in 1977. What was exactly that made Nerses such a key figure in this period?
Nerses was gifted and a genius in the art of musical composition and arrangement. The elders of Ethiopia’s modern music community – Dawit Yifru, Abate Mokuria, Getatchew Debalke, Marawi Sitot and Alemeyahu Eshete – have all attested to his musical ingenuity and proclivity and his ability to conceive and achieve musical arrangements and compositions almost instantaneously. His contributions have been widespread owing to his work with the Police Academy Band, Imperial Bodyguard Band, and Addis Ababa University Glee Club. His role as Music Director of the National Theater, creating the Organization of African Union’s anthem as well as several other achievements, has been outstanding. He was known to have been a tireless worker, nurturing and mentoring the musical cultivation of an entire nation.
As an Ethiopian, his contributions are more or less well documented. As an Armenian he has had less exposure. He has hand-written the arrangement and notation of Armenian Church music, known as sharagans, effectively creating the most comprehensive hand-written documentation and musical arrangement of Armenian church music in the world. This compilation is currently part of the Nalbandian estate where there are plans to create a museum in honor of his life work in the Nalbandian’s home in Arat Kilo. Vartkes and Mary Nalbandian, as well as Salpi Nalbandian, are currently in the process of obtaining approval to form a museum in their childhood home.
Is the Armenian influence on Ethiopian music limited to the Nalbandian family or are there other Armenians that you would want to highlight in this regard?
There are none so far-reaching and impacting as Nerses Nalbandian, but there were other ensembles and bands playing during and after Nerses Nalbandian. There was the Sevan Band that played in local clubs during the 70s and 80s, helping to inspire and influence some of today’s younger musicians. There were also two other ensembles called the Ararat Ensemble and the Mouradian Ensemble who respectively have performed at Municipality Hall and for an ETV program. Some of the band members are still around. We have managed to interview some of them and we are currently planning on interviewing others.
Do you see any current Armenian influence on contemporary Ethiopian music?
There is one music performer out today that is of Armenian heritage that could possibly offer influence or inspiration in contemporary Ethiopian music. Vahé Tilbian is on the cusp of releasing his debut album, Mixology, under the artist name Vahé. His album combines Ethiopian, Armenian and English to create a mutli-lingual and multi-stylistic pop rock album. Besides Vahé’s music, most other Armenian music lives primarily with Nerses Nalbandian’s children and grandchildren who practice music at church, where their family conducts a portion of the Armenian mass.
There is no doubt about the historical influence of Armenians on Ethiopian music. Has the influence gone beyond the musical world and affected other parts of Ethiopian culture and society?
Certainly! The first royal photographers, the Boyadjian family, served both Emperor Menelik II and Emperor Haile Selassie I, documenting royal life and diplomacy. Iskender Bogossian, one of the most famous African abstract-expressionist painters, was half-Armenian. Sarkis Terzian, commissioned by Emperor Menelik II, brought the first steamroller to Ethiopia and, owing to a mishap during the journey, established a place called Sabara Babur (The place where the machine broke down). Terzian was also commissioned by Emperor Menelik II to bring guns from Djibouti’s port to help fight the Italians during the battle of Adwa.
I also obtained a document that shows a contract between he and Emperor Menelik II to research geo-thermal energy and create the first hot-spring bath house that is currently located adjacent to the palace. Some of my facts may be told only through oral history, but the extent to which the Armenians were trusted as advisors and craftsmen is well documented. There have been city-planners who have helped construct buildings; sculptors who have designed and minted royal coins; tailors who have designed and tailored ornate royal costume and garment; businessmen who have created the large import and export businesses in Ethiopia; and other tradesmen, such as shoemakers, jewelers, silversmiths, and goldsmiths.
Is it fair to see the decline of many of the old Armenian house around Arat Kilo and Piasa in Addis as a ‘picture’ of a general declining presence and influence of Armenians in Ethiopia?
The brutality of the Derg saw the outmigration of many peoples including Greeks, Armenians, Italians and obviously many Ethiopians. It’s difficult for many Ethiopian Armenians who have left to envision a life in Ethiopia due to traumatic memories of their past. I must say, though, that the current situation in Ethiopia is very promising and perhaps even advantageous for those willing to make the step to come back here. I think there is hope for a renaissance in Armenian-Ethiopian culture. There are rumors about the creation of an Armenian Embassy in Ethiopia. Recently, some Armenians have even moved here to join the community.
The Ethiopian economic climate will surely attract some Armenian investors into the growing and booming Ethiopian economy. As for the families who have been here for generations, those who know the times of Emperor Menelik II and Emperor Haile Selassie I, as well as Mengistu’s Derg regime, are few in numbers. There are some here in Addis Ababa but the majority of Ethiopian-Armenians are spread around the world in Australia, Canada, UK, USA and elsewhere. There is a declining presence but their influence lives on.
What efforts are being done – other than TEZETA – to preserve the Armenian legacy in Ethiopia?
TEZETA is a small reflection of a much larger Ethiopian-Armenian historical and cultural romance. It’s focused on music as a vehicle to deliver a broader and deeper history to a larger international audience. There are books that are being written that aim to thoroughly document the history of the two cultures. Currently, there are plans to create a museum celebrating the long history and legacy of Armenians in Ethiopia. I would say that there is hope, even though the community has declined over the years.
I’d like to quote Vartkes Nalbandian from an interview I conducted with him in August: “It’s not a question of numbers of people in the country or the wealth of the people. I consider something else. I consider what has been the position of Armenians in Ethiopia. That’s the historic part of it. We today are only the custodians of that legacy and the guardians of the heritage we have.”
TEZETA is expected to be finalized by April 2014.