The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Gondar's Child: Songs, Honor and Identity Among Ethiopian Jews in Israel

Marilyn Herman

Reviewer - Sybil A. Sheridan


From 1984 and the height of the famine, to this day, some 120,000 Beta Israel - Ethiopian Jews - have been transported via the Sudan and Addis Ababa from their villages in the Gondar region to the land of Israel. The experience of great hardship on the journey and the contrast between their rural existence and the harsh urban environment of modern Israel created many problems and tensions which Marilyn Herman expresses through obser-vation of one Azmari band that performs there: Porachat Hatikvah - 'The Flower of Hope'.

It was natural that in those alien surroundings of Western Israel, sharing accommodation in absorption centres with immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and from South America, these black Jews should seek the reminiscences and reassurances of home. That such reminiscences should focus on music is not surprising - traditional Ethiopian Azmari music lauds the land and this traditional way of life that these families had left behind. However, the performance of the music was something completely new. In Ethiopia, the Jews had lived proscribed lives; unable to own land, they took on those occupations feared by the local Christian population, those using fire, and became blacksmiths and potters as well as weavers and carpenters. Though culturally distinct, their language was Amharic, and their musical style was no different to those around them. Beta Israel were not, themselves, musicians, so this was a new skill they had to master on their arrival in Israel, learning to play the masenko and krar and, later, the modern keyboard. The band, Porachat Hatikvah, was also of mixed gender, so that the women in the band had to change their traditional behaviour, expressed in Hebrew as busha or shame, in order to stand up and perform in public. So, in transmitting a traditional art form, big changes were necessary in the creation of the band. Further changes came along the way with, the merging of ancient songs with new words expressing the experience of Ethiopians in Israel, during the Gulf War and the threat from Syria for example, and the introduction of a new, non Jew to coach the band - a man with a very eclectic Ethiopian musical experience who brought other musical styles to bear on their music.

The book uses music in three different ways. It analyses the words and the context of its performance to deduce the former life of Beta Yisrael in the Gondar region; it analyses the form of the music itself; and it looks at the development of the band as a way to see how Ethiopians are learning to adapt to Israeli life. In some ways the band was a microcosm of Ethiopian society in Israel. It contained members of different ages, who had come to Israel at different times. Through it you saw the conflict of village and town in Ethiopia, of older and younger generations in Israel, of keeping up the old traditions and the face of relent-less progress of the new. 'Everything is hafuch' - upside down - was a common refrain in the book. The younger generation does not revere the older in Israel, but the reverse. Children learn Hebrew faster and teach it to their parents.

The words of the songs remain very traditional with fervent expressions of love for the land, aggressive incitements to war, and love songs that are very circumscribed by a convention that it is shaming to 'love too much' and declare it publicly. One wonders how long such positions can withstand western political and ethical mores, or how long indeed the musical form will remain within its current parameters. The band itself has dissolved and this may in itself be a statement as to the position such music holds within the Ethiopian Israeli context. There has been a huge influx of non Jewish refugees from Eritrea and the Sudan in recent years, and it is possible that under their influence, Israeli Ethiopian music will become part of a much wider pan African movement.

As a non anthropologist and non musician, my enjoyment of the book was strictly from a lay perspective. The history and stories of the band were accessible and enjoyable - the more technical music analysis was harder to grasp. I am aware of the problems of transcribing Ethiopian modes into standard western notation; the accompanying CD, also, very usefully available on the web, shows the limitations of such an exercise, but the combination of CD, music, transliteration and translation makes it possible for the non Ethiopian to understand more of the structure of the music and that I found immensely valuable. I would have liked a deeper analysis of the words of the songs than given here, but maybe the words themselves do not merit very deep investigation.

What I do not know, is if other Israeli bands reflect the same experiences as that of Porachat Hatikvah and if, therefore, any real conclusions can be derived from this study. I am also sorry that in the course of her time with the Beta Israel, she did not go to Ethiopia and hear the music at source. I am not sure the comparisons she makes with CDs from Ethiopia featuring modern instrumentation are useful. I read this book during my most recent visit to Gondar where I noticed significant changes in the way Azmari music is presented there, with the opening up of large night clubs that have coaxed away the best singers from the tradi-tional Azmari Bet.

What this means is there is still a great deal to do on the subject of traditional Ethiopian music both in Israel and in Ethiopia and I sincerely hope that Marilyn Herman will continue to develop her ideas in this field.

Gondar's Child book cover

Gondar's Child: Songs, Honor and Identity among Ethiopian Jews in Israel
Marilyn Herman
Red Sea Press, 2012
ISBN 9781569023280
Hardback 312 pages; 216 x 140mm
b&w illustrations
Price £24.99

First Published in News File Winter 2012

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