Oral Poetry: Society’s Communal Treasure, part 1

Oral Poetry

#Tigrigna oral #Poetry is one of the longest poetic #Tradition*s in the world, remain a part of #Eritrean #Culture

By Shaebia

Last week, as my friend and I were taking an evening stroll (to my utter reluctance) after a rainy afternoon, we came across a foreigner (presumably a tourist, judging by her backpack and outdoor attire) who was apparently having difficulties obtaining the address of a certain public place from an elderly passerby. We intervened, and offered to show her the way as we were headed on the same direction.

On the way, Ingrid (as her name was) told us that she was a linguist and that has travelled all over the world through her work as a researcher on oral traditions. And even though she was on a vacation to Eritrea with a group, Ingrid said she also wanted to (at least) take a sneak peek at the oral traditions practiced in this “multiethnic country.”

I knew she had done her homework and was well informed because she did bring up the book of oral traditions in Tigrinya by Solomon Tsehaye, that was just fresh out of publication at that time. It would probably be an understatement to say she was astounded, when we tried explaining to her what the book was about.
“I have several books that make reference to Eritrean oral traditions, and I will definitely come back here to find out more…” she said.

Finding out we shared similar interests (oral poetries) I promised her an article on two particular genres of oral poetry in Tigrigna, hence the title above.
It is worth noting that when we discuss the issue of oral traditions in Eritrea we have to bear in mind the country’s cultural diversity. Each of the various ethnic groups has its own language, oral literature, songs, oral history, customary laws and other forms of oral traditions.

Tigrigna oral poetry is one of the longest poetic traditions in the world, where recitations still remain a part of contemporary Eritrean culture.
Throughout the ages people have preserved and nurtured their respective oral cultures and, by so doing, have handed them down from generation to generation.
The majority of the Eritrean people are however still illiterate and a great deal of the knowledge of traditional cultures of Eritrea exists only in the oral form. “Modernization” has resulted in the disruption of the continuation of oral poetry or the way of transmitting knowledge from one generation to the other, thus posing serious challenges to oral traditions as a heritage, the retrieval and preservation of which calls for an imperative measure to research, collect and document all forms of oral traditions – before they are lost forever.

Earliest Tigrigna poetry was first published by Italian scholars during colonization. Notable works include Tigrinya Popular Songs (1906), collected by Carlos Conti Rossini.
There were other researches made in later years, whose contributions, in spite of their limitations due to linguistic and cultural barriers, towards the preservation of oral traditions in Eritrea will always remain creditable as wide ranging resource materials.

Moreover, two important oral tradition research projects were implemented by EPLF fighter-researchers from the Department of Political Orientation, Education and Culture, and the Department of Public Administration.

The research by the former department was a survey of culture in Eritrea conducted in the first half of the 1980s. Only part of the study was published (and that in a very limited number of copies), hence a rare reference material today. The research undertaken by the latter is considered to be among the most broad ranging and massive oral tradition studies done so far in Eritrea. It begun in the 1980s and continued through the post-independence period. Bu unfortunately the material has not yet been published.
And that’s where Solomon’s recent book kicks in. After over a decade’s work, he brought to light the first volume of a proposed trilogy. His book features the genres massé and melqes (praise poems and poems for the recently deceased respectively)

In his book, Solomon Tsehaye has made a successful attempt to study, collect and preserve massé and melqes which are generally considered to be the highest forms of Tigrinya oral poetry.

Being composed impromptu while being recited, massé and melqes have such spontaneity that makes them a unique form of oral poetry requiring special creative talents.
The poets, or masségnatat as the authors of massé and melqes are called in Tigrinya, have developed exceptional skills of thinking fast and creatively, making them sharp and witty. They possess vast knowledge of history, culture, religion, law, genealogy and various aspects of social and civic affairs. The society relies on their creativity and wisdom. Some of them are even thought to have prophetic capabilities, and their poetry quoted in relation to many social circumstances.

Massé and melqes are not just celebratory or commemorative; they can be social critique and satire, too. This quality of being artistic and popular gives these poetic forms the power to influence society significantly.

In an exposé he wrote in Eritrea Art Book, (not officially launched publication that encompasses the Eritrean art landscape in general), Solomon mentioned the following as the principal functions of massé and melqes:

  1. To convey highly valued messages on almost every aspect of life in an aesthetic way. Literally, there is no facet of social life which massé and melqes or oral poetry in general do not discuss. What makes massé and melqes enduring oral literary works is the depth and philosophical approach with which they look at social issues.
  2. to serve as reference material for history, particularly when written or documented historical material is not available. Since massé and melqes reflect social reality, they can provide historical fact and evidence.
  3. to revitalize language by preserving archaic words, idiomatic expressions, sayings and various figures of speech. Lexicographers, for example, make frequent reference to oral poetry.
  4. to entertain and stimulate the imagination. As massé and melqes are rich in humor, satire and other forms of expression, they are both amusing and thought provoking, and they are often accompanied by remarkable performances.
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