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Sunday 14 July 2024

Culture

A Gut to Soothe a Gut: Tizita and the Anatomy of Longing

1 June, 2024
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Tizita
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Ibrahim Osman reflects on the way Tizita, the Amharic music genre, deals with the themes of memory, longing and nostalgia.

It is half past two in the afternoon in Dire Dawa. Sitting on a plastic stool in one of the shanty coffee canteens, you become a silent observer. Two young men, laborers by their calloused hands, huddle over a short plastic table a meter away, chewing khat and waiting for the 3 o’clock alarm to go off from the abandoned train station and flood the town, signaling workers to start their second shift. Music of all sorts blasts from their stainless-steel Chinese phone, a soundtrack to their conversation. Suddenly, a song cuts through the air, grinding their conversation to a halt. Not only them, but everyone present is also possessed with an unusual calmness. The air feels thicker, not sorrowful nor joyful. It is Tizita.

The name and the sound

Tizita, in Amharic, translates to "reminiscence," "memory," "longing," or "nostalgia," capturing the essence of the blues. It can also describe a state of zoning out, transported to a different time and place. Furthermore, Dagmawi Woubshet interestingly defines the word with three interconnected meanings: “It can mean, in the first place, memory and the act of memory. Some dictionaries parenthetically add nostalgia, or the memory of loss and longing—and nostalgia certainly evokes the word’s attendant mood, its melancholy, discernible in the way Amharic speakers employ it even in their most quotidian exchanges. Secondly, Tizita refers to one of the scales or modes in secular Ethiopian music, one that conjures up in sonic terms the word’s dictionary meaning. Thirdly, and incorporating the two, Tizita refers to a signature ballad in the Amharic songbook, which always takes the form of an expression of loss.”

Among Ethiopia's four musical scales, Tizita reigns supreme, holding a special place in the Ethiopian heart. It opens with a flurry of notes, grabbing your attention, then ascends like a conversation before descending down the same path, as if listening to you, the listener. It's a tour into where you've once been, a melancholic reflection on the bygone without the pressure to move forward. Tizita beckons you to ride its waves toward a depth usually made inaccessible by the daily cacophony. It is where everything that seemed forgotten reincarnates again in the spotlights of memory. As the unrivaled master of Tizita, Mahmoud Ahmed, sings, “One might bid farewell to love, but its ghost forever lingers in Tizita.” It's a sanctuary where lost love clings to life. Born in the mountainous northern highlands of the Amhara region, Tizita, like the other scales, reflects the rolling hills and valleys of its birthplace. But it goes beyond the physical landscape, unveiling a deeper, universal human experience that transcends ethnicity and geography. This explains Tizita's enduring popularity within and beyond Ethiopia.

The inner landscape and the experience of Tizita

Life's relentless push and pull can trap us in a cycle of running, climbing, and falling. Ethiopians often describe this human condition with the terms "ascending" and "descending." Tizita enters our lives as a space to contemplate these ups and downs, a chance to see where we stand on this spectrum. It allows us to reflect on the changes we've endured and who we've become. Bezawork, in her captivating Tizita, beautifully captures this sentiment: "Days uncover so much, I replaced my own self." These lyrics speak to the constant evolution of our identities, the micro and macro changes that paint the canvas of our lives. 

One of the best accounts I read regarding the experience of Tizita is by Mekda Teshome, who intricately captures the atmosphere of her family listening to a Tizita song during their coffee session: 

“Growing up, when a Tizita song played, I would watch as the chattering adults slowly quieted down and entered a sort of trance. The coffee ceremony, a key staple in any Ethiopian gathering, would stop almost immediately. The clattering sounds of the porcelain china coffee cups and saucers would be replaced with the musings of the singer. Some would stare out the window with glassy eyes, others would lean back and look at the ceiling. The growing smoke coming from the incense burning in the corner of the room was the only proof that time had not stood still. The momentary silence was only punctuated when one of the adults clicked their tongue on the roof of their mouth, as if the past left a bad taste. Although they were physically there, mentally and spiritually I knew they were transported to another time and place.”

That clicking of the tongue, beautifully noticed and mentioned by Mekda, has many different meanings in different languages and cultures across Africa.in Ethiopia, it is an oral manifestation of the feelings of pity, sadness, longing for what’s lost, and even nostalgia. This is why listeners react with that click while listening to Tizita.

The Krar

The krar, a five- or six-stringed lyre, is a staple of Ethiopian music. In the past, it was considered an instrument of the devil due to its association with secular music, contrasting with the bagana, a ten-stringed box lyre used solely for religious hymns. The kraar remains the primary, and earlier the only, instrument used to play Tizita. Traditionally, its strings were made from a cow’s gut, a material that resonates with the Ethiopian belief that the gut houses emotions like longing and nostalgia. Hence the kraar player and legendary tizita singer Asnakech Worku also known as the Lady with the KRAR, addressing this very feeling, sings: "Away with this Masinqo for it is made of tail hairs,, away with this flute for it is river born, get me that KRAR instead, for only a gut can deal with a gut." 

Both men and women play and sing Tizita on the krar simultaneously. This specific technique for playing is called derdera, which involves plucking the strings in accordance with the scale.

Truce

Tizita songs not only guide listeners on a journey of introspection and reflection, but they also offer solace by acknowledging the certainty of change and impermanence. The lyrics are often infused with stoic wisdom, encouraging listeners to embrace resilience. Take, for instance, the late Madingo's Tizita, whose verses like "Despite the pain, I will build again, won’t be seen crying on my burnt one" continue to resonate with many. While some Tizita songs romanticize the past over the present, most strive to forge a truce between the two. They remind us that our current lives are but ripples in a flowing stream, a stream that, according to Michael Balayneh, Tizita allows us to navigate against its current and revisit its source.

It was Mulatu Astatke's Jazz-Tizita fusion, the last note was leaving the scene and everyone seemed lightheaded, but then suddenly, as if applauding their contemplative session, the alarm raids the air with its militarized style. You watch the young men rush to clean their mouths and tighten their belts; in less than a minute, they are gone.

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