Thanks to our tutor for sharing this interesting article
St. Yared was a poet, composer and choreographer who lived in Aksum in the 6th century AD. He is attributed for inventing the zema or the chant tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and also for creating a system of musical notation long before other parts of the world.
His music has been used for almost 1,500 years and traces can be found in some other religious music thanks to the travels of missionaries around the ancient world. It also informs much of modern music – apparently Ethiopian popular singer, Theodros Kassahun (Teddy Afro, here is his facebook page) traces the geneaology of his music back to the saint in his (Ethiopian) millennium song Musika Heiwete (Music is My Life).
People who learn Amharic in London are often interested to learn more about Ethiopian language and culture and St Yared is a seminal force in world music.
A poor student inspired by an ant
St Yared was born on 5 April 501 AD in Aksum and at the age of 6 a priest was assigned to teach him but he was a poor student and was sent back to his parents. His father passed away and St Yared was adopted by his uncle, Aba Gedeon, who was a well-known priest-scholar. However, he still lagged far behind the other students, got mocked and even lashed. He got discouraged with school and on his way to live with another uncle was caught by a rainstorm under a tree. “While he was standing by leaning to the tree, he was immersed in thoughts about his poor performance in his education and his inability to compete with his peers. Suddenly, he noticed an ant, which tried to climb the tree with a load of a seed. The ant carrying a piece of food item made six attempts to climb the tree without success. However, at the seventh trial, the ant was able to successfully climb the tree and unloaded the food item at its destination. Yared watched the whole incident very closely and attentively; he was touched by the determined acts of the ant. He then thought about the accomplishment of this little creature and then pondered why he lacked patience to succeed in his own schooling.”
He headed back to school and his uncle forgave him and started teaching him the Book of David and after much effort and prayer he started to make progress and his friends saw the change. He started to overtake other students as he learned the Old and New Testaments and became fluent in Ge’ez, Hebrew and Greek, becoming a Deacon and taking over his uncle’s role after he died when Yared was only 14 years old.
Three little birds
According to Ethiopian legend, St.Yared obtained the three main Zema scores from three birds. He called them Ge’ez, Izil, and Araray. When he was waiting in ambush to kill someone he saw the birds and started to learn the singing, forgetting his mission. He began to wonder how he could become a singer like the birds and kept the melodies of the birds, fresh in his memory, while he practiced hard.
Yared transformed himself to a great singer and composer as well as choreographer, composing the zema from 548 to 568 AD.
Apparently Yared also went up to heaven, where 24 scholars conduct the heavenly choruses and he listened and committed the music to memory. He came back to Aksum and at 9am, stood beside the Tabot (The Arc of the Covenant) in Aksum Zion Church and raised his hands to heaven, singing in praise of the natural world, the heavens and Zion, and in high notes, which later labeled Mahlete Aryam (the highest), referring to the seventh gates of heaven, where God resides. Yared, guided by the Holy Spirit, saw angels using drums, horns, sistra, Masinko and harp and tau-cross staff instruments to accompany their songs of praise to God, so he decided to adopt these instruments to all the church music and chants.
The chants are usually chanted in conjunction with aquaquam or sacred dance.
St Yared composed chants for all natural and spiritual occasions, laying down the foundation for common purpose and plurality among various ethnic, linguistic and regional groupings of the Ethiopian people.
Emperor Gebre Mesqel, Aksum at its peak
The Ethiopian emperor of the time was Emperor Gebre Mesqel (515-529), the son of the famous Emperor Kaleb, who in successfully, though briefly, reunited western and eastern Ethiopia on both sides of the Red Sea in 525 AD. He ruled at the peak of Aksumite civilization, presiding over large international trade from within and outside Africa, and consciously promoted good governance and church scholarship
Emperor Gabra Masqal was a great supporter of the arts and gave unconditional and unlimited backing to St. Yared, often going to church to listen to his spending chants. was given unconditional and unlimited backing from him. The Emperor would go to church to listen to the splendid chants of St. Yared. He reportedly built the monastery of Debre Damo, where one of the nine saints from Syria, Abuna Aregawi, settled. St Yared visited and performed his Zema at the monastery.
Setting a musical heritage that is still strong today
St Yared’s compositions follow the three musical scales (kegnitoch), which he used to praise his Creator and are reported to contain all the possible musical scales:
Ge’ez, first and straight note. It is described in its musical style as hard and imposing. Scholars often refer to it as dry and devoid of sweet melody.
Izel, melodic, gentle and sweet note, which is often chanted after Ge’ez. It is also described as affective tone suggesting intimation and tenderness.
Ararai, third and melodious and melancholic note often chanted on somber moments, such as fasting and funeral mass.
According to tradition, the scales are symbolized as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
St Yared wrote the notes of the Digua on parchment and he also composed ten musical notations which were fully developed as musical written charts in the 17th century AD. This took place much earlier than the composition of the musical note using seven alphabetic letters within the Western tradition. St Yared named the ten musical notations as follows: Yizet, Deret, Rikrik, Difat, Cheret, Qenat, Hidet, Qurt, Dirs, and, Anbir. The ten notations have their own styles of arrangement and they are collectively called Sirey, which means lead notations or roots to chants. The notations are depicted with lines or chiretoch (marks).
The ten Zemawi notations are designed to correspond with the ten commandments of Genesis and the ten strings of harp. The notes, however, were not restricted to them. In addition, they have developed notations known as aganin, seyaf, akfa, difa, gifa, fiz, ayayez, chenger, mewgat, goshmet, zentil, aqematil, anqetqit, netiq, techan, and nesey.
The ten chants are assigned names that fully described the range, scale and depth of Zema. Difat is a method of chanting where the voice is suppressed down in the throat and inhaling air. Hidet is a chant by stretching one’s voice; it is resembled to a major highway or a continuous water flow in a creek. Qinat is the highlighted last letter of a chant; it is chanted loud and upward in a dramatic manner and ends abruptly. Yizet is when letters or words are emphasized with louder chant in another wise regular reading form of chant. Qurt is a break from an extended chant that is achieved by withholding breathing. Chiret also highlights with louder notes letters or words in between regular readings of the text. The highlighted chant is conducted for a longer period of time. Rikrik is a layered and multiple chants conducted to prolong the chant. Diret is a form of chant that comes out of the chest. These eight chant forms have non-alphabetic signs. The remaining two are dirs and anber which are represented by Ethiopic or Ge’ez letters.
Yared’s composition also includes four main modes of chant and performance. Qum Zema is exclusively vocal and the chant is not accompanied by body movement or swinging of the tau-cross staff. The chant is usually performed at the time of lent. Zimame chants are accompanied by body movements and choreographed swinging of the staff. Merged, which is further divided into Neus Merged and Abiy Merged are chanted accompanied by sistrum, drums, and shebsheba or sacred dance. The movements are fast, faster and fastest in merged, Neus Merged, and abiy merged respectively. Abiy Merged is further enhanced by rhythmic hand clappings. Tsifat chant highlights the drummers who move back and forth and around the Debteras. They also jump up and down, particularly with joyous occasions like Easter and Christmas.
The author writes: “St. Yared’s sacred music is truly classical, for it has been in use for over 1,000 years and it has also established a tradition that continues to inform the spiritual and material lives of the people.” The first school of music that was established in the mid 20th century in Addis Ababa is named after him.
For more, look at the original article, which you can find on tadias.com, which has many articles of interest to students who want to learn Amharic in UK. It is written by Professor Ayele Bekerie who is author of Ethiopic: an African Writing System, a book about the history and principles of Ethiopic (Ge’ez) and is a Professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center. Here is the link to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church telling of the story, with more explanation about the melodies: http://www.ethiopianorthodoxchurch.org/saint_yared.html.
You can buy Prof Ayele’s book here