Alemu Aga (Megabi Sebhat)

[work in progress]

Alemu Aga Robe was born in the Shiro Meda area of Addis Ababa in 1950. He started learning and playing the በገና (bagana; ‘box lyre’) at the age of twelve while he was a student at the Amha Desta (later renamed Entoto Amba) Elementary School. Alemu’s neighbour and bagana teacher was Aleqa (‘Master’) Tessema Wolde-Amanuel. Aleqa Tessema had been ordered by Emperor Haile Selassie I to come to Addis Ababa to teach him and promising students to play bagana.

The bagana is also known as the Ethiopian Harp or the Harp of David. Tradition tells the harp came to Ethiopia during the times of King Solomon of Israel and Queen Sheba of Ethiopia (almost 3000 years ago). For centuries, this 10-string instrument has been used by Ethiopian kings and queens and in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for prayer and meditation. Many listeners find the sound of the bagana soothing, calming, humbling and soul-searching.

The bagana is not played during the liturgy. It is a solo instrument never performed together with other sacred musical instruments such as sistrum and kebero (double-headed drum), let alone secular instruments like krar (bowl-shaped lyre) or masenqo (bowed lute). The bagana is regularly broadcast on the radio during Lent.

There are two types of bagana songs: salamta (‘greetings’) uses biblical or doctrinal (Q: confessional?) texts, whereas samena warq (‘wax and gold’) denotes short double-layered poems. The themes of Alemu Aga’s bagana songs include God’s glory and His works, the Trinity and creation, human being’s mortality, Christology (incarnation, crucifixion, second coming), the symbolism of the bagana, the Lord’s Prayer and the life of Emperor Tewodros II.  

Alemu Aga does not write new lyrics but uses mainly the Amharic songbook of the 20th century Ethiopian Orthodox theologian Admassu Jembere (Mälʾakä Bǝrhan). Alemu Aga is a role model in that he spares no effort to learn from wise theologians. As a result, his songs are theologically deep and profound.

Alemu Aga earned a degree in geography at Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University) in 1972 and then taught at Yared School of Music for eight years. He introduced the bagana class but stopped teaching in public and opened a shop when the anti-religious regime banned the bagana in 1980.

In _ _ _ (year?), Alemu Aga restarted playing the bagana for listeners both in Ethiopia and abroad. He performed at more than 60 music festivals in Africa, Europe and North America. His English, French and Italian language skills helped him introduce bagana music and songs to an international audience.

Alemu Aga was bestowed the ecclesiastical title መጋቢ ስብሃት (Megabi Sebhat; ‘_ _ _’ [Engl. equivalent?]) by two bishops in _ _ _ (year?). Alemu Aga is a member of the World Harp Congress, representing Ethiopia and the bagana. His recordings, performances, teachings, mentoring and research were instrumental in reviving bagana songs in Ethiopia and beyond.

Albums (solo)

[Arranged according to the year the album was released]

(1 [?]) _ _ _ [title in Ethio-Semitic characters] (‘_ _ _’ [Engl. translation]). Cassette recorded by J.-Ch. Meissonnier and released by Ambassel Music, Video & Electronics. Addis Ababa, 1994 (or 2011?) [year according to GC].

(courtesy Alemu Aga)
(courtesy Alemu Aga)

Cassette republished as CD:

(2) Falceto, Francis, text and ed. (1995 [?]). Alemu Aga. Bägänna of Ethiopia: The Harp of King David. CD released by Long Distance, Montreuil (France).

(3) In 2002 [?] republished in the series Ethiopiques, no. 11 (Paris: Buda Musique). [Image of the CD cover see below (Audio, Album)]

(4) _ _ _ (title? year?) VCD recorded for private use by _ _ _, Addis Ababa.

(5)_ _ _ [editor?] (2018). Alemu Aga: Keto Aikerim Motu. CD released by Fuego, _ _ _ [Place?]. [Image of the CD cover see below (Audio, Album)]

Albums (collective)

(Only collective albums with more than 2 tracks from Alemu Aga)

(6) _ _ _ (‘_ _ _’ [Engl. transl. of the title]). By Alemu Aga and Demissie Desta. Recorded by the Radio Station [Q: which? live?], Addis Ababa _ _ _ [year in GC?].

[During the Ethiopian Revolution, the Ministry of Information was about to destroy the cassette. However, the EOTC managed to rescue the master copy and publish the cassette]

[image of cover?]

(7) _ _ _ (‘_ _ _’ [Engl. transl. of the title]). By Alemu Aga and Habtemichael Demissie (Masinko player and singer). Recorded / Released by _ _ _, Addis Ababa _ _ _ [year in GC?].

[Medina & Zelesegna style (_ _ _ (explanation ?)]

[image of cover?]

(8 [order of collective albums?]) Kimberlin, Cynthia, ed. (1985). Ethiopia: Three cordophone traditions (An anthology of African music) [title also given in French]. UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music of the World, LP. Volume 14. BM 30 SL 2314. Bärenreiter Musicaphon.

[Music recorded in 1972 while Alemu Aga was teacher at Yared School of Music. Digital edition by Smithsonian Folkways Recording, 2014 [Image of the CD cover see below (Audio, Album)]

(9) Budde, Pit, ed. (1996). Asnakech Worku, Alemu Aga. Ende Jerusalem: Traditional Music from Ethiopia. CD released by Acoustic Music Records, Sordino Musikverlag, Osnabrück (Germany).

(from AcousticMusic.de)

Local edition:

(10 [= 9?]) Editor? (1995_ _ year?). እንደ ኢየሩሳሌም (Ende Eyerusalem; _ _ _). Cassette released by _ _ _ , Addis Ababa.

(11) Weisser, Stéphanie, ed. (2006). Ethiopie. Chants de Bagana. Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire LXXVIII/VDE 1206. Geneva. [2 tracks from Alemu Aga]

(from discogs.com)

(12) Alemu Aga, Seyoum Mengistu, Admassu Fikre and Tafesse Tesfaye (2009). The Begenna of Elders: The Harp of David in Ethiopia. CD released by Laika Records, Bremen (Germany).

(from amazon.com)

(13) Gebre Yohannes (2020). Ethiopian Orthodox Mezmur. CD released by _ _ _, _ _ _. [10 tracks by Alemu Aga; s. entry on Deezer]

Databases

» Check Discogs entry

» Check last.fm entry

Audio (commercial & freemium)

» Check Alemu Aga’s tracks on Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer and Qobuz

Audio (YouTube)

Albums

(?? which album ??)
Three Cordophone Traditions; recorded in 1972
(Use playlist on YouTube; Alemu Aga’s pieces include
Selamta, Fäbälähala, Abba gran motä, Mädägäna zäläsana bätbaze and
Instrumental Melody)
(éthiopiques series, vol. 11; use playlist on YouTube)
(Keto Aikerim Motu; use playlist on YouTube)

Teachings

Alemu Aga on Chewata Eangda
(Sheger 102.1 fm; posted in 2018)

Video

Documentary

Interviews

English Interview about the Begenna, part 1 (posted in 2011)
Interview, part 2 (posted in 2011)
Presentation and interview in Amharic
(posted by Ethio Tewahdo News in 2017)
መጋቤ ስብሃት አለሙ አጋ በፋና ግለሰብ
(Fana Television; posted in 2020)

Pictures

(courtesy Alemu Aga)

Lyrics

Admassu Jembere (_ _ _ [Year?]). መዝሙረ ሐዋዝ ዘምስለ መሰንቆ ሃይማኖት እንተ ለብሰዋ ሰማዕት (“Sweet Song which is with the Lyre, that Faith that the Martyrs Put on” [translation?]). Addis Ababa: Tinsae Zegubae Printing Press. [read online]

Admassu Jembere (1914). የበገናመዝሙር ምስጢረ ሃይማኖት ዘይነግር (“Bagana Songs and Religious Secrets”). N.p

» For an English translation of selected songs and their
music notation, see Timkehet Teffera (2019).

For further reading

Alemu Aga (2000). “The Begenna — A Unique Cultural Heritage”, Institute of Ethiopian Studies Bulletin 21-22: 5-12.

Kimberlin, Cynthia Tse (2003). “Bägäna”, in: S. Uhlig (ed.), Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. 1, p. 436 – 438. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Lacombe, Claire (2007). “Éthiopie, les chants de bagana”, Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie 20: 355-357. [Review of album ed. by S. Weisser; read online version]

Timkehet Teffera (2019). “Perception, Interpretation, and Spirituality: The Tranquilizing Sound of the Ethiopian Box Lyre Bägäna and its Revival”, in: G. Jähnichen (ed.), Studia Instrumentorum Musicae Popularis (New Series) 6: 301-346. Berlin: Logos.

» Read online

Weisser, Stéphanie (2005). Etude ethnomusicologique du bagana, lyre d’Ethiopie. PhD dissertation. Brussels (Belgium): Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Weisser, Stéphanie (2007). “Le bagana, instrument de musique et de prière amhara (Éthiopie)”, Annales d’Éthiopie 23: 61-76.

» Read online

— Tekletsadik Belachew