Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

Ethiopia (Beta Israel/Falasha)

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9. Ethiopia (Beta Israel/Falasha).

The community today known as the Ethiopian Jews has historically been known in Ethiopia itself by two names, ‘Beta Israel’ (‘House of Israel’) and ‘Falasha’. Thought to descend from indigenous Agau peoples, the Ethiopian Jewish community apparently emerged out of a complex interaction with Judaized Ethiopian Christian monks in the 14th and 15th centuries. The first, isolated reference to the Beta Israel occurs in a 15th-century Ethiopian source; subsequent evidence proliferates only from the 16th century onwards. There is no documented contact between the Beta Israel and Jews of other traditions before the mid-19th century, and sustained relationships with other Jewish communities began only in the early 20th century.

The textual, liturgical and musical content of the traditional Beta Israel liturgy, the outcome of the complex Beta Israel history in Ethiopia (itself the subject of a vast literature), varies significantly from universal Jewish models; its origins seem to lie in traditions inherited from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (see Ethiopia, §II). No literary or musical genres corresponding to the piyyut and related paraliturgical chants were known in the Beta Israel community, nor was there any cyclical recitation of the Bible. The liturgical texts, which can be dated from the 14th century onwards, are in classical Ethiopic (Ge‘ez), which was also shared by the Christian Church, occasionally interspersed with an indigenous Cushitic language (Agau); no Hebrew was known or used by the Beta Israel until its introduction by Western Jews in the mid-20th century. The Beta Israel observed a short morning ritual (sebhata negh) and evening service (wāzēmā) daily, as well as more elaborate liturgies beginning well before dawn on annual Holy Days and extending through the night on important fasts.

While there are prayer texts preserved in manuscripts and a small Beta Israel literature (non-liturgical), the liturgy and its music was learnt and performed exclusively as a sung oral tradition. Until the 20th century, liturgical transmission was guided primarily by Beta Israel monks and performed by specially trained musicians (dabtarā). With the decline of these divisions of the clergy, responsibility for liturgical and religious practice was assumed by ordained priests (qēs), who performed all the music. By the 20th century the male congregation could not participate actively because they did not understand Ge‘ez. Traditionally women played no role in Beta Israel worship.

Beta Israel liturgical melodies, known as zēmā, supported the performance of lengthy, primarily strophic, texts paraphrasing the Bible and the Psalms. As late as the 1970s, Beta Israel priests still performed the complete liturgy in village prayerhouses and were able to name three categories of zēmā, two of which (kaffettaññā: ‘high’, ‘lofty’, and qwāmi: ‘steady’, ‘usual’) could be defined through ethnographic observation and analysis of recordings. Kaffetaññā zēmā is based on a hemitonic pentatonic pitch set, while qwāmi zēmā may be described as outlining a series of 3rds of variable inflection. Ex.29 is a transcription of the prayer ‘Kalhu kwellu malā’ekt’ (‘All the angels proclaimed’); set in qwāmi zēmā it is sung before dawn as part of the Night Office on weekdays, Sabbaths and Holy Days (it also occurs in the Ethiopian Orthodox church liturgy).

Except on the Sabbath and fast days, much of the liturgy was accompanied by a repeated five-beat rhythm played on the kettledrum (nagārit) and metal gong (qachel); some prayers are sung in a free rhythm. Unison or heterophonic textures dominated the liturgy, often performed in antiphony; on Holy Days the priests sometimes joined together in liturgical dance.

Changes in Beta Israel religious life throughout the 20th century culminated in the migration of the entire community to Israel by the early 1990s. Active transmission of the musical liturgy in Israel is limited. Excerpts are occasionally performed by elderly clergy in private and at public events, but most Ethiopian Jews have tended to join existing synagogues and to adopt the Hebrew liturgy.

Studio recordings have been made in Israel at the National Sound Archives of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A few published recordings and a collection of field tapes deposited in the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music provide documentation of the Beta Israel musical tradition during its final decades in Ethiopia. Recent research on the Ethiopian Christian zēmā provides further insights into musical and liturgical concepts and structures once shared by the Beta Israel.

Jewish music, §III: Liturgical and paraliturgical

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