Tigrinya is a Semitic language spoken in central Eritrea and in Ethiopia and Israel by approximately 5 million people. It is closely related to Tigre and descended from Ge’ez, an ancient language of the Horn of Africa. One of the longest poetic traditions in the world, much of Tigrinya poetry is oral; recitations remain very much a part of contemporary Eritrean culture. Tigrinya poetry was first published by Italian scholars during colonization. Notable works include Tigrinya Popular Songs (1906), collected by Carlos Conti Rossini and featuring the genres masse (historical praise poems), melke (poems for the recently deceased), and dog’a (poems of mourning). Additional dog’a were collected by Jacques Faïtlovitch and published in Habasha Poetry. AbbaIsaak Ghebreyesus published Legends, Stories and Proverbs of the Ancestors in 1949 which included a hundred stories, 3300 proverbs, and various poems. More recently, poetry in Tigrinya has been written by Solomon Tsehaye, Saba Kidane, and the pioneering Reesom Haile, who modernized many oral forms. Contemporary Tigrinya poets are featured with those working in Tigre and Arabic in the recent anthology Who Needs a Story? (2005) edited by Ghirmai Negash and Charles Cantalupo.
A very popular oral poem, Negusse, Negusse is about a legendary hero called Negusse. The events narrated in the 169-line Tigrinya text are believed to have taken place around the 1880s, just about a decade before the Italian colonization of Eritrea. According to AbbaIsaak Gebreyesus, Negusse was initially a rebel but, because of his bravery and fighting skills, was acknowledged by the court of Ras Weldemichael, later becoming his general and then a chief of his own clan among the peoples of the region of Akeleguzai in Eritrea. In 1879, Negusse was killed in a battle, which was set in motion by a popular revolt of his own clan against his tyrannical and oppressive style of rule. Growing up in Eritrea, co-translator Ghirmai Negash heard this poem being sung and performed on many occasions – including by his grandmother who was a chronicler of oral tradition. Over the years, the poem, whose symbolism is interpreted as being relevant to all times, has been recited and documented by different performers and researchers and thus exists in different versions. This translation is based on the poem’s published version by Gebreyesus: Negusse, Negusse, Weiza Alem Blashe (Asmara, 1995).
City Lore presents:
Negusse, Negusse – The World Falls Apart
An Excerpt from the Tigrinya Oral Epic
March 29, 2008
Bowery Poetry Club, New York City
With Performances By:
Ghirmai Negash (Tigrinya)
Charles Cantalupo (English)
Yosief Negusie (Kirar)
To read the poem in Tigrinya and English (translation by Dr. Ghirmai Negash and Dr. Charles Cantalupo), please click here.