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“Sunshine of Eritrea” Tsehaytu Berakhi Laid to Rest in Eritrean Capital after 30 Years of Exile

by Eva Rose Tesfaye on June 1, 2018

After being exiled to the Netherlands for 30 years, Tsehaytu Berakhi is laid to rest in St. Mary’s cemetery in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.

Tsehaytu Berakhi died on May 24th at the age of 79 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. She was a prominent singer, songwriter, dancer, activist, and poet in Eritrea and has been dubbed the “Mother of Eritrean Soul Music” and the “Sunshine of Eritrea.” Her music was most popular in the 60s.

She was a trailblazer for the women in music of Eastern Africa, challenging the conservative outlook on society that was popular at the time. She is up there with other great African musicians of the time, along with Miriam Makeba of South Africa and Bi Kidude of Tanzania. Her songs were mainly about love and politics and brought hope during the struggle for Eritrean independence.

Berakhi was born in the small village of Qitat and moved to Asmara as a baby. She started playing the kirar, an Eritrean instrument that resembles a lyre, as early as 8-years-old.

“My aunt once told us that five krars had been made in Port Sudan; one stayed there, one was sent to Egypt and my aunt brought three to Asmara. One for the legend Ato Berhane Segid, one for Hollanda, the daughter of Halima Konti, and the third on my aunt kept for herself and stored it above the cupboard in our home. My niece Meeraf was very tall and we always asked her to get the krar down for us. So she would fetch the instrument and also she knew how to tune it and all the kids at home would play on it one by one.”

She started out playing for fun but then started playing at parties and weddings. As she got older she would be hired to play and sing at bars to attract men to come to the local beer houses. She quit school on her 16th birthday to play music full time. People would sometimes pay her to record her singing so they could play it in their cars, buses, or tea-houses.

She began writing songs about Eritrea and love songs. One of her inspirations was the singer by the same name, Tsehaytu Zennar. “She was very beautiful and when she sang her nostrils began to move. She sang tender songs like “Annes Ay keremneye Wala Hankas Yekunye” (I need a man as soon as possible, even if he’s crippled),” said Berakhi.

In 1964 and 1965 the songs became more political. She moved to Addis Ababa with other Eritrean musicians, Beyene Fre and Amleset Abay to record their music.

“My favourite song is Freweini (Grape). It is a song about Eritrea, but it also tells about a mother. Love is always loved, one doesn’t forget it. But love for one country is incomparable. A mother and your own country is basically the same.”

In 1974, as the political situation worsened she had trouble making music. She eventually had to flee to Sudan and then eventually reached Rotterdam in 1988.

While in the Netherlands she continued to make music and kept her tradition Eritrean style. She made one of her biggest projects: Selam. It’s a double-CD with more than two and half hours of music, a book with the lyrics to the songs, an interview about her life, culture, and music, as well as old photographs. She also plays all the traditional instruments the kirar, the kobero, and the brass-krar. The project took four years to complete.

 “Many people know me, there are also those who have never seen me but would still like to. But I am proud of the role I played and still play in Eritrean music, when I went to Asmara, I heard that my songs are much respected and they announce me with love. When songs like “May Jah Jah” or “Aba Shawul” are presented, they say; Our Mother left us this legacy.”

Featured Image via Flickr/David Stanley

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Eva Rose Tesfaye
Eva Tesfaye has traveled around the world her whole life but thinks of Africa as home. She loves reading novels and watching plays (especially ones with people of color in them). She has a love-hate relationship with her big curly hair.