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The Mysterious Tsenatsil

Posted by addisethiopia / አዲስ ኢትዮጵያ on June 6, 2012

Idiophones – Tsenatsil

“speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:19

በመዝሙርና በዝማሬ በመንፈሳዊም ቅኔ እርስ በርሳችሁ ተነጋገሩ፤ ለጌታ በልባችሁ ተቀኙና ዘምሩኤፌ. ፭፡፲፱

By the late Dr. Ashenafi Kebede (R.I.P)

The Ethiopian and Egyptian sistrums are probably the oldest and best known idiophone types. Both are made of three or four metal rods that are horizontally drawn through a bow or U- shaped frame with a handle. They are of wood, porcelain, or pottery; the more recent standard type is made of metal. Both are equipped with movable discs, threaded on the rods, which jingle or clash when the instrument is shaken. It is interesting to note here that these ancient sistrums of African origin later spread to Greece, Rome, and other cultures around the Mediterranean as well as to other countries on the African continent. The sistrum used in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Churches as well as in the Fellasha Synagogues are known as tsenatsil. Its social function is evidenced by its popularity in many Jewish Communities of North Africa, and the Middle and Near East, where it accompanies exclusively sacred chants. It is also interesting to indicate here that the four jingling metal bars on the sistrum are linked with the elements of nature: fire, water, air, and earth. In most of the cults, the sistrum was identified with votive power. The sistra of contemporary Ethiopia are strictly religious instruments played only by male deacons and priests to accompany sacred chants. In this case, close relationships exist.

Tsenatsil – a sistrum made of three or four metal rods that are horizontally drawn through a bow or U- shaped frame with a handle        

The Tsenatsil is found in both Ethiopian and Jewish musical practices; in both cultures, it is played by male priests. Metallic idiophones had a universal role of protecting the bearer against evil spirits. In many oriental cultures of Africa and the Near East, for example, jingles are used in the rites of initiation and circumcision. This extra-musical roles associated and interrelated with magic and religion are by no means limited to the non-European world. It is also practiced in Europe; in A.D. 900, for example, Pope John IX ordered that bells be used in the Catholic Church as a defense against thunder and lightning. It is edifying to know the roles musical instruments play in religious, magical, and other symbolic services in societies, east and west.

According to gedle (biography), Ethiopia’s great ecclesiastic composer, poet, and priest, Saint Yared, was born in Axum ca. 496 (Ethiopian Calendar). Yared received educational and moral guidance from his uncle Gaidiwon who was then reputed to be a scholarly priest. Moreover, it is claimed that Yared was taken to Heaven where he was taught by three Holy Spirits, the arts of vocal performance, composition, poetry, versification and improvisation. Yared arranged and composed hymns for each season of the year, for summer and winter and spring and autumn, for festivals and Sabbaths, and for the days of the Angels, the Prophets, the Martyrs and the Righteous.

Mesmerized by the music, the Emperor accidentally dropped his spear into the flat part of Yared’s foot. Yared often sang for Emperor Gebre Meskel. “And when they heard the sound of his voice,” his Gedle (biography) tells us, “the king and the queen, and the bishop and the priests, and the king’s nobles, ran to the church, and they spent the day listening to him.” And one day Saint Yared sang in front of Emperor Gebre Meskel accompanied by drums, sistra, and male priests. Mesmerized by the music, the Emperor accidentally dropped his spear into the flat part of Yared’s foot. (See picture of Yared.) The Emperor was grieved by the pain he had inflicted on his spiritual friend. He said: “Ask me whatever reward thou wishest in return for this thy blood which hath been shed.” Yared made the Emperor promise that he would not refuse his request. Having accomplished that, Yared asked and was reluctantly granted permission to live in solitude and to dedicate his life to prayer, meditation, and to his music. He departed from Axum and went to the Semien mountains where he lived until his disappearance. According to our recent research among Ethiopian scholars, there is a general claim that he did not die, and that he will come back in the future to perform, preach, and teach. He was sainted after his disappearance.

One day Saint Yared sang in front of Emperor Gebre Meskel accompanied by drums, sistra, and male priests.

Additional information: St. Yared theological seminary

Traditional Musical Instruments of the Ethiopian Nation

Begena – a lyre with a box-shaped resonator

Embilta – a set of individual one-tubed end-blown pipes, each of a different size and name

Kebero – a large double-headed cylindrical drum made of a hollowed-out log

Kirar – a lyre with a bowl-shaped resonator

Masinqo – a bowed lute, a type of fiddle, with a diamond-shaped resonator that is covered with skin on both sides

                                                                  Washint – an end-blown flute

This boy goes every other day to the very same spot to chill out in the mountains and play his favorite instrument. He kind of reminds me! 

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