In the memoir A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey by Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Shelemay describes her experiences of traveling to Ethiopia. As an American graduate student in 1973, she studied ethnomusicology and became interested in the music of the Falashas, a Jewish community located in Ethiopia with Israeli culture. To truly study the music, she decided to travel to Ethiopia and learn first hand about the culture. While she was there, she learned about the relationship between the Ethiopian Christians and Jews only to realize that the two cultures have a lot of similarities.
While in Ethiopia, she spent time in the highlands working on her dissertation and learned the gender roles of the society. The women were mainly in charge of staying in the kitchen and keeping up with the household chores, so from the beginning of her stay, she started interacting with the men in order to have access to most parts of the religious experiences, for if she were to socialize with the women more, they would look down on her for her interactions with the men. After some time, she went into Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where she met with a well-known Jewish businessman, Jack Shelemay, with the intention of learning about Jewish culture in Ethiopia. They developed a romantic relationship, which put her project on hold for a little. During her stay, the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 began, which made it unsafe for her to return to the highlands to continue her project. She reoriented her dissertation to include the Christian culture as well as the Jewish traditions.
When Shelemay first arrived in the highlands, she was warned that there could be trouble, which refers to local spirits that could harm someone. In order to protect the community against these spirits, the village would have zar rituals. She was told that since she wasn’t from the village, and she was a woman, she could easily be a target. Although she was never invited to attend these rituals, she could always here the loud drumming that occurred (31). The highlands were mostly fields, so in order to keep the birds and the prey away from the crops, often the washint, a four-holed bamboo flute was played (30). Music was often used during religious ceremonies as well. Before the ceremony began, a priest would ring a repetitive rhythm on a flat, circular metal gong as a way to announce that the service was about to begin, and everyone should attend (39). The service continues with two-sided singing, where the second group would repeat the verse the first group sang. The instruments associated with this were often the drum and the gong in a steady rhythm. The society mainly uses music in rituals and religious services, while primarily using drums and gongs in these events.
The author did not necessarily discuss the music of the culture most of the time, but rather she talked about her journey and reflections as she did her research and the daily life during her stay. Since she was writing her dissertation about the music of the culture at the same time, the majority of the musical aspects are possibly in her project, rather than her experience itself. Shelemay ended up marrying a successful Jewish businessman from Ethiopia, so her thoughts could have been easily swayed to show everything in a better light. As she continued to live in Ethiopia during the first part of the war, she still depicted Ethiopia in a positive manner, with only criticizing the rebel troops.
I do not think I understand the society better after reading about the music in A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey because I don’t feel like Shelemay talked about the music enough, but rather she focused on her personal life within the village, and after she got married. I do believe I learned a lot about the culture itself and the history of the Ethiopian Jews and Christians from readying this memoir.
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