Friday, April 6, 2012

The Story of Mahletai Yared: The First Black Composer of Sacred Music

Ethiopian Orthodox Liturgic (sacred) music composed by Saint Yared performed at Richmond Folk Festival in 2007.

The great Ethiopian sacred music composer QIDUS (Saint) Yared was born on MEGABIT 27, 497 AMETE MIHRET (April 5, 501 G.C.) in the ancient city of Aksum. His father's name was Adam, whereas his mother's name was Tawkelia. He descended from a line of prominent church scholars. At the age of six, a priest named Yeshaq was assigned as his teacher. However, he turned out to be a poor learner and, as a result, he was sent back to his parents. While he was staying at home, his father passed away and his mother asked her brother, Aba Gedeon, a well known priest-scholar in the church of Aksum Zion, to adopt her son and to take over the responsibility regarding his education.
Aba Gedeon taught The Old and New Testaments. He also translated these and other sacred texts to Ge'ez from Greek, Hebrew and Arabic sources. Even if Aba Gedeon allowed St. Yared to live and study with him, it took him a long time to complete the study of the Book of David. He could not compete with the other children, despite the constant advice he was receiving from his uncle. In fact, he was so poor in his education, kids used to make fun of him.
Realizing that he was not going to be successful with his education, Yared left school and went to Medebay, a town where his another uncle resided. On his way to Medebay, not far from Aksum, he was forced to seek shelter under a tree from a heavy rain, in a place called Maikrah. While he was standing by leaning to the tree, he was immersed in thoughts about his poor performance in his education and his inability to compete with his peers. Suddenly, he noticed an ant, which tried to climb the tree with a load of a seed. The ant carrying a piece of food item made six attempts to climb the tree without success. However, at the seventh trial, the ant was able to successfully climb the tree and unloaded the food item at its destination. Yared watched the whole incident very closely and attentively; he was touched by the determined acts of the ant. He then thought about the accomplishment of this little creature and then pondered why he lacked patience to succeed in his own schooling.
He got a valuable lesson from the ant. In fact, he cried hard and then underwent self-criticism. The ant became his source of inspiration and he decided to return back to school. He realized the advice he received from his uncle was a useful advice to guide him in life. He begged Aba Gedeon to forgive him for his past carelessness. He also asked him to give him one more chance. He wants all the lessons and he is ready to learn.
His teacher, Aba Gedeon then began to teach him the Book of David. Yared not only was taking the lessons, but every day he would stop at Aksum Zion church to pray and to beg his God to show him the light. His prayer was answered and he turned out to be a good student. Within a short period of time, he showed a remarkable progress and his friends noticed the change in him. They were impressed and started to admire him. He completed the Old and New Testaments lessons at a much faster pace. He also finished the rest of lessons ahead of schedule and graduated to become a Deacon. He was fluent in Hebrew and Greek, apart from Ge'ez. Yared became as educated as his uncle and by the young age of fourteen, he was forced to assume the position of his uncle when he died.
Yared's Zema is mythologized and sacralized to the extent that the composition is seen as a special gift from heaven. One version of the mythology is presented in Ethiopian book Sinkisar, a philosophical treatise, as follows: "When God sought praise on earth, he sent down birds from heaven in the images of angels so that they would teach Yared the music of the heavens in Ge'ez language.
With his song, he praised the natural world, the heavens and the Zion. He called the song Mahlete Aryam, which means the highest, referring to the seventh gates of heaven, where God resides. Yared, guided by the Holy Spirit, he saw the angels using drums, horns, sistra, Masinko and harp and tau-cross staff instruments to accompany their songs of praise to God, he decided to adopt these instruments to all the church music and chants.
The chants are usually chanted in conjunction with aquaquam or sacred dance. The following instruments are used for Zema and aquaquam combination: Tau-cross staff, sistra and drum. Yared pioneered an enduring tradition of Zema. Aquaquam and Qene. These are musical, dance and literary traditions that continue to inform the spiritual and material well being of a significant segment of the Ethiopian population.
The work of Yared gave Ethiopia the gift of music from the 6th century onwards. However, because of Ethiopia's hundreds of years of isolation from the outside world, due acclaim has not been given to St. Yared as a great contributor to the system of modern music and poetry as given to those such as Hayden Bach and Mozart who emerged over a thousand years after him in Europe. However, in his own country he is recognized as a musical genius and the patron saint of many churches in Addis Ababa, Mekelle, RasDashen, etc. The history of Saint Yared is found in the book written about his life called Dirsane Gedl Ze Quidus Yared (Story of the struggle of St. Yared), in many religious books and in the Kibre Negest (Glory of the Kings). All these books praise the superb quality of the chants of Saint Yared. The music school in Addis Ababa has been named after Saint Yared and a religious school in the city of Aksum also bears his name. St. Yared died at the age of 66 on May 20, 571 A.D. in a cave below the Semien mountain where he had been accustomed to teach.

This abridged & slightly edited version of Saint Yared’s biographical sketch is compiled from the following sources:
St. Yared - the great Ethiopian composer. By Ayele Bekerie. Tadias Online Magazine. August 09, 2008. (accessed 07/31/’09)
Ethiopian civilization. By Belai Gedai.


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