February 7, 2021

How Kassmasse stole our hearts with his ጋቢ and Tizita

Creative ArtsOpinion

Dr. Dagmawi Wubshet tells us that the word Tizita has three related

Avatar: Mistire Mesfin
By Mistire Mesfin

BA in International Affairs and currently residing in the United States.

How Kassmasse stole our hearts with his ጋቢ and Tizita

Dr. Dagmawi Wubshet tells us that the word Tizita has three related meanings in the Ethiopian language. The first is memory, the act of memory, and nostalgia, and the second is one of Ethiopian scale or modes [kigñit] of music, the third is a combination of the two meanings, Tizita refers to a ballad in Amharic songs which takes the form of an expression of loss. 

Understanding the above definition is key to see why and how Kassmasse stole our hearts with his debut album titled Maleda. The image on the album cover shows the artist dressed in Gabi/ጋቢ overlooking what seems to be the skyline of the Adwa mountains. It is a place that directly connects to the pride of being Ethiopian, as the site of victory which signified the fight and liberation against colonization. We see these types of imageries in popular Ethiopian literature, artworks, and movie covers. For example, the movie poster for Lamb by Yared Zeleke, the book cover for Oromay by Bealu Girma, and paintings were done by Mezgebu Tessema show the subjects overlooking similar skylines of the Ethiopian Highlands. It shows the emotional connection we have to Ethiopia's rolling highlands, and it continues to emphasize that for Ethiopians, they are not just mountains but rather a lookbook of our history in which these highlands have served us many different ways.

This album taps into the “homegrown nationalism” and the sense of belonging to a 3000-year-old state. Beginning with the title “Maleda” - the early hours of the day where the darkness of the night departs for the sunrise - it already promises us of a new bright day and future without getting started on listening to the full album. The album kicks things off with the intro- titled Andegna that sets the tone for how we are going to feel about the rest of the music. This intro has a feeling of antiquity as it pays homage to the past through the sampling of a BBC’s documentary titled Under the African Skies. 

Ethiopia from the 1980s followed by the cascading of Munaye Munaye by Aster Aweke. In the dialogue, we hear a group of men discussing Ethiopian music, its evolution, and its contribution to the rest of the world. The key takeaway here being the evolving space from one generation to the next. “On the other hand, we want to retain that cultural value that makes that music Ethiopian. You can’t eat and keep the cake. If it’s gonna be Ethiopian music, it’s not gonna be palatable.” “But the point is development and unfoldment will happen. It will unfold, and it will grow”. Using this specific conversation as part of the introduction to the album, Kassmasse is showing us that he is going to be part of the “unfoldment” mentioned in the dialogue. 

His music is described as a fusion of the Ethiopian modes Ambassel and Tizita with international rhythms to create a new kind of genre called ANTSAR. Here, the creation of ANTSAR seems like it was crafted with delicacy by producers and songwriters involved. It continues the narrative of borrowing from the past to create something new for the future. In a recent interview with Kana TV’s Hashtag Time program, the producers mention that they have in fact been working on this album for about 5 years now.

Andegna is also a term that is used to give gratification to being first placed on the podium, and here Kassmasse seems to be questioning the placement of our world as third [“የኛ ዓለም ሦስተኛ?”] He is questioning the general view of the western world towards the global south. The second song Maleda evokes that feeling of being part of the 3000-year-old state mentioned above by stating “እናት ሀገር ትኑር ለኛ/Long live the motherland [for us]” in the chorus of the song. Given the current socio-political climate, the personification of Ethiopia as a mother captures that certain feeling of wanting to protect and love one's country. The song also adds on a call for abolishing materialistic greed and focuses on the common sense of love and togetherness.

Throughout the whole album, the attention to lyrics, presentation, sequencing from one song to the next and instrumentation shows the attention to detail of the artist. The songs are not extremely traditional or extremely westernized but perfectly blended to have listeners of all ages tuned in. In an article written by Hewan Semon Marye titled Ityopyawinnät and Addis Abäba’s Popular Music Scene, Marye tells us that notable musicians from past generations call the current music industry ‘ጩኸት ብቻ’ (‘ ḵät bǝčča’, ‘just noise’), because although the new musicians constantly alluded to Ethiopia in songs, the musicians rarely contribute meaningfully to improving the socio-economic and political conditions Ethiopians find themselves in. Kassmasse might have just raised the bar for a lot of these new musicians given that the album’s lyricism shows his in depth knowledge of the industry and his utmost respect to the musicians from that golden age/ወርቃማዎቹ.

Overall, it is quite hard to believe that this masterpiece is Kassmasse’s first work introduced to us. The attention to detail and craftsmanship has earned this album a substantial replay value. In an era of YouTube videos, where we don’t really see new Ethiopian artists diving into an album without making their introductory single release, Kassmasse has proved he is here for the long run. And based on the popularity and traction he has been receiving on social media from listeners, it's not so hard to assume that he has got more great projects up his sleeve.