Greetings from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia! And welcome to our inaugural research blog entry. Today’s post is on Anywaa religious music, brought to you by Apay Ojullo Aballa, a singer in the Anywaa church.
So, who are the Anywaa? They are an ethnic group from the Gambella region in Western Ethiopia and across the border in South Sudan. “Anywaa” is their preferred spelling, but you may also see “Anuak” or “Anyuak.” All refer to the same people group.
The Anywaa are originally from the Gambella region in western Ethiopia (and some live across the border in South Sudan), but can be found living throughout the world, from Kenya to Minneapolis. They speak a Nilotic language, but, unlike many of their semi-nomadic Nilotic neighbors, have traditionally lived as cultivators. Consequently, those in the countryside in Gambella region usually live along rivers, where they have easy access to water and fertile soil for their maize and sorghum crops.
Beredi or ina bida neber is how they greet one another in Anywaa, to which one responds, t’hem. If you ever visit an Anywaa household, be sure to remember your manners and say ina pwa, “Thank you.”
According to Apay, the word “Anywaa” comes from “Nyuak,” which pertains to a shared way of life and togetherness: eating together, sharing everything with one another (although, dare I say, eating together is an important way of life across many, if not all, regions of Ethiopia).
This post focuses primarily on Anywaa religious music, as I had the great privilege to meet several people in the Anywaa Christian community upon arriving in Addis this year and even attended a church service on June 5. Some Anywaa still follow indigenous belief systems, but many converted to Protestant Christianity when missionaries came in the 1950s. Christianity comprises an important part of life for the Anywaa whom I have met in Addis, and music is an integral component of connecting to and expressing their faith.
Apay identifies three main genres within Anywaa religious music. Two of them are traditional, the obeero (may also be spelled “obero”) and the agwaa-ga (also spelled “agwaga” or “agwaaga”). The third category is basically everything else that does not fall within the obeero and agwaa-ga genres. This third category especially borrows freely from outside musical influences: what people hear in the cities, on the radio, et cetera.
Note the shape of how the music progresses: they start with voices and clapping, then increase in intensity when the drums enter, and end with a decrescendo. Also note the different rhythms used for the obero and the agwaa-ga. We’ll do another post on Anywaa rhythms later, probably after I have visited Gambella region, where they tell me the drums are of a better quality and timbre.
The obeero and the agwaa-ga were not always used in the church. According to Osterland, whose 1978 dissertation was written on the subject of Anywaa music (see bibliography), obeeros were sometimes composed as praise songs for an elderly or deceased chief prior to the introduction of Christianity. In addition to praise, they may also contain commentary on social life and advice for the community. Now, in the church, the obeero is a song to sing “while thinking” (in Apay’s words). The lyrics may include how God can save you or rescue you from an ill-fated situation. According to Osterland, the agwaa-ga was most often a war song, telling of warriors’ brave exploits and praising their strength and deeds (and possibly including threats to neighboring villages). According to Apay, the agwaa-ga in the church praise God and often address how God has defeated Satan. Osterland notes that these genres were already being modified and used in the church during his brief fieldwork stay in the 1970s, so it seems this has continued through the present day. According to Apay, secular obeero and agwaa-ga are still performed in Gambella.
Apay knows the obeero and agwaa-ga genres and also composes his own songs in his own style. He’s provided us with an example of each, including texts and translations.
This obeero that Apay sang is from his father’s time, before there were “normal songs” (meaning, everything was composed in the indigenous Anywaa genres). This song was composed by Okwori Ojulu, and the song is well-known amongst the older generation. Young people are less familiar with it, preferring more modern styles. However, Apay believes this obeero is important for the Anywaa, because it allows Christianity to be contextualized in Anywaa culture. He first heard it when he was young and said, “This song captured my heart and made me to convert to Christianity. When I sing it, I can [remember] the time that I accepted Jesus Christ.”
The agwaa-ga that he sang is also from his father’s generation; he believes it was written somewhere between the 1950s and now, and we later found out that it was composed by Oman Abey. Like the obeero, this song is also well-known amongst older people but less so amongst the youth. Apay believes the agwaa-ga are especially hard for the youth to learn because the tempo is fast, and it is difficult for them to follow along when it is sung in the church services. Apay believes that the younger generation should still acquaint themselves with the obero and agwaga repertory, because, “To praise God in a deep way, we need to think about our culture…although there is a modern way, we still also need to think about how we can praise God in the way that we can feel…[that] God is for us [the Anywaa], and also with us.”
Apay sings this particular song when he is upset, because, “It can stir up my emotions…I can feel the presence of God…although I do not feel well, I can feel I am healthy [when I sing this agwaga].”
The final song is written by Apay himself, who is a prolific composer and has recorded two albums. This song falls into the third category of religious music, which is neither obeero nor agwaa-ga but a synthesis of Apay’s musical influences.
That concludes our post for today! Be sure to read the profile of our contributor, Apay. I have also included a bibliography for the academic sources I consulted if you are interested in further reading. Feel free to comment, ask questions, or contribute your own knowledge on this subject. Look forward to future posts on Anywaa music as this research progresses, although there may be unfortunate lapses in updates due to limited internet access, especially when I am on the road or spending time in more remote towns. Tiru no for now (“Goodbye” in Anywaa)!
Today’s post would not have been possible without the extensive knowledge and skills of our friend, Apay Ojulo Aballa. He lived in Gambella region up until four years ago, when he moved to Addis Ababa for school. He was born in the countryside, about 140 kilometers away from Gambella town. In grade twelve, he moved to the town, where he worked as a watchman (guard) for Mekane Yesus Church for a year, after which he was sent to Addis Ababa for his studies. He has just now graduated with a four-year degree in theology from Mekane Yesus Seminary.
He started singing when he was a child, though he didn’t realize at the time that he had a gift. His relatives encouraged him, telling him that his father was a singer and had passed the gift on to him. After that, he became a singer in the church, then began writing his own songs. He said inspiration for his songs may strike at any time, even walking along in the street. Singing is essential for his well-being, as he cannot go for too long without singing without feeling frustrated. His dream for the future includes starting a music studio in Gambella and continuing to compose and record original music for the church and the Anywaa people.
Feyissa, Dereje. 2011. Playing Different Games: The Paradox of Anywaa and Nuer Identification Strategies in the Gambella Region, Ethiopia. New York: Berghahn Books.
Osterland, David Conrad. 1978. “The Anuak Tribe of South Western Ethiopia: A Study of Its Music within the Context of its Socio-Cultural Setting.” University of Wisconsin, Ph.D. Diss.