This next installment on the Anywaa church music series is especially exciting because it is brought to you by an individual who knows almost all of the obeero and agwaa-ga in the Anywaa songbook. His name is Pastor Ochati Ogatu, and here he is leading the church congregation in Gambella in an agwaa-ga (Ochati is the one in the blue shirt leading the singing):
Ochati comes from an area called Pokwo (also called Akedo), where the first Presbyterian Mission was founded by Don McClure. McClure and company came from Sudan and set up a church and clinic around 1950, when Ochati was a young boy. This was the first missionary activity among the Anywaa. The American missionaries trained a few Anywaa converts (Rev. Agway Ochudho, Kwot Otielo, Cuuro Ojwaay, Ajilaaba Obang Owaaro Omaan and Achiik Omot) to carry out mission activities amongst their people. At first, the worship service used western hymns translated into the Anywaa language, but Anywaa began to compose their own Christian obeero and agwaa-ga within the first few years of the missionaries’ arrival. One of the converted missionaries, Achiik Omot, actually, is also one of the composers of the obeero and agwaa-ga in the Anywaa Christian songbook, which he began to create soon after his own conversion.
“It didn’t take too long for the Anywaa to compose those songs,” Ochati said. “Because, obeero and agwaa-ga [were already] there in the culture. What they did was compose different ones with a new message, which is the message from the Bible.”
You remember from our first post that obeero and agwaa-ga are originally secular genres and were adapted for Christianity after the missionaries came. “During that time before the missionaries came, when obeero was composed or agwaa-ga, it’s for the king, you know,” Ochati said. “If the king is good, they can compose this obeero for the king expressing their happiness for his leadership. When [people] composed those songs, they prepared an occasion for the king, to come and dance. And those songs would be sung at that time.” These traditional genres were also used to advise people how to live, sometimes encouraging them to make peace together or sometimes inciting them to warfare against neighboring peoples.
Carol Templin, one of the missionaries at Pokwo, noted in the 1970s that, “The area of greatest creativity in the Anuak [now spelled Anywaa] church has been their drum hymns, which have all been created by the Anuak churches” (quoted in Osterlund 340). Although the missionaries translated some Western hymns into Anywaa, the indigenous genres were the ones that were the most popular within the church. If you take note of the functions of the secular obeero and agwaa-ga, it’s really not hard to see how they could be tweaked to become Christian songs: one simply needs to praise God instead of the chief, incite warfare against the devil instead of neighboring tribes, and use the songs’ advising function to tell their community to live a Christian lifestyle. Even some of the “normal” (what Apay calls any Anywaa song not composed as an obeero or agwaa-ga) Anywaa Christian songs still reflect some of these themes. Ariet composed her song, “Tiiyu Meer Yi Beenho Man En,” for example, to advise the congregation to live peacefully with one another.
Ochati proposed an exciting project to us: to record all the obeero and the agwaa-ga in the Anywaa songbook and make them available online to preserve them for future generations. “The problem is,” he said, “I feel like there is no one who can write a kind of song like this right now. The people who wrote it, the majority of them are dead already. So, I feel like if the synod does nothing about it, we are going to lose them very soon. Because, the book we have, we are losing even right now…because, you know, those people who composed them, their legacy is very wonderful. So we need to keep it for our own future, for our own future generations.”
We’re all about it, Ochati. Ojho and I spent three straight days with Ochati in Gambella town, recording all the obeero and agwaa-ga that he knows and documenting their composers. When we found there were some that Ochati couldn’t remember, Ojho suggested we go to nearby town Abobo, in search of one of the composers himself, Okwori Ojulu Oman (who we’re going to feature a future post, by the way!). We recorded several more with Okwori and managed to document 34 of the 42 obeero and 52 of the 57 agwaa-ga. They are now available at this dropbox link, as well as a pdf listing the titles, composer, and singer.
And, as a bonus, Ojho even translated one of these songs for us! This is agwaa-ga #7, titled, “Jwok awuuo eni na teek”, composed by Meeri Okeelo.
God, the Father, the mighty one, who unites all people and unites people in his way
Don’t let your heart get upset
The helper, he is the only father to us
Our God, who has a long hand [to reach and save us]
All the nations praise him,
Our God who helps people
All nations are safe because of him and his mighty power.
When the sun rose up [when the gospel came], we remembered how we lived with a sinful nature, and we were upset because we were in darkness before
We call the name of Jesus, and we read the Bible, the word of life. Jesus has called you to go and preach his word to people, to every nation. The mighty God sends the rain through faith, God the almighty one. God of heaven is mighty. He washed us with his precious blood, and God helps us
We are asking you Jesus to forgive us, and surely God will forgive us.
The songbook Ochati is holding, by the way, is written in the Amharic script. The Anywaa language, prior to the 1950s, was not written down, since the Anywaa had primarily an aural/oral culture. When a writing system for the Anywaa language was first being developed in the Imperial era, Haile Selassie required the Anywaa language to be written in the Amharic script (an indigenous Ethiopian writing system in the northern highlands). Now, the Anywaa language is written using a modified Latin alphabet. I’m guessing, then, that Ochati’s book must be at least forty years old. Pretty cool!
Osterlund, David Conrad. 1978. “The Anuak tribe of South Western Ethiopia: A Study of its Music within the Context of its Socio-cultural Setting.” Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.