Today, we’re featuring songs played on one of the Anywaa traditional musical instruments, a five-string lyre called the thoom.
There are actually two types of thoom in Anywaa culture: this lyre and the lamellophone. According to thoom virtuoso, Ochan Omaan, the lyre thoom ( “the big one,” as I’ve heard some call it) was adapted by the Anywaa from the Majangir, a neighboring ethnic group in Gambella region. You’ll also notice that this thoom bears many similarities to what the Amhara people call the krar. Since these different groups have long histories of interaction with one another through trade, travel, and other circumstances, it is likely that there is also a history of musical influence and different adaptations of this lyre. According to Ochan, however, the style of playing the lyre is different amongst the Anywaa from these other groups.
As for Ochan, he has been playing the thoom since around 1980. His teacher was none other than the late Kot Ojullu, a renown Anywaa musician who worked for Ethiopia’s Ras Theatre traditional music group. Kot Ojullu was the first to bring the Anywaa musical instruments to Ethiopia’s national stage, which is pretty impressive.
Ochan is originally from Gok but is currently living in Pinyudo, and we made the trip from Gambella wereda to go see him. There, with the help of Ojho and John Omod, we recorded several songs with him, which we have now made available for our dear readers (you’re welcome!)
This first song is called “Ngato Dwöt Cengnge,” which can be translated approximately, “The one who is sitting idly” (literally, it means someone who is sitting with their hands crossed on their laps, not doing anything). The song was composed during the Derg era, around 1980, to encourage people to work.
Transcription (in dha-Anywaa) and Translation
Ngato dwöt cengnge ni köö nee ngäätha kwac bung kare kany
A person who sits without working, expecting to beg from others
Käla ruun ni gïn tïïë kiper dëërë bungö mo løny
It is obvious that they will not get anything for themselves
(Chorus) Käla kari ni jøw bwödhö ge ba tïm dëëtge tïmma wäätge
It is obvious that those who came before us were working for their children
Pwøc odööng re jøw lämmï noo odööng cään ni poot nywölï
Lucky is the coming generation that is not yet born
Cam jammi ki bunga acaara cam bäänyö duunö ki can
Consuming everything like the locusts will only bring poverty
Bee eni ni tïïc paani no odööng cään ni bungï jammi
This is the reason why this country is still in poverty
Ngat ba cädö kiper tuung ge møøk mo lämmï ni poot nyøøli
Those who are not thinking about the next generation
Kare diiny ki yaa atutge cung yie bung køny ki tuung ge
They are worthless in their village, because they do not support their relatives
This next song is an older one, from Emperor Haile Selassie’s era. Ochan dates it to around 1951. The title is “Ajanynyi kiper ngø,” which means, “Why are you insulting me?” In traditional Anywaa culture, a man could not marry unless he had sisters, because the dowry that a man received for his sisters would be the same dowry that he would use to pay for his wife. The composer of this song, Acurr, had no sisters, and so people insulted him when he decided to get married, because he was a poor person. According to Ochan, his wife’s family decided to give their daughter to him when they heard this song, even though he did not have the dowry.
These next three songs (compiled into a playlist) are dancing songs, “Aleenga,” “Abööngö,” and “Yia awarø,” respectively. “Aleenga” is the first song that is performed at cultural dances, a sort of introductory composition. “Abööngö” follows, sung while people process in line to the dancing area. “Yia awarø” (which means, “happiness”) is in the okaama genre, and people dance in pairs for this song, a sort of courtship dance. This dance is less common now, though many people in different Anywaa areas are still familiar with the song. Ochan here is joined by Awaath to help with the singing.
Ochan loves playing the thoom, saying, “Whenever I play it, I feel so happy.” Sadly, however, the art of playing these Anywaa instruments is becoming lost. Only a few old men still play them, and the younger generations are not learning and sustaining these traditions. Ochan hopes to be able to teach others how to play, so that these songs and playing techniques will be carried into the next generation.
“Through this thoom and this gift, I think they will learn something,” he said, “It will ignite some kind of spirit that will allow them to compose their own song that they can play on [the] thoom.”
We certainly hope that some younger folks start picking up the thoom to keep this tradition alive. In the meantime, we’ll continue to record these traditions and talk to the Anywaa elders to preserve these important cultural practices and histories.