Music plays an important role in diaspora communities. It unifies its members, it creates moments of remembrance and, as Valentina Monsurrò argues in this commentary, it also acts as a tool for political control. The ethnomusicologist describes the case of the Festival Eritrea Bologna in Italy, the most important event in the Eritrean diaspora, as located somewhere between nationalist propaganda and ethnic identity.
Eritrea is inhabited by nine recognized ethnic groups, each group having its own language, religion, and musical traditions. Since the gaining of independence from Ethiopia, the government has been promoting a public image of Eritrean society as unified across regional and national borders. Nevertheless, the history of the Bologna Festival in Italy sheds light on unbalanced power relations between Eritrean ethnic groups and shows how music reflects and mediates them. The festival was started in the 1970s in order to raise funds for the liberation struggle and since then it has become the most important event in the diaspora. The following video features Berhe Gile Meshesh performing at the festival in 1990.
When the Eritrean government turned into a dictatorship, the festival’s role shifted from providing moral and financial support to the war-torn country to acting as a propaganda tool for the regime, with musicians acting as cultural ambassadors of Eritrea and conveying patriotic messages to the audience.
Resisting Dominant Nationalist Narratives
The lack of participation from minority groups at government organized events reflects their marginalisation within Eritrean society. Ali Abdullah Ahmad is a Saho musician based in London. Saho is the third largest ethnic group in Eritrea and represents about the 4% of its total population. Ahmad left Eritrea at a young age, moved to Sudan and then to the UK. He refers to the ideology of «self-reliance» (i.e. the government’s reluctance to accept foreign aid) to explain how home politics affect music-making in the diaspora:
Don’t listen to foreign music, don’t eat foreign food, don’t dress foreign dress (…) There is a dominant culture in Eritrea now which is Tigrinya (…) If you go to any music shop, if you look for Eritrean music, you will find a hundred CDs of Tigrinya music, but you will hardly find Saho music in the shelf.
Even though Ali’s songs have no overt political commentary, his decision to sing in Saho, rather than other languages that are more widely spoken among Eritreans, may be seen as an act of resistance to dominant nationalist narratives. His melodies combine tradition and modernity, while his lyrics create awareness about the importance of preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the Saho community. The following song, for example, appeals to Saho parents to teach children their language, in order to preserve it for generations to come.
Growing Criticism and Resentment in the Diaspora
Either by fostering nationalist views or working as a marker of cultural identity in contrast with the dominant ideology, music making in the diaspora is highly affected by Eritrean politics. However, in July 2014 a demonstration organized by dissident groups in Bologna led the municipality to retire its support to the Eritrean diaspora festival, which during the last decades had become increasingly controversial. This event suggests that criticism and resentment are growing in the diaspora. It furthermore raises questions about how music can, in turn, have an impact on politics back home by contributing to fight censorship and re-earn dissident Eritreans’ freedom to express their views.