As part of a tribute to Ari Up on his website Jon Savage wrote: “Very little in popular culture has ever approached this ferocity, and certainly almost nothing by young women. The things that then we took for granted now seem like the actions of a few, very brave (and/or foolhardy) young musicians ...” I love the Slits, and I understand what Jon means. The language, however, seemed absurdly incongruous having just finished reading Michela Wrong’s I Didn’t Do It For You and Amrit Wilson’s The Challenge Road: Women And The Eritrean Revolution. Is bravery kicking up a fuss in front of a hall full of The Clash’s fans? Or is it leaving your family and home to join up with fighters in Eritrea’s mountain regions to participate fully in the struggle against Ethiopia’s occupation of your country?
I confess I would ordinarily be likely to read more about the Slits’ adventures close to home than modern African history. But the clips of Eritrean revolutionary songs which I had been posting as part of the Anywhere Else But Here Today project had really captured my imagination. I was ashamed that I knew next to nothing about Eritrea and its revolution, while simultaneously finding these pieces of film so incredibly inspiring and uplifting. Very simply, these clips fired me up as much as, say, old footage of the Voices Of East Harlem or yeah the Slits. So I started reading up on my Eritrean history.
Michela Wrong’s book about Eritrea and “how the world used and abused a small African nation” is a great read. She makes her subject matter accessible and, dare I say it, entertaining. Such great writing should not be taken for granted. Michela in a riveting way tackles the events leading up to the 30-year Eritrean struggle for independence, the war itself, and the way Eritrea has developed in recent years since it won its ‘freedom’. She rightly wins a ringing endorsement from John Le Carré along the way.
I was struck how from a western punk perspective we have grown up on a musical diet of reggae, where it was usual to hear hymns of praise to Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia. At the height of roots reggae creativity the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was leading a struggle against the Ethiopian authorities which under Ras Tafari had annexed Eritrea with the tacit blessing of the West. Ethiopia and Eritrea had been freed from fascist Italy control during WW2 but the subsequent conduct of the UK and US was pretty shameful. Then Haile Selassie’s administration was overthrown by a Marxist coup, with the subsequent regime’s resistance to the EPLF being backed by Soviet military might. It is little short of astonishing that the EPLF did win its struggle in true David v Goliath fashion.
Michela gently mocks the ‘true believers’ in the West who did fall under the spell of the EPLF’s idealism during its struggle. But reading sections of her book it’s hard not to become a ‘true believer’. What the fighters achieved in their Spartan mountain strongholds is astonishing and inspiring, despite being dismissed by Washington as ‘commies’ and by Moscow as irritating mischief makers. The focus on education, culture, health and equality was, for example, spot on. The fact that the revolution may not have created quite the sort of society today the freedom fighters might have dreamed of should not devalue the ideals. I think it’s in Arnold Wesker’s East End trilogy that there’s a line about how it’s people that go wrong not beliefs.
The Challenge Road, the Amrit Wilson book on women’s role in the struggle, was published in 1991 when the illogical victory of the EPLF was nigh. It focuses on some of the astonishing stories women had to tell about their activities as fighters in the mountains, undercover guerrillas in the cities, doctors, nurses, technicians, teachers and so on during this revolution. It is often reported how a third or so of the fighters in the revolution were women, and there is plenty of documentary evidence to bear this out. There is also a film that was made recently called Looking For The Sun about the way women in Eritrea participated fully in the struggle. This seems ‘braver’ than confronting a macho punk crowd.
Many of the clips on YouTube of Eritrean Revolutionary Songs feature the same female bass player, and many feature very powerful female vocal performances. And yet the role of music in the struggle hardly features in the books that I’ve mentioned, which from a personal perspective is frustrating. I’ve found very little on the internet on the subject, with the exception of an essay by Luwam Thomas on The Role of Music in the Eritrean Struggle for Independence. In it he writes: “One of the multiple functions was that music was also an outlet for women and played a great role in the emancipation of women.” More generally music was used for propaganda purposes, to increase political consciousness, increase patriotism, and to raise morale.
The music featured in the clips, I believe, was made by members of the EPLF’s Cultural Troupe. Some of the singers are still active today. Others became ‘martyrs’, dying as ‘tegadelti’ or freedom fighters during the struggle. It would be fascinating to know more about how the distinctive music preserved in these film clips came to sound the way it did. There are, naturally, similarities with the Ethiopian sounds ‘salvaged’ in the wonderful multi-volume Ethiopiques series, but this is wonderful, infectious music which I dearly wish could be ‘salvaged’ in the same way. I understand a lot of these songs were issued on a series of EPLF cassettes, but I doubt many have survived. African music is very well represented on the web, but I have yet to find any of these cassettes posted. There are, however, a couple of cassettes from the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (the TPLF – a similar organisation fighting to gain independence for Tigrea, a province within Ethiopia itself, which was for a while allied to the EPLF) which are wonderful artefacts.
The other intriguing thing about these Eritrean revolutionary songs is the subject matter itself. A couple of songs are posted on YouTube, thankfully, with a little lyrical translation which gives us a valuable insight into the themes. So I will leave you with this (deep soul ballad) song by Tanki, one of the stars of our Eritrean sequence.