BHMF Music: An Afternoon with Musician Yoisef Teklay and the Eritrean Guitar

Yosief Tecklay doesn’t just perform with his guitar, he tells a story.

On Sunday afternoon I entered the Boomker Sound studio and felt as though I had been transported to a world, meticulously designed and crafted for the sole purpose of harnessing creative energy. The walls were plastered with a haphazard arrangement of photographs, CD covers and drawings — hand-crafted wooden artifacts aligned the walls, a disco ball hung from the ceiling, but yet, not a single component of the interior seemed out of place.

After waiting a few minutes for the sound to be set up, we entered the recording room, greeted by another interesting but less eccentric space. Wooden accents on the walls and ceiling were illuminated just right as the dim yellow light of the room created a serene ambiance. And there was Yosief in the center of the room with his Eritrean guitar, fidgeting a bit in his seat, his nervous energy emanating through the room as we waited in anticipation.

Using a zip tie as a guitar pic, he began strumming casually, trying to find his footing. For such a small and humble-looking instrument, the sound was distinct and polished, and created a heavy pulse that dissipated the tense energy of the room.

The Eritrean guitar, also known as the krar, has an interesting history. Said to originate in Egypt, it was a symbol of patriotism and a sound of the battlefield, used as a means to give strength and courage to warriors. In contrast, it was also considered “the devil’s instrument” said to tempt sexual desire. He showcased this very versatile nature of the instrument, playing in varied intensities sometimes playing a rhythm that could be easily danced to while also playing rhythms that appeared to be a reflection of deeper subject matter.

And then Yosief added his vocals, the soothing yet solemn sound of his voice, juxtaposed with the very upbeat rhythm of the guitar actually created a unexpected but beautiful pairing.

After a few songs Yosief paused to relay his story to his audience with an almost unsettling casualness. Born in Eritrea, he fled at the age of 14 from a dictatorship that obliged everyone to military service. He fled to Ethiopia, where he stayed in a refugee camp for nine months awaiting documents. Then he left to go to Sudan, and spent a month passing deserts into Libya where he spent three months. He arrived in Italy via Lampedusa where he stayed in a camp again awaiting documents. He finally arrived in Florence, but was unable to find stable employment, so he left to go to Denmark where he stayed for over a year.

And after hearing his story I couldn’t help but draw a connection between the rawness of his voice, the sweet but sad melody of the guitar and the tumultuous nature of his journey. Yosief’s musical prowess extended beyond his skill on the guitar. I felt a connection between the intesity with which he played and his personal story. As he switched melodies and strummed with increasing intensity I was forced to think about the intensity of such a journey, and how that emotion must fuel his craft.

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