Interview with Ermias Begena on the Seifu show. Ten strings hanging from a short bar at the top joined by two parallel sticks and a leather-made sound box at the bottom are the parts of this very ancient and biblically played instrument called the Begena (an instrument that belongs to the family of the lyre.)
Begena, which is also named the Harp of King David, has distinguishing features that differentiate it from the harp. The number of strings, the construction of the wooden frame in which the strings are coiled, and the way the musicians handle it to play are the visible differences that anyone can point out.
Made by the best Begena builder in Ethiopia, this beautiful and historical instrument is used mainly for prayer and ritual ceremonies. The begena is characterized by a very specific buzzing sound, due to U-shaped leather pieces placed between each string and the bridge. The thong for each string is adjusted up or down along the bridge so that the string, when plucked, repeatedly vibrates against the edge of the bridge. This process is also used in the Tanpura.
Because of the instrument’s relatively intimate and sacred role in society, the begena is not common to find. It was played and appreciated during the 1960s and 1970s and started to decline progressively as the country turned to socialism in search of progress and all religious music was banned from the airwaves together with any religious preaching or church rituals. Begena was subscribed as a dying musical instrument confined to a narrow circle of art connoisseurs and high-class people. However, begena came out of the shadows after the establishment of the Yared Music School back in 1972 for a rather brief period.