Begana: It’s used mainly in religious festivities almost exclusively, but Temesgen Hussein is breaking with tradition and introducing the begena to contemporary music.

By Mercedes Mejia (Michigan Radio) |

As part of our Songs from Studio East series we’re exploring music that combines both contemporary and traditional music from around the globe.

Today we meet Temesgen Hussein of East Lansing. He was born and raised in Ethiopia. And he’s one of just a few outside that country who plays the begena.

It’s used mainly in religious festivities almost exclusively, but Temesgen Hussein is breaking with tradition and introducing the begena to contemporary music.

The buzzing sound is what makes this harp unique. Not only does the begena sound different, it looks really different.

It’s made of dark solid wood and stands about 4 feet tall. At the top of the frame is a cross bar where the strings are tied to wooden tuning pegs.

“It’s a 10 stringed harp. The strings are gut strings. And it has a square box at the bottom. And the strings are tied at the bottom of that box. That’s the sound box,” said Temesgen Hussein, who in his day job is an architect.

The box is covered with stretched hide. Like a guitar the instrument has a bridge, but there’s something else.

“And on that bridge are leather pieces they’re also known as buzzers. That’s to use an English word because they create the buzzing sound of the begena that you don’t hear in any other instrument.”

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In Ethiopia, the begena is mainly used in meditation and prayer in the home. Temesgen says it’s a very private ritual.

“For example the popular prayer, Our Father, our Lord ’s Prayer — in Amharic there’s a version of it and there’s a song that sings that prayer. So when you choose, you can sit down and pray, meaning play Our Father on the begena.”

The instrument is very much connected with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It’s rare, even for people in Ethiopia to hear it. That’s because begena songs are heard only once a year during Lent. Sometimes the songs can go on for an hour.

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