One Man’s Attempt to Capture Ethiopian Armenians’ Dying Legacy

Lilly Torosyan
4/8/2012

TEZETA is a song form famous in Ethno-Jazz. In Amharic (the language of Ethiopia), it translates to ‘my memory,’ but it means much more. It conveys a sense of nostalgia that can be lost in translation,” describes Aramazt Kalayjian, an independent documentary filmmaker living and working in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His documentary, “TEZETA [The Ethiopian Armenians],” explores the collective memory of Ethiopian-Armenians from their own perspectives, as well as others touched by their profound legacy. He aims to reveal the contributions Armenians have made to Ethiopian culture through the narrative of music and the large role they played in modern Ethiopian jazz.

Despite his disconnection physically and genealogically to Ethiopia, Kalayjian feels a profound connection to all Armenian communities in exile from their nonexistent homeland in Turkey. The unique history of Armenians in Ethiopia—namely, the story of the Arba Lijoch, the 40 Armenian orphans of the genocide who were adopted by King Selassie to be his imperial orchestra, and their contribution to modern Ethiopian music—ignited Kalayjian’s curiosity. “I am not a descendant of the Arba Lijoch,” he told the Armenian Weekly, “but I am a passionate and profound music lover, which is one of the factors driving me to produce this documentary.”

Kalayjian says that his intention is not to prevent the inevitable, that is, the decline of the number of Armenians in Ethiopia. “My documentary simply seeks to tell the phenomenal story of the Armenians of Ethiopia. It will describe the great historical and musical contributions Armenians have had in Ethiopia and bear witness to their current situation,” he explains. However, the bleak situation of the diminishing Armenian community is acknowledged though several examples, such as the country’s only Armenian church, St. Kevork, lacking a priest and a sermon. The deacon of St. Kevork’s is Vartkes Nalbandian, the son of Nerses Nalbandian—a jazz musician and instructor who wrote the first anthem of the African Union, and the great-nephew of Kevork Nalbandian, composer of the first Ethiopian national anthem, which was played until 1974 when the socialists overthrew the monarchy.

Corresponding to the Armenians’ rich involvement in the nation’s music scene, a few Ethiopian musicians have spoken candidly about the legacy of the Armenians, with warm words about the pint-sized community and its vast accomplishments. Alèmayèhu Eshèté, a prominent jazz singer endearingly called the Elvis Presley of Ethiopia, gave glowing praise to his mentor, the aforementioned Nerses Nalbandian, whom he considered as his “second father.”

Unfortunately, Eshèté remains in the minority. “Most Ethiopian lay people, as well as Armenians outside of Ethiopia, are simply unaware of the incredible contributions of Armenian Ethiopians on Ethiopian culture,” Kalayjian disappointedly notes. “Some Ethiopians see an Armenian and assume they are either European, American, or any other ‘Faranji’ (literally meaning ‘French,’ used to describe a foreigner, or ‘odar’ in Armenian). Armenians see this as a nuisance because in their heart, they feel Ethiopian and have lived [in Ethiopia] all of their lives. The only difference is the color of their skin and many people on the street won’t assume their generational presence in Ethiopia,” the filmmaker says.

Kalayjian seeks to “herald and preserve the great contributions Armenians have impressed on the cultural, musical, and historical landscape of Ethiopia” through his documentary, which stands a tough chance of being broadcasted.

In order for the documentary to meet its budget for production, Kalayjian needs to meet his fundraising goal of $10,000 by this Thurs., Aug. 9. Contributors may pledge varying amounts, with different prizes at each benchmark, on the project’s personal webpage, where preliminary interviews for the documentary are also posted. For more information about TEZETA and the Kickstarter fundraiser, visit Kickstarter.com and type “Armenian” in the search bar, or follow this link: www.kickstarter.com/projects/552004009/t-e-z-e-t-a-the-ethiopian-armenians.

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