By Makda Teshome
Tizita (ትዝታ)is a huge concept in Ethiopian culture. The direct English translation of the word is “nostalgia” and can often be referred to as a mode of music in Ethiopia or, like the blues, can describe how someone is feeling. Growing up when a Tizita song played, I would watch as the chattering adults slowly quieted down and enter a sort of trance. The coffee ceremony, a key staple in any Ethiopian gathering, would stop almost immediately. The clattering sounds of the porcelain china coffee cups and saucers would be replaced with the musings of the singer. Some would stare out the window with glassy eyes, others would lean back and look at the ceiling. The growing smoke coming from the incense burning in the corner of the room was the only proof that time had not stood still. The momentary silence was only punctuated when one of the adults clicked their tongue on the roof of their mouth, as if the past left a bad taste. Although they were physically there, mentally, and spiritually I knew they were transported to another time and place.
Tizita was also a way for my mom and me to connect as it served as an entry point into Ethiopian songs and history. I am not fluent in my tribal language of Tigrinya, or Ethiopia’s national language of Amharic, but it was through these songs that I began to learn the latter; oftentimes asking my mom to help translate them for me. While searching for Tizita songs I began to be introduced to classic Ethiopian singers like Tilahun Gessesse and Bizunesh Bekele. Their songs became a sort of portal to me; an entrance into the country my parents immigrated from.
Too young to understand the meaning of the song I would play the music on my speakers and sing along with Mahumoud Ahmed, the King of Tizita. When he sang about a soured romance, his voice would strain so much it was almost like he was pleading with Father Time to give him a chance to go back to the past.
There were moments, however, when the songs were too much for my mom to hear. I would often play Ethiopian songs from the 60s-80s to make the monotonous nature of doing chores a little easier. I remember sweeping the kitchen floor once while my mom did the dishes. The songs that were playing up to that point were light and fun, filled with blaring saxophones and upbeat drums. My mom and I spoke while taking a moment here and there to dance to a song. Suddenly, Tizita started to play, and as the melancholic opening piano notes streamed out of my speakers my mom froze. “Not now,” she said as I turned off the music. “You’ll understand when you get older,” she whispered, returning to washing the dishes.
I finally experienced Tizita when I visited my old elementary school last year. It’s a relatively small school in Scarborough (there were only 35 kids in my graduating class), with one incredibly long floor that takes up a good amount of real estate. However, it was behind the school that mattered to us kids. There was a huge field that had 2 baseball diamonds, a decent playground area, and multiple basketball hoops. It was here where I found myself stuck between the past and the present. Ghosts of my former classmates and I gossiping under a tree at the far end of the field appeared. I looked at the area where the Grade 1-3’s greeted their parents at the end of the day and remembered when friends and I would build snow forts in the dead of winter during recess. It all felt so real to me that I went up to touch the brick wall when I heard a group of boys yell. When I turned around the ghosts vanished and were replaced by middle school kids playing basketball. I looked at the playground and saw young children on the swings. I wondered: Do they have their own designated tree to relax under during recess? That was when I realized that many of the kids were staring back at me, questioning who I was. The kids didn’t know of these memories and probably had their own traditions. Feeling nostalgia for a place that was no longer mine felt like a betrayal.
Tizita can create an environment that makes you feel like you can touch the past, only for it all to be a mirage.
Click here to read more about music and memories: Flight of the Bumblebee & Classical Qawwali: unparalleled inspiration
Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art:
- Ethiopia: through writers’ eyes by Yves-Marie Stranger
- The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories by Hama Tuma
Makda Teshome is a young Ethiopian Canadian who is interested in telling stories that relate to the experiences of children of immigrants. She believes that there are not enough stories centered around this experience and hopes to show the beautiful complexities that come with being a second-generation immigrant through her writing. A fairly new writer, she is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto where she got her B.A. in History and Criminology.