Composer Mohammed Saleh Hussein:“Loving a Profession that I hated and was Forced Into”
Most people probably know him for his lively and animated actions while conducting orchestras. One of the few but most prominent Eritrean music composers and instructors, Mohammed Saleh Hussein was born in 1974 in the village of Habereda, in the Gash Barka Region and went to the Revolution School very young at the age of ten. Excerpts of an interview with Mohammed Saleh follow:
How did you join the struggle?
People say that a freedom fighter by the name of Yosuf, who knew me as a child, took me with him and put me in the Revolution School in Arareb.
And how was school?
In Arareb, only when education in the Tigre language started a year and a half later in 1986 did I start going to school and had reached sixth grade when independence came. Before that I was only a shepherd back when I was in Habereda and had no education.
That made you a shepherd for how long?
Well, I used to go out with my uncle and tend after animals when I was around four or five years old. I was a shepherd up until I was about nine.
And how do you remember that life?
It was a free life with nothing to worry about except the well being of your livestock. You would get considered a hero if your animals reproduced and augmented in number. You had no pressure whatsoever and you didn’t have to worry about school or anything. So it was really great.
OK, back to your days at the Revolution School… how were you in school?
The day I started school is one of the happiest days of my life. I was a hardworking student and always strived to excel from my fellow schoolmates. I was one of the best until independence.
After that, frankly speaking, I wasn’t that good in school. I had started seventh grade but, having decided that education was just a waste of time, I quit. And then I started again and began paying more attention but when at the end of the year I stood tenth (I was expecting to be third – a prize winner) I got angry and cut school for a while. Anyway, I somehow completed my high school education.
And how was it that you got into music?
I was always the bouncy type when I was young. And because of that my teachers said that I belonged to the cultural division and put me there when I was only a second grader at the Revolution School. I didn’t like that at all because I never thought of music or the profession in general as something important.
What happened next?
I had to accept it, I had no choice. After about a year we were given musical instruments and mine was a Kirar. However, I used to cut its strings deliberately over complaints that I didn’t get one of the glittering instruments like the trumpets or saxophones. So I was given a recorder. But even then I didn’t stop whining. Apparently, a classmate that had a trumpet was disparaging about my instrument saying that mine couldn’t be blown. Seeing that he could even blow his trumpet through his nose, I hated the recorder even more. So they gave me a saxophone, which I had to share with another student. But he didn’t like the sharing and being older than I was, he sent me away. I supplicated my teacher, Huruy Ghebremichael, who liked me and indulged me a lot, to give me another instrument. He gave me a flute, which I hated and discarded automatically. In the end I was given a trumpet and I barely played it for four months when independence came.
And did you continue in music?
Following independence, my activities in music and academy alike deteriorated. My father took me back to our village where I stayed for six months. But I was not able to cope up with the rural life and left. Like I said earlier, I didn’t go beyond high school but I continued music school.
That is up to which level?
Up to the stage where I could teach others.
Where and how we you learning music?
When I started learning music in 1997 it was mostly an individual effort. Fitsum (Shambel) and Instructor Elias Woldeghebriel were a big help. Elias would let me practice in his house even late at night while Fitsum gave me some musical notes for piano (an instrument I had mastered on my own).
In 2002, Araia Haile, our leader, noticing my activity and growing interest in music, assigned me to assist five Chinese music experts who had come to Eritrea. My main task was interpreting. One of the Chinese spoke English so he translated what the teachers said into English for me and I in turn into Tigrigna for the students. On top of that, I helped the students with their assignments in the evenings.
And who exactly were the students?
They were new entrants to the National Marching Band. They attended a one-year course at Mai Nefhi.
What kind of instruments were they taught to play?
Each of the teachers had their own contributions according to their specific skills. The first was an expert of wood winds like saxophone, clarinet, western flute, soprano, etc… The second was that of what we call the brass instruments like the trumpet, trombone, French horn, cornet, tuba… The third was an expert on percussions; the fourth on music composition and arrangement; while the fifth was an interpreter.
So how effective was the training?
Although it was good, no training of music can be finished within a year. The Chinese had to go to back home but they knew that the training was not complete. So they proposed to take three people to China for further studies. I was one of those selected and went to China in 2003.
So how was it?
I learned Chinese language for a year. It was very tough: I would learn until midday and then spend the afternoon studying. I had to master the language because the training was to be given in Chinese. Our teachers used to warn us that anyone who failed the language class would go back home so I tried very hard. The lowest mark I scored was 94. I eventually succeeded, and started the training.
What was your training?
I chose music composition. Not only was it the most difficult subject, but also in a highly complicated language. It was very hard.
But you said you had no problems with the language…
Well, the language course was only elementary. It takes years even for the Chinese themselves to master it properly. That’s why I found it extremely difficult to sit in class with native speakers and follow the course in their language.
So what did you do?
Well, the first six months were terrible. Although I was highly motivated, I couldn’t understand a single lesson. I was getting zero in the assignments. My teacher really worked hard for me. He spent four hours with me trying to make me understand but I barely followed him for half an hour. One way or the other however, I began showing progress. By the second year I had started scoring better marks. But then a problem occurred.
Well, intense studying during the language course had weakened my eyes. And during the second year I had killer headaches. When I went to the hospital they told me that I had come in the nick of time and that I would have gone crazy had I stayed a bit longer. They said I had to cut school and rest for two weeks so I did. My teachers were told of my condition.
But as I started recovering, I composed a piece about joy and sorrow and gave it to my professor. He was so pleased that he took me to the biggest studio in Shanghai. He proudly showed me off saying that I had started from scratch but was able to arrange such excellent work.
And then, did you go back to school?
Yes, I did. I showed progress, especially in the language. And during the third year my marks were good so my government extended my stay for one year. That didn’t however suffice. I realized that I had a lot more to learn and I considered myself only a beginner in the journey of learning music.
Anyways, I managed to complete my studies in good standing. But before that I was sent back home for a break and to prepare a research paper, on which I gave a 10-minute presentation.
What was their feedback?
They liked it. They acknowledged that we (Eritreans) had a good culture and music which was however being endangered by a virus: the drum machine. In the end they said, “We are sending you with hopes that you will eliminate this threat and further develop your music.”
And are you succeeding?
Well at present I’m just a music instructor and very busy at that. But I will soon start working towards eliminating this ‘threat’ and develop Eritrean music.
And how is Eritrean music at present?
It’s doing well but could also be better with more efforts and creative inputs. We need not only coordination in music but among the musicians as well.
Last Updated (Wednesday, 06 April 2011 06:36)