Arts + Culture

The Weeknd is Helping Bring Back the Ancient Ethiopian Language of Ge'ez

The Weeknd put out his third album last week. What most don’t know is that he’s also helping bring back the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez.

Most people don't know that The Weeknd is helping bring back the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez.

In the months leading up to Starboy’s release, the Toronto superstar spoke openly about the record’s influences, from the late Prince, Michael Jackson and the original Starman, David Bowie, to The Smiths, Bad Brains, Talking Heads and, of course, Abel Tesfaye’s Ethiopian heritage.

Speaking with VMAN, the singer revealed that Amharic would “definitely be key” on the new record. Whether or not this is actually the case is up for interpretation, but we do know one thing for certain: there was one more Ethiopian language on Tesfaye’s mind around the time he was working on Starboy.

In July, Tesfaye donated $50,000 to help establish an Ethiopian Studies program at the University of Toronto. (This was in addition to the $250,000 he donated to Black Lives Matter.)

His contribution went towards a fundraising initiative launched by University of Toronto Professor of History, Michael Gervers, with the support of community leaders from the Bikila Award, a Toronto-based not-for-profit named after Ethiopian Olympic hero Abebe Bikila. It was the Bikila foundation that approached Tesfaye about getting involved in the cause.

“Because of his reputation, [the campaign] was picked up quite broadly by the media,” Professor Gervers mentions of the singer's support.

Of course, Tesfaye was one of many Ethiopians in Toronto instrumental in making the university’s first Ethiopian Studies program a reality. The role of the Ethiopian-Canadian community cannot be understated.

The campaign was ultimately a success. And in January 2017, the University of Toronto will commence its first Ge’ez course through the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. The class is also a first for North America.

“Without Ge'ez, there's no way we can get anybody to comprehend what is written on these literally millions of parchment manuscripts,” explains Gervers. “In other words, the real study of Ethiopian history and society cannot take place until people can read Ge'ez.”

We recently spoke with Professor Gervers to find out more about Ge’ez and the Ethiopian community that rallied together. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Evangelist Marc and initial page of his gospel written in ge’ez, from the church of Bieta Iyasus Wahato (Tigray, Ethiopia), copied and painted in the 16th/17th century. Marc is shown copying the text attributed to him (© Michael Gervers, 2000).

How did the Ethiopian Studies program at the University of Toronto come about?

I started working in Ethiopia 30 years ago and the project I have been involved in with other colleagues from Europe is to document cultural and artistic history in Ethiopia. This has been largely to do with the architecture of the country and what we call the ecclesiastical paraphernalia. Anything which is old and has survived, from manuscripts to crosses to incense burners.

We're particularly interested in preserving manuscripts because there's so many of them which are not currently being read except perhaps by the priests who were in Ethiopia, because Ethiopians themselves do not normally learn how to read Ge'ez.

At any rate, about 15 years ago, I began giving a course at the University of Toronto on what I call the Social History of Ethiopia, where we covered some of this material and I illustrated it with photographs which I took myself. I have a large database of photographs somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 images which we use as a resource for the course.

Hamburg University has a very extensive program in Ethiopian studies as a research center and teaching center. Over about the same period of the last 15 years, they have put together this extraordinarily useful Encyclopedia Aethiopica. At any rate, they have a five-volume encyclopedia which many of us have contributed to. I supplied them with a good number of the photographs which they used to illustrate those volumes. So that's one side of it.

Priests kés Araya and mälakä Gännätä Germay with the 14th-century gospel book in ge’ez from Maryam Magdalawit Harasawo (Tigray, Ethiopia), open to one of the Eusebian Canon Tables (© Michael Gervers, 2004).

Secondly, there's a small team, headed by myself and a colleague in Sweden, Ewa Balicka-Witakowska. Since about 2005, we have attempted successfully to digitize hundreds of Ethiopian manuscripts largely in church repositories. One of the main ones that we've digitized was from the collection of the monastery called Gunda Gunde which is in the North, not very far away from the Eritrean border. There are 219 manuscripts and 35,000 pages of Ge'ez text that the University of Toronto is currently making available online.

We have the photographic resource and we have this very, very rich collection of digitized Ge'ez text. There are other institutions putting material of this sort online, but nowhere as extensively as here at the University of Toronto.

With that, and this is something which I would really like to make public, is that we have a very active community of Ethiopians in Toronto and Canada, not to mention in North America as a whole. Toronto has been very active with the foundation of the Bikila Award.

In September of last year [the Bikila Award] invited me to come speak to their group. It was at that time that I said, "Listen, I'd like to see something happening in a serious manner at the University of Toronto in terms of Ethiopian studies."

The reason I brought this up is that we have a number of immigrant communities in southern Ontario and particularly Toronto—people like the Poles and the Hungarians and particularly other European countries—that have raised funds for a teaching program which concentrates on their home area. So I suggested to the Ethiopians that they should do the same thing. I said I put down the first amount of money to do that and I challenged them to raise this money, and they responded immediately.

I had this meeting with them in September, and December of last year they held a meeting and in a couple of hours’ time they raised $30,000. That was really a definite shot in the arm. And it was last summer in July that they got in touch with Abel Tesfaye, who is the person behind The Weeknd. I don't personally know who got him in touch with Bikila, but they're all Ethiopian and Tesfaye is from Toronto so he apparently wrote them a check for $50,000. Because of his reputation, it was picked up quite broadly by the media.

Ethiopian landscape showing the extremely challenging and precipitous route from Edaga Hamus through the mountains to the monastery of Gunda Gunde (Tigray Province), located close to the border with Eritrea (© Michael Gervers, 2002).

Tell us more about Ge’ez...

As a university professor myself, I recognize if you want to do original research you have to be able to read the language of the area in which you're doing that research. There is very little in North America, and in fact I couldn't tell you anywhere at the moment, that really has a formal program in teaching Ge'ez. This is what I proposed to the Ethiopian community. I said, "We have to raise enough money that the interest will pay for an ongoing course in Ge'ez,” because without Ge'ez, there's no way we can get anybody to comprehend what is written on these literally millions of parchment manuscripts which are lying here and there in Ethiopia. In other words, the real study of Ethiopian history and society cannot take place until people can read Ge'ez.

Now, we do have colleagues in Europe who can. I mentioned Hamburg is one place. There's another center at Naples in Italy. In Rome, you can learn any language in the world that you want through the Papal educational system. This would be a first in North America.

15th c. gospel manuscript in Ge’ez from the church of Qalaqel Maryam Seyon (Tigray, Ethiopia), showing the Letter of Eusebius (fl. c. A.D.260-340) explaining his system of cross-referencing common passages in the four gospels known as the Canon Tables (©Ewa Balicka-Witakowska, 2005).

Coming to Ethiopia, you have this very large population of people whose language, especially Amarigna and Tigrigna, is based on Ge'ez, but only the priest can read the language. What we need is, I think, to move away from church learning and make it an academic language so that not just members of the priesthood can look into the many, many, many manuscripts which are available, but the scholars can do it too. Basically it's like looking at the other side of the moon. Getting the first photographs of the other side of the moon. You know it's out there but you don't know what's there until you've actually seen it. That's my reasoning behind promoting the idea that we teach this third important Semitic language.

When the university—which has been very enthusiastic about this project by the way—decided they were going to teach it, they were going to go out and look around and see if we can find someone who knows how to teach it. It turned out that one of their own faculty members, Robert Holmstead, already knew the language. He stepped forward and said he’d like to teach it. We had that little secret right there in the department without anybody knowing about it.

Priest from the monastery of Abuna Abiyä Egzi (Tigray, Ethiopia) displaying a robe decorated in silver called Wärq kappa, offered as a gift to the church by Emperor Yohannes IV (reigned 1871-1889) (© Michael Gervers, 2002).

That’s amazing! In terms of the course that's being offered in January, who is able to sign up for it?

It's open to the university community, so both undergraduates and graduates could take it. I imagine that we'll have some Ethiopians, because this will be the second-generation Ethiopians now who are growing up and have reached their teenage years. Their families, their parents will not know Ge'ez, unless there's a member of the priesthood somewhere there. If there's enough interest in what they've left behind, I think certainly some of the students from the Ethiopian community will want to learn the language.

On the other hand, I suspect it's going to appeal equally, if not more, to the graduate community who are interested in, as I mentioned the other Semitic languages and East Africa. Perhaps I could underline that point too. When we have African Studies programs in North America, they tend to be based upon Colonial Africa. In other words the British, the French, the Portuguese, the Italians, the Germans all had their colonial interests in Africa, to a greater or less extent. So this is what Colonial Africa was all about. The whole of Africa was divided up among these European interest groups. Now, as long as the Colonial period went on, they issued documents in the home language. A scholar who's interested in Colonial British Africa can do a lot of serious research without knowing any African language because he can go in using English. The same is true with French and the same is true with Portuguese and other languages. But, if you look at those programs, you can dig, dig, dig, and you probably will not find anybody working in Ethiopia, because it was not colonized, except for the five year period between 1936 and 1941 when the Italians were there. There's not this close European link. And again, what interferes with the research is the fact that people don't have the language. That's the key.

Evangelist portrait of Luke and the initial page of his gospel written in Ge’ez, from the church of Gännätä Maryam (Lasta region, Ethiopia), painted in the so-called Gunda Gunde style c. 1500. Luke is shown copying the text attributed to him (© Michael Gervers, 1993).

For our readers who are interested in learning more about what the course will go over, what advice do you have for them? What resources should they check out?

One of the most important things is the collection of Ge'ez manuscripts which are being put online by the University of Toronto. If we're looking at internet readers and they would like to see this material, that would be the site to go to.

Just again this morning, I received a message from an Ethiopian-American who is teaching at Makerere University in Uganda, and he said he would be interested in seeing this course made available online. In other words, such that people could possibly learn through online attendance. Now, that's a little premature for us but it's certainly a possibility. Therefore if your online readers showed a serious interest, it would be worth letting the University of Toronto know. Then they might invest some resources because there are lots of courses now which are available online.

For those interested in learning more about Ge'ez, check out the Gunda Gunde Project online, Professor Michael Gervers' current research project supported by the Arcadia Fund in the U.K. and the Mazgaba Seelat research website (the UserID and Password for this is "student").


This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!


Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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