Can a song kill? Music and Violence in Northern Ethiopia

Ethiopian war song fukera
Is music likely to trigger violent acts? This is what the villagers of the highlands of Northern Ethiopia, studied by the ethnomusicologist Katell Morand (University of Paris-Nanterre), claim in an article entitled, “The desire to kill — Music and Violence in Northern Ethiopia,” published in issue 68 of the journal Terrain, “L’Emprise des sons.”
This question may seem surprising: we tend to parry the music of all virtues — it would calm the spirits, heal the sentences, cure diseases, or even grow plants. In contrast to these representations, the latest issue of Terrain explores the various ways in which sounds can be used to manipulate others, to make others suffer, or to push for murder.
The interlocutors of Katell Morand lend to music, and more specifically to a kind of sung poetry called qerertu, a dangerous power. Sung at a funeral or at a simple gathering, the qerertu would have the power to warm the spirits, to provoke anger, and ultimately to arouse in those who sing it the “desire for revenge” which, making him temporarily lose his mind, pushes him to homicide. So much so that multiple precautions surround both the singing performances and their subsequent evocations: some men, renouncing violence, stop singing; others, too likely to be carried away, are forbidden to do so. Good singers are the object of fear, because “a certain temerity underlies the practice of qerertu: do not be afraid to sing, it is to affirm that one does not retreat before the eventuality of a passage to the ‘act’.
This association between violence and sung poetry must be placed in the context of the peasant societies of northern Ethiopia. In the Amhara villages studied by Katell Morand , most families are caught up in murderous revenge cycles, usually associated with inheritance issues, neighborhood quarrels, boundary disputes, and cattle raids. The blood must be “returned”, the relatives of the victim are subject to an obligation of revenge. In addition, the region is historically marked by banditry, and a certain continuity between the status of peasant, that of outlaw, and that of soldier – the men of the region participated in wars against foreign forces or against the central government throughout the 20th century. Veterans of these wars, like men who fulfill their obligations of revenge, thus have a prestigious status.
However, not all homicides are equal. Murders committed in the context of war, vendetta or cattle theft are considered legitimate: even if the murderers put their own lives in danger and must, at least temporarily, flee, their act will be celebrated as heroic . There are, however, unlawful killings — it is forbidden, for example, to kill a woman. In these cases, the responsibility for acting out tends to be transferred to singing: the murderer becomes momentarily “crazy”. Other acts have a more uncertain status: it is not given in advance that the motive for a murder committed in the context of an agrarian conflict between neighbors will be approved by the rest of society. In those cases where the legitimacy of the act, and the personal position of the person committing it, is less obvious, qerertu take center stage.
From the analysis of these sung performances, Katell Morand shows that “singers are not the only ones to fall under the effects of singing”. The listeners also participate in the rise of emotions, and can even influence it: the women, who do not act, also sing the qerertu, trying to arouse the vengeance they hope for — such as this woman who began to sing at the funeral of his nephew, killed while guarding the cows by night, to remind men of their family obligations: “He is certainly waiting! But your turn [your revenge] will come.”
Sung words — from exhortations to bravado, to insults — are carefully chosen. Once the song has been launched, however, he escapes his singer as well as the listeners, who react with exclamations and encouragements, sometimes also begin to sing and, for some, to take up arms. But the effectiveness of singing does not rest solely with the words which, simply recited, do not represent the same danger: it is their singing which, in the opinion of all, gives the poems this particular power. This singing is also accompanied by specific postures, which distinguish it from daily interactions: gradually, the singers straighten up, raise the chin and brandished the rifle, revealing the “ardor” awakened in them by singing.
The qerertu would therefore hold its effectiveness of its melodic outline, which Katell Morand shows that he imitates, by his rapid flow, his prosody and his jumps of intervals, the intonations of a word excited by joy or anger. The very structure of the song emphasizes the relationship between music and emotion.
Is qerertu the cause of the “loss of control” that characterizes acting out? By exacerbating tensions and emotions, does singing cause the desire to kill?
The stories are, on this point, very ambivalent. Thus the song does not always immediately precede the passage to the act: we can sing the qärärto after an incident, or an act can be associated with a performance that took place years earlier. Moreover, the victims of this passage to the act are never chosen at random: “the desire to kill, almighty be it, is always based on an anger or resentment that pre-exists the song. No one at peace with their neighborhood (assuming it exists) would lose their self-control, “says Morand.
The ethnomusicologist offers an answer based on the analysis of the collective situations in which qerertu’s performances take place. It shows how the song is built on a “delay effect”: instead of immediately revealing the meaning of the poem, and the intention of revenge, the singer challenges the members of his kin as and when. The latter, summoned to respond and encourage him to bring up “ardor”, are thus recruited as potential “partisans”. When the grievance is finally stated, it is no longer a personal opinion but a collective position: if there is a passage to the act, it is thus legitimized. But this is not always the case, and when the murder is considered illegitimate – especially when it concerns relatives — the participants will disengage afterwards by attributing to the song the responsibility for their loss of control. The latter, considered dangerous, will be doomed to oblivion.
The song of qerertu thus has a power that associates it closely with violence. But this is not so much the fact of intrinsic properties to the song, that emotions aroused during its performances, and the relations that are mobilized there.
By Laure Assaf, Anthropologist, Université Paris Lumières