“Ertra, Ertra, Ertra” And The Problems With Patriotism Performed At A Shrill, Unpleasant Register


THE SONG: “Ertra, Ertra, Ertra.”
THE YEAR: 1993.
THE REASON: Unbearably shrill second half; ruined all Uncanny X-Men back issues featuring Siryn and/or Banshee.

To write that the Eritrean national anthem sounds as though the Horn of Africa has severed ties with its mainland and receded into the Red Sea, drowning all, might suggest a sudden, unintentional desperation as cause for the brief and mewling piece. But after a century of Italian colonization, British rule, and Ethiopian annexation, it’s safe to say my people had ample time for the construction of an opus in the event of future independence. Not so, cries the anthem, an awkward figure of ill-proportioned pride and vindication perched upon a bayonet. As an eight-year-old, the sound of my people united in song would come to epitomize the very sound of terror, beating out Mariah Carey’s melismatic anti-ambrosia “Hero” that year by miles.

“Ertra, Ertra, Ertra”

A sliver of context: In 1966, Rastafarians in Kingston, Jamaica, celebrated the arrival of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, a man many believed to be the second coming of Jesus. That Jamaica’s independence from British rule in 1962 coincided with Selassie’s violent annexation of Eritrea had little immediate impact, if any, upon the group, which included a young Bob Marley. Marley would go on to write songs in praise of the Emperor, such as “Selassie is the Chapel” (a cover of “Crying in the Chapel”) and “War”—a song quoting Selassie’s speech at the 1963 U.N. General Assembly, excerpted below:

That until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation… Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace.

Meanwhile, back in Africa—surprise!—annexation! Thirty years of war later, we have Eritrean independence and this grimace of an anthem, while on the other end of the spectrum, countless exemplary reggae songs dedicated to the man who sought to prevent it.

At this point, I’m obligated to note that my criticism is not of Eritrea itself (which exists elsewhere), or the lyrics to “Ertra, Ertra, Ertra,” or of the thousands who sacrificed their lives in pursuit of freedom. My criticism is of a dull melody performed at an unpleasant register that terrified me as a kid. At eight, I remember hiding under the sink. I remember a melted orange popsicle and hearing my mother say the words, “This is why we fought.” Later, I would play the chords to our anthem on my Casio keyboard’s cheesy “EPIC STRINGS” setting for my grandmother, inserting a pair of headphones and placing them over her ears. Mostly, though, I remember hoping we fought for more.

There’s a line in the Eritrean anthem—the most important line about the country, really. It says: “We shall honor her with progress.” While I cringe at the aural qualities of the song, the aforementioned lyric meant a great deal to me growing up. I believed in progress, in betterment, tenacity; as the daughter of immigrants, my parents were living proof.

These days I’m less convinced. The events taking place in the Horn of Africa are horrifying for reasons so numerous they require their own essay, and the word “progress” strikes my adult ears as uncomfortably malleable.

At soccer matches and other gatherings, however, I tend to filter whatever patriotism assaults me via a set of cheap earplugs kept safely in my bag. Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, or American—unless Djibouti’s incredible national anthem is blowing everyone’s minds through some blessed set of speakers, I’m not interested. Call it a cultural shortcoming. It’s been called much worse.