Ethiopian Community Finds Home In His Song

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

For more than 80 hours a week, Moges Seyoum works in the parking garage at the Kennedy Center and Lisner Auditorium. But that, he says, is only his job.

His profession is something more special: an ancient religious practice that has brought him the gratitude and respect of thousands of Ethiopians in the Washington area and in May earned him one of the most prestigious awards handed out by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Called the National Heritage Fellowship, it honors traditional and folk artists who make important contributions to the country's cultural fabric. Among the other winners this year were a saddlemaker from Idaho, a Korean dancer from New York and the leader of a jazz band from New Orleans.

"It is an honor," said Seyoum, 59, of Alexandria, taking a break between his two full-time jobs one afternoon. "I know that the people appreciate me a lot."

Seyoum is a church musician, a highly respected position in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church.

He is one of the world's foremost experts in a complex style of song and chant in the Ethiopian church. He has memorized hundreds of hours of songs, is an authority on the church's method of musical notation and has a rare level of mastery in a style of sacred dance.

The service is unlike most Christian services, involving the use of massive hand-struck drums and wooden prayer staffs with ornate bronze handles. The service can last several hours, during which Seyoum sings almost continuously.

On a recent Sunday at Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Church in Northwest Washington, Seyoum led a group of singers -- all of whom he taught -- in a six-hour ceremony commemorating the day they believe Jesus ascended to heaven after being resurrected.

The ceremony began at 1 a.m., although most of the more than 1,000 worshipers in diaphanous white wraps who came to watch did not begin trickling in until about 5 a.m.

Incense clouded the air of the main hall as Seyoum and about a dozen white-robed men sang in Ge'ez, the holy language of the Ethiopian church. They danced intermittently, moving their staffs with slow, swaying movements. Seyoum's voice rang out above the rest, his eyes rolling heavenward as he shifted from high, clear notes to low, growling ones.

The services bring the community many of the sights, sounds and smells of home, some congregants said.

"There are so many things we miss from Ethiopia," said Bililign Mandefro, 62, one of Seyoum's students. When Seyoum sings, he said, "it is a reminder. This is a moment when you are really taken back to your roots."

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