What is a begena?

The begena is an Axumite chordophone that resembles a very large lyre. Traditionally, it is 1 to 1.5 meters long with 10 string usually made of nylon (instead of the traditional cow or ox gut). It has a boxed sound box ordinarily made of eucalyptus or juniper wood which is covered with stretched hide and produces a haunting, almost hypnotic bass tone with a unique twang or buzzing sound. The begena is used extensively by members of the Tigrian Orthodox Church for songs that resemble prayer chants, sometimes lasting as long as an hour. Since the instrument is not used in actual church services and prayer meditation is frequently performed alone, due to its hugeness or other reasons, the begena is not commonly heard everywhere. It is also used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and other worldly music plays, as this church was developed from the Axumite church of Tigrai.

History of the Begena

Legend holds that Menelik I (the son of King Solomon and Makeda, Queen of Sheba) brought the begena to Axum, Tigrai, around 950 BC which would explain why the begena is also known as the “Harp of King David”. These claims have been questioned, but the Axumite Church truly believes that the begena is the instrument King David played as he danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant and performed for King Saul to cure his insomnia.

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