The Nomad Flute in the Mountains of Ethiopia


The Nomad Flute

W.S. Merwin, American born 1937

from The Shadow of Sirius, 2009, published by Copper Canyon Press



You that sang to me once sing to me now
let me hear your long lifted note
survive with me
the star is fading
I can think farther than that but I forget
do you hear me





The traditional musician, Yohannis Afework playing the washint,  The melody is called Ba-ti. The accompaniment is on the krar, a 6-stringed Ethiopian lyre.


The washint is an end-blown flute made of wood, bamboo or cane, of various lengths.  Placement of finger holes can also vary.

It is played in the highlands of Ethiopia and in Eritrea and often accompanies the telling of stories. 


The song expresses a melancholy, a longing, an overwhelming chagrin. Specifically the recognition of an absence which is a presence; and a presence which is absent. 

Amharic has a word for this – tezeta –  and is thought to be one of a handful of languages to have such a word.


Ba-ti is the name of a place in north-central Ethiopia.  It was made famous by the song of a traditional singer many years ago. This place is in Wollo,  a heartland  of the Amhara and Oromo peoples.


Ethiopia is from one end of the Danakil Depression below sea level to its highest peaks overlooking the Rift Valley to its myriad indigenous fauna and flora, its birds found only there, one of the paradises of the earth.  And the eighty mutually incomprehensible languages of its peoples are probably barely enough to describe this paradise.


Which has also witnessed 3.9 million years of australopithecine and hominid evolution.



do you still hear me
does your air
remember you
oh breath of morning



Central highlands, Ethiopia.  Image of unknown provenance from the web.




night song morning song
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it




but I know better now
than to ask you
where you learned that music
where any of it came from
once there were lions in China





A lithographic print using northern Ethiopian iconography created by Lulseged Retta for the Ethiopian Tourist Organization more than 40 years ago:  a washint player.




I will listen until the flute stops
and the light is old again




Gelada baboons and mountain nyala indigenous to the central highlands of northern Ethiopia. Image sourced from the net of unknown provenance.






A shot taken by Georg Gerster and published in Zurich in 1974 in Äthiopien Das Dachs Afrikas, the first large format photographic book on the country.