My Music Button…
I used to listen to opera at work. I picked up that habit in graduate school. Others pick up
mono, I picked up opera. Not a bad deal, considering….
I used to listen to specific arias from my favorite operas when I studied for different classes:
|Advanced Constitutional law… ||Carmen|
|Laws of War and Crime… ||Il Trovatore |
|Family Law… ||Aida|
|State and Government Law… ||Madama Butterfly |
|Corporate Law I and II… ||La Traviata|
I would sit in the middle of the library steps and drown out New York City traffic with
Leontyne Price belting away an aria from Aida. I'd close my eyes, and somehow court dates
and litigants would be magically imbedded in my mind. When Pavarotti droned out Nessun
Dorma, I immediately saw cases lined up in front of me, ready to be rattled off with precision.
Coincidentally, it was another Ethiopian who first turned me on to opera. He lived in Spanish
Harlem in a dinky 5th floor walk up. He used to go to grad school and drive a cab part time.
(How many cabbies do you know who could recite Pushkin? He actually did that once to a
passenger who did not tip him. Loudly, too.)
Once you survive the drug dealers outside his building and make it safely to his place, you
think you'd stepped into Tower Records. One corner of the room was stacked with CDs, all
alphabetically shelved in labeled cubicles. He had "sound proofed" an area by the window…
Sound proof, in this case, meant stapling sheets of foam mattresses to the ceiling and wall. It
was charming, in a Woody Allen farce kind of way.
He knew each CD by heart, which was a little… scary, but we are talking about a guy who
thinks bellowing Puskin at a cheap passenger is exacting revenge. We were both poor
students, so we couldn't go anywhere near the Met unless one of his usher friends sneaked us
in during the third act.
Ever since then, I found solace in operas. The story lines of almost all the major operas are
almost always daft. Women burying themselves with lovers, prostitutes dying of consumption
and looking for love, playboys being conquered by slave girls… ho hum. But there was
something about opera, the sound, that gave me peace. No, wait. It would agitate me at first,
but then it would reward me with peace.
The minute I discovered that the CD ROM in my computer was not a retractable cup holder,
I carried over my favorite CDs to the office, and I'd lose myself in the voices of Maria Callas,
Richard Tucker, Beverly Sills… I transported law school habits to my work place, and
mentally assigned arias for specific tasks…
|Dealing with Client A… ||Interditi Con Dio |
|Dealing with Client B…  ||Granada|
|Client C…    ||T'Estimo|
And then, and then I found the Bati Music Page on the Internet.
It was a particularly tough day at work. I was preparing for a summation when I got an
email from a dear friend with an "Oh, my God! Oh my God!" subject line, and only the URL
for the Bati page in the text. My friend is easily excitable, so I didn't think much of it. I closed
the email and went back to my pile of paper work. At about 7:30, my colleagues ordered
Chinese, and we hunkered down for a night of grueling work.
About 9:00 p.m., desperate for distraction, I clicked on the Bati URL. Granted, my taste in
Ethiopian music was very "pop gummy". (I think I would have been the equivalent of a Spice
Girls groupie.) I quickly went through the standard favorites from back home… Ephrem,
Kuku, Aster… Cute, cute, cute.
I think it was quite by accident (or out of morbid curiosity) that I clicked on Rahel Yohannes'
Shemonmuanaye . I was in the middle of a mouthful of chicken lo mien, ready to make a
And then, …the moon, as they say in some circles, eclipsed!
I actually felt a rash spreading through my body. The soft sax introduction, the tender tap,
tap, tap beat… and then her voice, clear above ringing phones and elevator "pings", fax
machine whirrs and intercom buzzes… "Aiain, aiain, aiain… yene shemonmuwana…" As
clear as she was singing live in my office.
Have you ever memorized a scene so well that you could paint it complete with even the most
minor detail intact? That was me.
"Bemiwedut mefred, indet abesa new…." All I could see was Addis. I saw the smells. I saw
the sights. I saw the sounds. I was fighting back tears in my office, desperate to make sense of
something I was trying to rationalize. I saw my uncle's wedding from eons ago when I was a
flower girl. I was about six. And this indescribable joy, an overwhelming sense of feeling …
right took over my tiny figure when the band started playing music. That was the first time I
felt that rash swarming over me.
I was wearing a white dress, speckled with fake pearls. One of the buttons on top of the lace
bodice was missing. I remember looking for it underneath the bride and groom table, finding
it, and putting it in the mini-pocket on my left side of my dress. Later, I looked in my pocket
to give it to my mother, but it must have fallen because I couldn't find it. I started crying. My
father put me on his lap and looked for it in both mini-pockets. I had been so careful to not
stain my dress. When the qess dabbed us with Tsebel after the church ceremony, I had
surreptitiously leaned my neck forward so that none of the Tsebel would touch my new
dress. I knew I shouldn't, but I did it again. I sent out a quick prayer to God to forgive me.
Now, I couldn't find that little fake pearl button, and the threads that had held it mocked me.
I cried some more.
Years later, I was crying to "Inde Yerusalmem…". I had missed feeling… so right. It was the
first time I had encountered that euphoria since I was six.
One after another, I clicked on each music link. And then… and then, I found Bati, sung
scratchily by Kassa Tessema. I saw trips to Bahr Dar where my grandparents lived. I saw their
house, and my grandmother's bedroom. I saw the smells of the kesel , right before she put
eTan on it…I saw my third cousins playing with Bahr zaf barks. And I tasted the kiTel weT
we used to make on rocks we pretended were stoves. I saw, and I kept seeing.
It was close to 1 a.m. when I left the office that night, after playing and re-playing
memories. And now…
|Client A…:|| Shegitu, Kassa Tessema |
|Client B…: || Ende Amora, Alemayeu Eshete|
|Client C…:|| Addis FiQir, Bizunesh Bekele|
|Post staff meetings…:|| Meleyayet Mot, Tilahun Gessese|
|Depositions…:|| Alem Alemwea, Fasil Demoze |
|Drafting Briefs…:|| Ateremamesew, Meskerem Mamo|
|Motion to compel…:|| Yadema Tole, Abitow Kebede |
|Motion for summary judgement: || Gud Fella, Semahegne Belew|
I think I finally found my lost button.