Dr. Giulia Bonacci (IRD)
Have you ever heard a rendition of the Universal Ethiopian Anthem? By a full orchestra and a soloist voice in its early version or by a set of drums, many voices and sometimes a guitar in later records? This song was crafted in 1918 and first appeared in the Constitution and Book of Laws Made for the Government of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) & African Communities Leagues (ACL), the organization founded by charismatic and controversial Jamaican Marcus Garvey (1887-1940; see Sankofa n°1 in Zoma, December 2012).
At the end of 1919, the Ethiopian Anthem was sung for the first time in the headquarters of the UNIA, Liberty Hall on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York, by a soloist in front of a standing audience. It was then qualified as the “national anthem of the African Republic”. A couple months later it was rendered by the Black Star Line band and called the “National Anthem of Africa”. It is in August 1920 that the Ethiopian Anthem, amended from its 1918 original version, was declared the “anthem of the Negro race” on the occasion of the UNIA’s Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. August 1920 was a crucial time in the existence of the UNIA as a massive month long Convention was organized with street parade of the various bodies of the UNIA, numerous sessions and delegates from all UNIA branches which by then were established in North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa. The Ethiopian Anthem was sung many times throughout the Convention.
Becoming the “anthem of the Negro race”, the Universal Ethiopian Anthem took then its full “nationalist” significance. Like all national anthems, the Ethiopian anthem was a song of war, of struggle and eventually of victory. It identifies the constitutive elements of the nation and proceeds by a series of analogies. The nation is embodied by Ethiopia the “land of our Fathers” to which a prophetic destiny and a divine election are attributed through the quotation of psalm 68, 31 “Ethiopia shall stretch her hand [unto God]”, a well-known Ethiopianist phrase. The terms Ethiopia and Africa are mentioned as one national entity and their “sons” are compared to Israel. Scattered beyond the seas, the “children” addressed their chant to the God “of the ages”, named twice as “Jehovah”, an addition from the 1918 version. An “Ethiopian nation” was thus established, into which the many thousands members of the UNIA, scattered over the world, were taking part.
One of the co-authors of this Universal Ethiopian Anthem and the composer of its music was Arnold Josiah Ford, who was born in 1876 in Barbados, in the Caribbean. He was a composer, a musician, linguist and theologian. He had been member of the musical body of the British Royal Navy during the First World War. He arrived in Harlem after the war and became member of a Black Jewish congregation. Thanks to his exhaustive study of the Torah, the Talmud and the Hebrew language, he became a Rabbi. Like many Caribbean immigrants and Black Jews, he got involved with the UNIA and became its musical director.
In addition to the Universal Ethiopian Anthem, he composed between 1920 and 1926 many chants, twenty-one of which are gathered in a small book entitled The Universal Ethiopian Hymnal. Embedded in biblical references, these chants are representative of the various cultural influences to be found in the Harlem of the time. Some chants coin peculiar expressions like Awake!, Perfect Love. Quite a few carry the word Africa in their title, and one takes up the UNIA motto: One God, One Aim, One Destiny. Others clearly glorify Marcus Garvey, like God Bless Our President and Potentate’s Hymn. While his chant Ethiopia’s children was popularizing years in advance Emperor Haile Selassie’s title, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, others chant the glory of Allah and mention mosques. Four chants are identified as “coming from the Hebrews”. Arnold Ford became a key character of the Black Jewish Harlem-based community and following the decline of the UNIA in 1925 he founded his own congregation, Beth B’nai Abraham, the House of the Sons of Abraham. Despite schisms and divisions, Ford organized his congregation and his choir, continued to teach Hebrew and to preach the Ethiopian identity of the “real Jews”.
In 1930, with members of his congregation and many musical instruments, he traveled to Ethiopia where he settled and lived the few remaining years of his life. He died in 1935 and was buried in Addis Ababa. His widow, Mignon Lorraine Inniss Ford, who was born as well in Barbados, in 1905, promised him she would never abandon Ethiopia. Indeed, as soon as Ethiopia was liberated in 1941 she founded a school with her godmother Albertha Thomas. The first co-educational boarding school in the country, it was called “Beit Aurieal School”, and a couple years later relocated in the Aware neighborhood of Addis Ababa and renamed “Princess Zenebe Worq School” after the late daughter of Emperor Haile Selassie I. Every morning faithfully, the Universal Ethiopian Anthem was sung by the schoolchildren and staff in English and an Amharic version was written later.
Mrs. Ford was addressed as “Teacher Tilleqwa” (the Great Teacher) and her ground breaking educational work was acknowledged by many international awards. However in 1974, in the wake of the Ethiopian revolution, the school was nationalized as well as all its belongings and all personal papers of Mrs. Ford. Mrs. Ford passed away in 1995 and, like her husband, was buried in Ethiopia.
The story does not end here though. The Fords had two sons, Yosef, a cultural anthropologist a graduate from Columbia University and Abiyi, a well-known scholar of medias and communication who worked at Howard University and Addis Ababa University. Despite the untimely death of his brother in 2001, Abiyi has founded the Mignon Lorraine Inness Ford Foundation to pursue the work of his mother. A talented musician, he is working on a rendition of the Anthem in its original configuration for a full orchestra. He has plans of formally presenting it to the peoples of Africa as a reminder of its original purpose, which was an expression of spiritual, emotional and intellectual solidarity from the sons and daughters of the African Diaspora to the sons and daughters of Africa.
As further evidence to the continuity of this purpose, the Universal Ethiopian Anthem is sung until today by the Rastafarians. They have transformed it, adding drums and voices as well as the name of their beloved Emperor Haile Selassie I to it, but the message remains the same. The Rastafarians are heirs both to a chant and to the idea that Ethiopians at home and abroad represent one nation.
The Universal Ethiopian Anthem
Poem by Burrell and Ford (1920)
Ethiopia thou land of our fathers
Thou land where the gods loved to be,
As storm cloud at night suddenly gathers
Our armies come rushing to thee.
We must in fight be victorious
When swords are thrust outward to gleam;
For us will the vict’ry be glorious
When led by the red, black and green
Advance, advance to victory,
Let Africa be free
Advance to meet the foe
With the might
Of the red, the black and the green
Ethiopia, the tyrant’s falling
Who smote thee upon thy knees,
And thy children are lustily calling
From over the distant seas;
Jehovah the great one, has heard us,
Has noted our sighs and our tears,
With His spirit of Love He has stirred us
To be the One through the coming years.
Oh Jehovah the God of the ages,
Grant unto our sons that lead
The wisdom Thou gave to Thy sages,
When Israel was sore in need.
Thy voice thro’ the dim past has spoken,
Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand,
By Thee shall all fetters be broken,
And Heav’n bless our dear fatherland
The Universal Ethiopian Anthem
The Theocratic Ivine Order of the Nyahbinghi (2005)
Ithiopia the Land of our Father
The Land where our JAH loves to be,
As the swift clouds are suddenly gathered
Thy children are gathered to Thee.
With our Red, Gold, and Green floating o’er us
With our Emperor to shield us from wrongs
With our JAH and our future before us
InI hail and I shout and I chant.
JAH is our Negus, Negus I
Who keeps Ithiopia free, to advance
To advance, with truth and right – truth and right
To advance, with love and light – love and light
With righteousness leading,
InI hail to InI JAH and King
Imanity pleading one JAH for us all
O Iternal thou JAH of all ages
Grant unto us sons that lead
Thy wise mind thou has given the ages
When Blackman was sore in need
Thy voice through the dim past has spoken
Ithiopians now stretch forth their hands
By JAH shall all barriers be broken
And Mount Zion bless our dear Motherland
Ithiopia, the tyrants are falling
Who smote Thee upon Thy knees
Thy children are lovingly calling
From over the distant seas.
Ras Tafari the Great One has heard us
JAH has noted our sighs and our tears
With the Irits of love JAH has brought us
To be one all through the trodding years.
For further reading
Giulia Bonacci “Exodus! L’histoire du retour des Rastafariens en Ethiopie” (Paris, 2010), pp. 109-116.
The official website of the Mignon Lorraine Inniss Ford Foundation http://www.teacherford.org/
For further listening
No early recordings of the Universal Ethiopian Anthem are available but there are Rastafari versions of it:
The Ethiopians, in Slave Call, 1977, last release by Heartbeat Records (1992)
Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, in Rally Round, Sanachie, 1985
1876 Birth of Arnold Josiah Ford in Barbados
1905 Birth of Mignon Lorraine Inniss in Barbados
1918 First version of the Ethiopian Universal Anthem
1930 Arnold J. Ford arrives in Ethiopia with a group of people
1935 Arnold J. Ford passes away
1941 Mignon Ford opens what will become the “Princess Zenebe Worq School”
1974 “Princess Zenebe Worq School” is nationalized
1995 Mignon Ford passes away
2013 Full orchestra original version on production by Abiyi A. Ford
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