The Impromptu Nature of Qəne Composition

            3.  The Impromptu Nature of Qəne Composition

Unlike modern poetry, which is modified repeatedly before the end result, Qəne is composed spontaneously in front of an audience. A well known example of this impromptu composition is the story of the BaläQəne Kəflä Yohannəs who was active during the reign of Emperor Iyassu I (1674 – 1698).  It is said that Kəflä Yohannəs lived a very humble life and was not popular among the luxury-seeking clergy of the court who were constantly at work to put a rift between him and the emperor.   On one occasion, Kəflä Yohannəs,  deep in contemplation, did not salute   as the Emperor entered the Däbrä Bərhan Səllase Church with his entourage.  The clergy were quick to point out  Kəflä Yohannəs’ faux pas to the Emperor. Knowing that Kəflä Yohannəs meant no malice, the Emperor threw at him a gold nugget to rouse him from his meditation. Kəflä Yohannəs then approached the Emperor and composed the following  Qəne:

5፡ Gubaʾe Qana

በእስጢፋኖስ አእባን እመ የኀልቁ፣

ዘበጠኒ ኢያሱ በወርቁ፡፡ 

Since all the stones were used on (the martyr) Stephen

Iyassu stoned me with gold.


The clergy were further disgraced when the Emperor rewarded Kəflä Yohannəs the gold nugget.  Kəflä Yohannəs donated the gold nugget to the church. During the reign of Emperor Dawit, the clergy asked Kəflä Yohannəs to present a Gubaʾe Qana(a two verse Qəne) that focuses on Emperor Dawit, the Festival of Däbrä Tabor (Transfiguration of Christ), and the  Däbrä Bərhan Səllase Church. The clergy were putting the Qəne skills of Kəflä Yohannəs to the test by constraining him to a two verse limit, whereby more verses were needed to adequately cover the subject matter. Kəflä Yohannəs passed the test with flying colors and to top it off he used a shorter version of the Gubaʾe Qana as follows:

 6፡ Gubaʾe Qana 3

ዮም ዕለተ ብዙኅ ትፍስሕት፣

እስመ በደብረ ታቦር ቆመ ፈጣሪ ወበደብረ ብርሃን ዳዊት፡፡

Today is a day of happiness

Because the Lord was present at Mt Tabor While Dawit was present at Däbrä Bərhan


Mämhər QälämäWärq Däjäne is a Qəne teacher of Muja Maryam Church in Gidon Woreda in Lasta Region. One day in 1982 EC when he went to the Däjä Sälam, the clergy did not pay him any attention because they were busy stuffing themselves. Thus he composed the following Wazema   Qəne:

        ቁ. 7፡ Səllase [1]

መክፈልት ሙሽራየ

እንዳትወድቂብኝ ድንገት የቅኔን ነገር ሳወራ፣

ምንስ ቢንከባከቡሽ አቡሃይ ደብተራ፣

ቄሴም ይወድሻል ነፍሱ እስኪወጣ ሳይፈራ፣

ተንሰፈሰፈይ ዲያቆን የእህል ጎተራ፣

እንዘ ይብሉ መሃራ መሃራ፡፡


Oh my bride / banquet food

Do not accidentally fall while I am talking about Qəne

Even though the Däbtära can take care of you

And the Priest loves you unreservedly without fear

But the glutton deacon became fervent

Saying mähara mähara (double entendre meaning forgive her and food, food!)   


For the Säm, everybody loves and takes care of the bride. The BaläQəne was comparing the bride with food at church, since both have so much entourage. It was only the BaläQəne, consumed in his Qənes, who arrived late to the festivities and missed out on the food. He has also shown the clergy’s love or better greed for food. Since Qəne has the quality whereby the critiqued can listen to it without getting angry, the BaläQəne was praised rather than scolded.

The great BaläQəne Mämhər Askal was once invited to a banquet given by Emperor Haile Selassie. The usher not knowing the importance of the guest led him to be seated outside on the field.  The disgruntled BaläQəne stood up and recited the following Amharic poem leading to his being seated at VIP quarters.

እንክርዳድ ተለቅሞ ለግብር ሲደርስ፣

አስካል ጥሩ ስንዴ በሜዳው ፍስስ፡፡


While weeds were harvested to reach the banquet

Askal / the good wheat was just spilled on the field

When I was interviewing Qəne teachers and students, most of them would compose casually a fresh Qəne rather than evoking a Qəne from the past.  For example when I met Märigeta Bälät’ä, the Qəne teacher of ʿrbaʾətu ʾənsəsa Church in Kəmər Dəngay in Southern Gondar, he recited the following Qəne to explain the creative nature of Qəne composition.      

 8፡ Səllase (2003 ዓ. ም.)

ምንት አአስዮ ለእግዚአብሔር ማርዬ ይግዛው

በእንተ ኩሉ ዘገብረ ይዜንዜትየ ሊተ፣

ላዕሌየ ወዘኃየለነ ወከብደኒ ቤተ፣

እስመ እቅለሎ ውእቱ ቃለ ፍስሃሁ ቡሩክተ፣

ወለማርዬ ዘኢተትህተ፣

ንሰብሖ ዘልፈ  ዘስብሐት ጸሎተ፣

ከመ ይኑህ ዕድሜሁ መሬተ፡፡


What shall I repay to the Lord / Mariye Yigzaw

For all the things he has done for me?

All the troubles weighing me/my house down

He lifted with his reassuring words/ gift

And Mariye who is not beneath anyone  

I thank regularly with prayers

So that he lives a long time on this earth.



For the Säm, King David asked in his Psalms, “What shall I repay thee Lord, for what you have done for me?” And St. Paul responds, “I give thanks to the Lord for what he has done foe me.” The BaläQəne in his turn tells us that all he can do is just pray for a long life for Mariye Yigzaw for easing his troubles. The BaläQəne compose this Qəne because I brought him a book he asked for earlier when we met.


Similarly a Zärafi  I met from Shənbət’ Mikaʾel near Bahir Dar presented the following Qəne commemorating the day and circumstances of our meeting:


9፡ Gubaʾe Qana (Mägabit 30, 2003 ዓ.ም.)[2]

መምህር ማርቆስ ለአእምሮ ግፍ ምስጢር፣             

ዮም መጽአ እምነ ርሁቅ ሀገር፡፡


Teacher Mark so as to understand injustice / secret (Qəne)

Came today from a far away land.



For the Säm, in order to spread Christianity St. Mark went from Jerusalem to Egypt. In Egypt, he suffered in the hands of idol worshippers while trying to dissuade them to abandon the belief in idols. Likewise, the BaläQəne is recounting about my trip from the city to the rural Qəne school in order to study the creative process of Qəne. At the same time, he is contrasting the hardships of the Qəne school to the hardships suffered by St. Mark. He is also symbolically equating the Qəne school with the land of Egypt. The Qəne was composed on the memorial holiday of St. Mark.

The reason for presenting the above Qənes is to show that with the exception of novice Qəne students, most Qənes are composed spontaneously. So when a BaläQəne composes a Qəne, he might think of a metaphor to appropriately symbolize the subject of his Qəne in Säm əna Wärq mode. Unlike modern poetry,   the BaläQəne does not write, rewrite or correct his Qəne prior to his performance. Qəne is performed spontaneously and words are adjusted and corrected during the performance.     

[1] ከመምህር ዘላለም አዲስ አበባ የተገኘ፡፡

[2] መሪጌታ  (2003)፣ ባህር ዳር ሽንብጥ ሚካኤል ቅኔ ቤት፡፡

[7] ከመምህር ዘላለም አዲስ አበባ የተገኘ፡፡ 

[8] መሪጌታ  (2003)፣ ባህር ዳር ሽንብጥ ሚካኤል ቅኔ ቤት፡፡