What You Need to Know about the Annual Tigray Festival

What You Need to Know about the Annual Tigray Festival


People from across the US celebrate Tigray culture at the annual Tigray Festival, which includes parties, dancing, meetings, and other activities. Each year,  the five-day event is hosted by a different city. The most recent festival took place in August in Washington, D.C.

Tigray festival
Image courtesy Kris Fricke | Flickr

The 2015 festival, which was held in Seattle, was thoroughly documented by the press, which noted Tigrayans’ love of patriotism, gallantry, and parties. Several hundred people from the United States and Canada attended the festival, which featured panel discussions and a soccer tournament. This was the second time that Seattle had welcomed the festival, having previously hosted the event in 1997. While the festival has grown in the 20 years since its creation and has added a number of programs, organizers state that the event remains centered on Tigrayans gathering to celebrate their heritage.

The Tigray Festival has also boosted the careers of Tigrayan performing artists. As a result of appearing at the original Seattle festival, Circus Tigray became popular in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. A sponsor who attended the festival invited Circus Tigray to perform at Bumbershoot, where the group was covered by The Seattle Times. “They became big deal,” said Assefa Berhane, UTNA executive secretary in Seattle. “A lot of people started coming, even from Vancouver and Portland, to see them.”

Panel discussions and talks at the festivals often focus on the various issues facing Tigray. These range from business development in the region to the diaspora in North America. The Tigray Development Association, a development nonprofit that provides aid to the region, often holds its annual regional meeting during the conference.

Organizers of the 2017 Tigray Festival have yet to announce a host city. In the past, the festival has taken place in Chicago and Las Vegas, and it has also been held numerous times in Washington, D.C.

Here’s more in-depth information about the Tigray region and the culture that the festival celebrates each year:

–The Tigray region is in the northernmost part of Ethiopia near Eritrea. The region’s culture was developed by Ethiopians and Eritreans who lived in the country.

–About 5 million Tigrayan people live in Tigray and in Eritrea. Most live on high plateaus near the Red Sea, where a cliff-like ridge and desert separate them from the water. The primary source of income for Tigrayans is agriculture, and livelihoods can be threatened when increasingly frequent droughts and floods hit the region.

–While Christian missionaries from Europe began settling in Tigray in the 1800s, the region actually had long been exposed to the religion. Christianity arrived in Tigray about the time it arrived in Ireland, and many Tigrayans had converted to Christianity hundreds of years before colonialism—and missionaries—visited the region. Churches built into the stone cliffs of Tigray still play a central role in their communities.

Image courtesy Rod Waddington | Flickr
Image courtesy Rod Waddington | Flickr

Tigrayans traditionally wear white, a color associated with Christianity, and don few accessories. For more formal occasions, men wear ankle-length pants that are tight around the calf and loose around the thighs and hips and a fitted, long-sleeve shirt that reaches almost down to the knees. Women wear long dresses with long sleeves. Both men and women wear shawls around their shoulders. Today, many Tigrayans have traded their traditional day-to-day clothing for clothing imported from Europe.

–Tigrayan women, who are known for the beauty, also stand out for their intricate braided hairstyles. Women wear fully braided hair in styles typically created by beauty specialists, and they also like to wear silver and gold jewelry crafted by Tigrayan artisans.

–Much of the music in Tigray is Christian church music and praise songs, which often are accompanied by drums and a sistrum, a percussion instrument similar to a rattle, in religious services. Praise singers, who are often hired to sing at weddings and other events, typically accompany themselves on an instrument similar to a violin.

–The Bible’s Book of Psalms is often used as a guidebook for behavior in Tigray. Priests and deacons carry a copy of the Book of Psalms in a leather pouch, and the Psalms can be a frequent topic of conversation in relation to how someone is acting.

–The annual Ashenda festival in Tigray is named after a tall grass that women and girls weave into skirts for the celebration, during which they break into small groups and visit houses singing and playing drums. About a week after the celebration starts, all of the women gather in the center of town—often joined by young boys—to sing and dance until the sun goes down.