Tigray Festival in Seattle promotes unique Ethiopian culture

Michael Hadgu, with UTNA, youth rehearsing for Tigray Festival 2015 in Seattle, Tigray Community Center (Photo Credit: Goorish Wibneh)
Michael Hadgu, chairman of the Seattle chapter of the Union of Tigreans in North America, watching the youth rehearse for Tigray Festival 2015. (Photo Credit: Goorish Wibneh)

“When God wants a party, He gratifies Tigrayans” — Amharic saying.

This is a famous affirmative stereotype—along with gallantry and patriotism—in Ethiopia about Tigrayans.

Apparently, Tigray people party so much that they attract heavenly attention.

It’s quite a distinction to be known for celebrations in Ethiopia — the country has more than 80 ethnic groups (or “nations and nationalities” as they are called back home) with just as many different music and dancing styles.

The Tigray Festival celebrates culture and connections to Tigreans in Ethiopia, and kicks off in Seattle this week, running through Sunday, with discussion panels, parties and a soccer tournament. People from Tigray (pronounced “Tig-rye”), allies and guests come from across the United States and Canada. About 200 to 300 people are expected to attend this year.

Tigrayans, also spelled Tigreans, come from around North America come to the festival for the music and networking. The event, which was first held in Seattle in 1997, is held in a different city each year. This year marks the return of the festival to this city since the first one.

Kiros Araya is the chairperson of the Union of Tigreans in North America (UTNA) and one of the organizers of the festival who will fly into Seattle from the Bay Area to attend the festival this week.

“The Festival has evolved since its beginning about 19 years ago,” Araya said in a phone interview. “Now it’s a multi-purpose event. … [T]here are a lot of programs that have been added over time. However, the core principle of the festival is really for Tigrayans to come together and celebrate their culture.

The Youth Program has grown over the years, and another program discusses investment by the diaspora into business opportunities back home, Araya said. The Tigrai Development Association (TDA) a beloved aid and development nonprofit in Tigray will also conduct its annual regional meeting this week.

However, while some of the festival events are focused on discussion and development in Tigray, the parties and soccer matches on Friday, Saturday and Sunday are open to all.

“Although the the festival is known as Tigray Festival, it is open to everybody,” Araya said. “It’s cultural festival so anybody can show up especially on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

The first festival brought Circus Tigray from Ethiopia to Seattle to perform. The group then performed at Bumbershoot, getting coverage from The Seattle Times, remembered Assefa Berhane, UTNA Executive Secretary in Seattle.

“In the beginning they came for the festival. They were exposed after they performed amazingly at the festival and then a private sponsor invited them to perform at the Bumbershoot. They became big deal. A  lot of people started coming even from Vancouver and Portland to see them,” Berhane said.

Ties to history

The Tigrayan people are an ethnic group in Ethiopia that speaks Tigrinya and originates from the northernmost part of the country. A group from Eritrea also speaks Tigrinya; they are called Biher-Tigrinya. During the monarchy and the Derg regime in Ethiopia, the Tigrinya culture was more promoted and developed by Tigrinya-speaking Eritreans than Ethiopians, though the picture is slightly different now.

Tigreans are among the largest and earliest ethnic East African settlers in Seattle, which included other ethnic groups from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

UTNA was established 41 years ago, in response to oppression of the Tigrayan people in Ethiopia. Diaspora in North America founded the group one year before the establishment of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which played a major part in the eventual political ouster of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991 and the establishment of the current government.

UTNA members dancing during a fund raiser for a radio station back home in 1983, long before Tigray Festival was established, Washington DC. (Photo courtesy Mulu Assefa)
UTNA members dancing during a fund raiser for a radio station back home in 1983, long before Tigray Festival was established, Washington DC. (Photo courtesy Mulu Assefa)

The war has been over, but what happens in Tigray still matters to immigrants in North America, Hadgu says.

As such, we monitor, write and fight about everything, bad or good, that is happening in Tigray for the sake of peace, development and democracy,” he said.

Today, the Tigray Festival focuses on creating cultural awareness among the Tigrayan diaspora, and explores development and business activities back home.

Tigray Festival Schedule

The Tigray Festival 2015 starts Wednesday and runs this week through Aug. 2.

You can catch one or all the following events:

  • “Youth Programs,” where there will be music, dancing and cultural shows by young Ethio-Americans. The event starts at 5 p.m. Friday and runs to 2 a.m. Satursday at King’s Hall, 2929 27th Ave. S., Seattle. Adults and youth are welcome. Tickets: $20 to $40.
  • The “main party” is at 6 p.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday at the DoubleTree Hotel, 18740 International Blvd. Seattle, where there’s going to be gwailah-a dance party to a live Tigrinya band. It’s a fun event interspersed with stage drama, speeches and socializing. Tickets: $20 to $40.
  • There will also be soccer matches among six teams. The tournament is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at the Lower Woodland playfield, 1000 N. 50th St., Seattle, and the championships will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Garfield Football Field, 537 25th Ave., Seattle. There will also be a community barbecue.
Tigray Festival attendees dancing to Tigrinya music(photo courtesy of Tigray Festival 2012 Denver, Colorado)
Tigray Festival attendees dancing to Tigrinya music at the Tigray Festival in Denver, Colorado in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Tigray Festival 2012.)


  1. It is true Tigreans are pros when it came to partying.
    It is also interesting that the saying “When God wants a party, He gratifies Tigrayans”
    is said of other groups in different ways.

  2. Tigrays control the military, government, and banking of Ethiopia, yet are only 5% of the population. After 20+ years of Tigray domination over Ethiopian affairs, Ethiopians have had enough. #FreeEthiopia

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