Oduu Haaraya

Ali Birra – the Universal Ambassador of the Oromo Language and Culture

Written by: Mekkonen Taddese Mekonnen
Part One
Ali Birra is a virtuous creative singer. His melodies are rooted in Oromo culture. His lyrics are deeply philosophic. His vocal talent is amazing. He is rich in words. That is why Ali Birra’s songs are liked by many – be it those who speak the Oromifa language/Afaan Oromoo/ or those who don’t. He has a good command of the different dialects of Afaan Oromo. His songs are rooted in the Oromo culture. He uses the language, melody and beat of Oromo music to convey his message.
The virtues of Ali Birra’s songs are many. Among them are the following: .
1. Likeable Vocal – He has a likeable vocal.
2. He writes philosophic lyrics for his songs.
3. He authors most of his own melodies.

Ali Birra writes great lyrics and composes melodies liked by many without losing their identity.
His songs raise questions about many issues such as love, hatred, politics, and life in general. The lyrics convey vital meanings to listeners. They have philosophic virtues. The themes of his lyrics focus on various issues ranging from love to separation, friendship to education. Take, for example, ‘hinyaadini‘ meaning “don’t worry.” He touches on hot issues of politics and segregation.
Ali Birra’s songs have very interesting virtues among which are the following:
– He is an ambassador of the Oromo people. He lends his mouth to his people. He speaks on their behalf on many topics. He communicates the socio-economic and political problems of his people. As a result, he is a popular figure. He follows the public interest and expresses it very well. The contents of his lyrics show that he is wise and of high intellect in his culture.
– As a member of his society, he has a courageous and confident character to speak his mind. He has passed through many ups and downs because of his views.
– As a person, he has also a likeable character. He lives a simple life. May be this is the result of the way he grew up.
– He speaks of great ideas fluently in many languages. Among them are Oromifa, Somali, Harari, Arabic, Amharic, and English languages fluently. He has sung in different languages at different times.
– Ali Birra is a singer known for his songs in Oromifa. But his fans come from diverse cultures and languages. His fans may not speak Oromifa. But they like his vocal and the way he sings. One Tigrigna speaker who used to listen to his songs in Axum, Tigray in the 60s and 70s expresses how he likes his songs as follows.
“Since we liked Ali Birra but couldn’t hear his lyrics, we changed the lyrics that goes as ‘Eshurururu yaa burtukaane woo
Dayme walalaa be’an sifudheen gala’
‘Eshurururu yaa burtukaane woo
Endabagabir tsubuk suwa neyru.’

I remember a graduate of Unity University describing how he enjoyed with his Oromo friends at a party with Ali Birra’s songs, especially, ‘Sin barbaada hoggu’. His friends told him “Only if he spoke the language and understood the meanings of the lyrics, he would have liked him even more”. They said so because when one listens to his songs, they teach a lot about life, friendship, family, etc.

Ali Birra is not selfish. He sings for the grand causes he believes in. He doesn’t crave or work for money. He lives and works for his passion. If one has many of his songs, s/he must be fortunate to have most of his songs. But no one can confidently say s/he has all of his songs. This is because of his nature. He is not a man that worries about money and benefits or fame and whatever. He could have produced so many albums and sold them to capitalize on the financial gain from being likeable and famous. But he never did that. The people who lived and know him closely witness that he doesn’t worry about money. He is so generous. One can say that he is a man of his people through his music. He is close to humans with humane feelings. He is empathetic in singing about the issue for others. .

As an Ambassador of the Oromo Culture through his songs, he integrates the vast culture of the Oromo people. He uses varying dialects of the Oromo spoken in different areas. Let’s see how he does this. In so doing, I find a virtue which I rarely find in most of the contemporary singers of ours nowadays.
Ali Birra uses new words in different localities to widen the vocabulary and knowledge of his audiences. Take for example Rabbi and Waaqaa, Bikka and Eddo, baredaa and Midhagaa, Hiriba = handhura (Efi refa bulta hiriba, handhura mi’awa) . Often, at least one is a new word to most listeners who didn’t have the chance to visit other areas. He sings using words like Nin gagabe’e, Nindhufaa – Harar. He also uses Nangagabe’e , Nandhufaa as spoken in Shewa, Arsi and Wellega.
Ali Birra intentionally uses different words of the same meaning interchangeably. For example, in Kobaa koo nadhiftee, he integrates the language and culture:
Maalin sit-dhaamadhaa yeroon sigaggeessu
Maalin sit-dhaamadhaa ogaan sigaggeessu
He also uses Rabbi (Harar, Shewa…) = Waaqaa (Wellega, Shewa and other areas) to mean God.

One could see through the timeline of his songs that as he grows in knowledge and gets exposed to the other Oromo dialects and areas, he does the integration more effectively and efficiently. If you compare what he sang while he was only in Dire Dhawa and how he did it after visiting other places, you see his effort to bring those dialects and cultures closer to each other. He keeps key aspect of the song but changes the lyrics and other things. A good example is the song Awash.
He sings about ‘Rigaa’ in his early songs. Rigaa is a culture of the Harar Oromos. It means a natural toothbrush from a healthy tree. Giving it to someone symbolizes expression of love. He uses ‘rigaa’ in his early songs about Awash. But he changes the lyrics in his late songs of Awash for the more integrative lyrics like bishaan addis ababbaa, but retains the typical hindunee nangagabe (Shewa, Wellega and other localities). He sings ‘Yaa magaalee shaashin nahafarsi’ (Harar and Arsi) – typical to the Muslim culture. He opts for and also takes the horse culture of Salalaee Oromos and asks ‘Salaalattin gulufa Jimmatti nabaasa karaan kuni – nulachuu alagumaa maa walitti nubooya garaan kunii?’. He keeps the Shegoyea beat and words “Ajabaa, Ol godhu, Akkana….’.
Let’s see how he does all these in his songs:

1. Awash
Awash is an ideal for its multi-faceted virtues – for not only it crosses so many areas of differing cultures (Just listen to Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s poem – Awash) but also is one of the rivers to pass through so many places and serve people for different purposes like irrigation, fishing, and day to day uses like washing, grazing etc. May be, it is the only river in the region that is useful to all around it while others take the rich soil to neibouring countries. He names Wellega, Jimma and other places in Awash. He praises the good seasons. He sings for a beauty from Wellega that is so beautiful as follows:
‘Harageassa Wallaggaa, Wallaggaara teesse sindarbaduu
Ati bareedu taanan namu sidaawata sinabdadhuu.
He says this to mean he couldn’t be confident on the loyality of his lover for so many people gaze at her for her beauty and that he can’t afford the tender. He sings of Dire Dhawa in the same song:
Alaatin Dire Dhawaa fon malee lafee hinnyaatina jeti
Magaleen Dire Dhawaa na malee hindubbisinaa jeti
Mind you, he used harageessa and Alaati for Wellega and Dire Dhawaa respectively. In so doing he brings the two dialects of Oromifa together. He uses the local words (eg. nindhufa vs nandhufa) to express the same thing.
In Awash, he also sings about the temptation of beauty – singing for betraying his wife preferring a more beautiful lady:
‘Kalee manni gubatee
Utubaa warqii shantu gubatee
Anaan mal ja’ee nanjataa
Kasirra bareedutu nafudhatee.
He maintains the ‘Shegoyea’ beat of Harar through Awash
Awaash nama shookkisaa,
Yanni hiriyaa nama boochisaa,
Awaash nama hinshookkisuu,
Yanni hiryaa nama hinrafisuu,
Silaa Shaggarin bahaa Shaggaritti koora fannisani (X2),
Silaa Sibiraan dhufaa,
Sibiratti jolee lakkisani
ijooleen hindubbattu
Shurubbaa lash gotee nandhunggatuu?

The whole lyrics of the Awash song have the following translation:
The Awash River never threatens flowing low,
Missing a loved one takes one’s sleep with a yearning blow.
Come here, come here to the river my lover,
The harvest is good, the time is brighter.
The Awash River threatens flowing high,
Missing a loved companion makes one cry.
Flood of Addis Ababa – the Water of Addis,
Come and take me with you…take me with you please,
Oh my beauty…
Oh my beauty… I have lost my consciousness,
But I am not dead yet,
Ventilate me with your veil…
Kindly help me regain my thought.
Let me gallop to Salaale,
This route will take me to Jimma too,
We have no relation… so different,
Why do our hearts beguile…beguile to each other yet.
The crow of Wellega…
You being there my beauty….
Never will I give you my trust?
For your beauty attracts too many,
And endow you with insincere lovers a lot.
Won’t help to find you with effort,
The eagles of Dire Dawa …
The eagles of Dire Dawa will advise,
Advise all to eat flesh,
Never to eat bone,
The beauty of Dire gets angry…
When one visits another girl and is gone.
I wish to go to ‘Sheger’,
In Sheger they hang the saddles,
I would have liked to come to your place,
Kids are playing not disturbing us and don’t notice,
Not sayin a word in spite of their presence,
Come show off your long hair…
And get me lost with your kiss.

(To be continued)

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