From a numbers and promotions standpoint, the album had truly impressive weeks on the charts, topping many Hollywood artists’ works that were released around the same time. “Eessa Jirta” and “Goota Koo” tracks from the album have become part of the musical canon for his fans and Oromo people in general. However, the third track in the album, “Kuullee Koo”, is a ubiquitous song that seems to stay relevant endlessly. Besides the musical arrangement, structure, and stunning instrumentals used, the song is novel in its story-telling format, purpose, and meaning of the lyrics. The track composition is electrifying in nature, and the lyrics condenses stories from hundreds of years ago with a superjacent message of love, making it fascinating not only for music lovers, but also for historophiles like myself.
In the song, Hachalu makes references to 19th century stories of the Oromo people in the Wollo region specifically. The Wollo region, located to the eastern part of the Amhara regional state, today is one of the culturally diverse places in Ethiopia, with its capital city at Desse(Dessie). Yet, it is one of the places that is historically claimed by different ethnic groups such as the Amharas and the Oromos. The references Hachalu makes in the song, in return, trigger the history of the Wollo Oromos and the political culture of Ethiopia from hundreds of years ago. The song is generally interesting, but it would be an even more commendable one within the understanding of the Wollo region and its history, especially during the early phases of the formation of the current Ethiopian state. As such, I seek to explore the meaning behind the lyrics of “Kuullee Koo” and the history of the Wollo region prior to the formation of the present-day Ethiopia.
A Sense of Belonging
Music has long been used as one of the greatest mechanisms to express powerful stories about a society that struggles to preserve its identity, history, and culture in an increasingly hostile political environment. Most poets and musicians use lyrics, instruments, and melodies to get their message and grievances across. One of the early records dates back before the common era during the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, known as the Babylonian Captivity in 586 BCE.
Prior to Babylonian Captivity, the Kingdom of Israel was living peacefully until the Assyrians conquered the northern part of the kingdom in 722 BCE, causing dispersion among the various tribes of Israel. However, the home of the tribe Judah, the southern part of the kingdom, had retained its sovereignty until 586 BCE. The first few verses of Psalm 137 in the bible are full of sorrowful moments, as it recalls the devastated lives of the Israelites in captivity. In verse 1, the psalmist states, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” This historical account demonstrates how the people of Israel longed for their native homeland, and their desperate cry shows that the land was an integrated part of their identity as a nation.
The eastern Wollo region’s historical significance to the Oromo society and identity is as integral and deep rooted as Jerusalem was to the Israelites. In his song “Kullee Koo”, Hachalu also seems to imply that the eastern Wollo region is part of the Oromo society that is deeply rooted within their identity; as such, it is onerous to relinquish. As the Israelites remembered the lost part of their identity at the time, Hachalu also remembers Wollo as an integral part of the Oromo people and attempts to bring attention to this region especially since the region is completely dissociated from the large Oromo society culturally and in political boundry.
The Oromos have occupied and lived around the same area at first, however, they started to disperse to different areas. This happened over years; thus, it is important to understand prior events that led to this. The social and political landscape of the horn of Africa has taken different shapes throughout the history. Many historians have written that the Oromo people used to live together in the same area, sharing a common socio-political system of governance called the Gadaa system (Hassen & Hayward, 1990). Although the history of the Oromo origin is inconclusive to some people in Ethiopia, the presence of Oromo in central and even the southern tip of the highlands of Ethiopia is apparent as early as the Zagwe dynasty (Hassen, 2015).
Until the late 19th century, Ethiopia, formerly known as Abysinnia, was limited to the Northern parts that included Christian and Semitic-speaking peoples in a territory comprising present-day Eritrea, Tigray, Gonder, Gojam, and parts of Shewa and Wollo (Melaku, 2019). In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Adal sultanate was another strong Islam kingdom to the east of Abyssinia that had been at a constant war for many years since the 14th century. The hostility between the two kingdoms started because of territorial expansionism, however over time, it continued as a religious conflict until the late 16th century. The hostility between Abyssinia and Adal broke out into an all-out war in 1529 CE between Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, known as Ahmed Gragn, of Adal and Emperor Libne Dingel of Abyssinia.
As the war hostility increased in the region, among many other reasons due to population pressure, the Oromo people were influenced to spread into different directions. Many claim this was a survival strategy for Oromos, which in return, stemmed their division into different moieties and sub-moieties. The Oromos mainly quested north and westward as Adal to the east had the upper hand in the aforementioned war and was not as vulnerable to external forces.
According to numerous historical records, the earliest known moieties of the Oromo are the Borana and the Barentu (Barentuma). From the sub-moieties formed, the Wollo and Yejju settled in parts of the present-day Amhara region while others like Raya-Azebo continued their migration further into the Lasta and Raya areas in Tigray (Poluha & Feleke, 2016). Over the years, the Wollo, Raya, and Azebo people adopted Islam due to the geographical proximity between their host-land and the land of Adal (parts of the present-day Afar region mainly). In addition, Yejju and Wollo became predominantly Amharic speaking regions (Poluha & Feleke, 2016). In the above context, it is important to note that many of Ethiopia’s historiography and archives deal with the central and western Wollo region mostly, and there have not been adequate documents that assure the presence of inhabitants in the eastern parts of the Wollo region prior to Oromo settlement.
The name Wollo (“Walloo” in Oromo; derived from “waloo” meaning “together” or “togetherness”) is of Oromo origin. Thus, it is safe to conclude that the region was named by the Oromos after they settled. Today, the Wollo province has formed a new collective identity of sorts as a result of the intermingling and intermarriage between the Afar, Amhara, Agaw, Oromo, and Tigray people over the years. Though they have assimilated to such an extent that much of their original cultural and social cohesiveness was lost, the Oromo society has preserved some of their Oromo heritage such as names, the language, culture, etc. For example, much of the places located in the east Wollo provinces are still called by Oromo names, including the name of the seven ‘houses’ of the Wollo Oromo group such as Warra Qaalluu, Warra Heebanoo, Warra Baabboo, Warra Iluu, etc.
Kuullee was originally meant to refer to “a girl who wears eyeliner”. However, over time, the term’s usage has evolved into describing or referring to any beautiful girl that a guy is attracted to. Furthermore, it evolved into a name that parents use to call their female child(s). Its use is more widespread in the Wollo province than any other regions according to oral histories. Kullee koo, simply put, means, “my kullee” — an equivalent of “my love.” Also, it has become the norm for external observers to use “Kuullee” as a general nickname of Oromo girls from the Wollo region.
The core message of the track, “Kuullee Koo”, is about Oromo’s historical connection to Wollo region, contrary to the popular belief that it is solely a love song. While Hachalu talks about love on the surface, if you listen closely, the song has a more profound meaning than just falling in love with a Wollo girl. For starters, the song summarizes within itself the beauty of a Wollo girl with whom he [Hachalu] fell in love, and insight into the history of the Wollo Oromos, including historical cities, rulers, and events dating back hundreds of years. This is while wavering between love and fascinating stories on the looped beat with brittle, smoky, euphonious, and modulated vocals that are electrifying for the heart and soul, shaping an affinity between the listener and his/her “kuullee”. It is here, in the pool of words with anthemic disco beats, that one finds the story of the Wollo people and Oromo’s historical connection to the eastern Wollo region, which is often neglected in the archives and historiography of the Ethiopian state.
Hachalu starts the song by confessing to the girl that he thinks of her constantly and as a result, he is having a hard time sleeping. He then goes on asking her for a solution showing his strong attachment to her emotionally.
Yaadaa fi yaaddoo keetiin
Halkan ciisa dhabe
Waanuma kee yaadutti
Maaf hirriba dhaba
Kee garaan akkamii
Kankoo ammas dide
Kunoo natti gama
Maal naaf wayya kuullee koo
Egaa maalinni falli koo
I lose my sleep in the night
Because of thoughts about you.
Why do I lose my sleep
Just because of you?
My heart constantly aches for you,
Does yours ache for me?
What’s the solution,
Tell me then Kuullee
What should I do my love?
How can I escape from this?
Madda Walaabuu, an area located in the present Bale zone, was a political and religious origin of the Oromo society where the Gadaa system was first formed and emerged as an entity (Hinew, 2012). It is where the laws, traditions, celebrations, rituals, and governing principles of the Gadaa system were laid down by the Gadaa parliament known as “Caffee”. During the height of the Gadaa system, Oromo people were said to have a prosperous life and people lived in peace, harmony, and unity in the republic (Hinew, 2012). Today, the term Walaabuu has evolved into a sacred concept of cosmology and a reminder of the greatness of the Oromo society in history. In the next parts of the lyrics, Hachalu reiterates this concept and reminds his “kuullee” that she’s of Walaabuu origin, a scared, unmixed being.
Yayyaba Walaabuu maddite
Yaa taliila bishaan ganamaa
Lixee daakee ba’uu dadhabe
Danbalii yaada keen raafama
You are so pure and tranquil[in spirits]
Like spring water from the mountain in the dawn.
A sacred origin of Walabu.
I’m drowning in my thoughts of you
Because I can’t swim my way out.
One of the most common yet unpopular beliefs in Ethiopia and among Ethiopians is the beauty of Wollo girls. Many Ethiopians have testified Wollo girls to be the most naturally beautiful women in the region because of their unique and attractive features such as their hair braiding styles, facial tattoos, earrings, necklaces, and other decorative objects. Like many others, Hachalu also attests to this belief. He describes her charisma and charm, and claims that many have fallen for it. To describe the girl’s elegance and to win over her, he also calls her queen of Warra Himano and queen of Warra Qallu, “two of the Oromo monarchies in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries” (Jalata et. al, 1999).
Ayyaana keef safuu
Simboo kankeef safuu
Meeqa jilbaan oofee
Oogdii jaalala kee
Lixee inni tumame
Utuu hin ba’in hafee
Si’i giiftiin jalalaa
Si’i giiftiin goottummaa
Giiftii Warra Himanoo
Giiftii Warra Qaalluu
Maaliif kankoo hin taatu?
The world fell in love with you
For your charm and ethereal face.
Because of your tranquil soul
And purity[in spirits], many any are vying
Underneath the blue sky
In this love zone of yours.
And because of this,
I have named you a queen,
A brave queen of love
That my soul desires.
The Queen of Warra Himano,
That of Warra Qallu
Why can’t you be mine?
The Oromos were a more homogeneous society before 1500 CE, and the Wollos are among the several Oromo sub-moieties that broke away from this unity. Although the exact year is not known, they came into marked contact with Abyssinians in the 16th century. Since, there always has been fluctuating relations between them, especially between the Oromos and the Amharas as a result of an attempt to homogenize the Oromo by the Abyssinian rulers of the past. Writer Bahru Zewde notes, “Ethiopian history in the last four centuries is nothing but the interaction of the Oromo and the Amhara” (Zewde, 1997).
After King Yekuno Amlak overthrew the Zagwe dynasty around the year 1270 CE, Abyssinia was a more central institution ruled by members of the legendary “Solomonic Dynasty”. The Ethiopian Orthodox faith was the state religion, and its doctrines were used as guiding principles and the supreme law of the land. However, this centralization of power declined in significance when local princes and rulers of Ethiopia began their struggle for greater autonomy (Yates, 2010). This period in time is known as Zemene Mesafint or the Era of Princes (1769–1855 CE) in the Ethiopian chronicle. During Zemene Mesafint, many provinces including North Shewa and Wollo became independent in the 18th century. Wollo, in particular, was dominated by the Islamic Oromo society, and as far as the relation between these independent provinces was concerned, the Yejju dynasty of Oromo was the supreme warlord of the era (Yates, 2010).
Kassa Hailu, known as Emperor Tewodros II, who would later end Zemene Mesafint and start the process of unifying Ethiopia into its present-day shape, was born in 1818 CE during the Yejju Dynasty in a district called Qwara. After his father died, his half brother (Kinfu Hailu) took custody of him. Kinfu was a governor of the Qwara and Dembiya districts. Kassa lived a decent life and received traditional education in a local monastery while assisting his custodian in times of war with Egyptians at the Ethio-Sudanese borders (Poluha & Feleke, 2016; Sil, 2015). This helped him gain military experience at an early age (Gelgelo et. al, 2020; Sil, 2015).
In the “Solonomic Dynasty”, power or throne was inherited through blood and usually transferred to the eldest male child. However, Kassa didn’t have a father figure who could pass the throne to him. In addition, much of the districts in the area were under the control of the Yejju dynasty of Oromo. Therefore, his hope of reigning to power through traditional blood inheritance was impossible. Upon realizing this, he became a shifta (outlaw) and started waging wars against rulers to overthrow them through the use of force. Many claim that an alternative motive of his was the fact that he’s a devoted Christian who believed that members of the “Solomonic Dynasty” should rule, as opposed to the Yejju dynasty of Oromo who were Muslim. His main objectives and ambitions were to overthrow the ruling class of the Yejju dynasty and restore the Amhara hegemony (the superiority of Amharic language and Orthodox Christianity faith). He would eventually become powerful and defeat the Yejju Dynasty of Oromo, marking the start of unifying Ethiopia to its present shape.
Who’s Amade Liban and Alima?
The next parts of the lyrics, which includes quite a bit of recognizable figures as someone aware of Ethiopian history, are where references to history begin. As mentioned in the beginning, the Israelites felt stripped from their identity while in captivity. Hachalu also remembers the historical and systematic dissociation of Wollo Oromos from their identity as well as from the Oromo society as a whole. He then persuades the girl into running away with him in what seems to be an underlying message to the Wollo people to reunite with the Oromo society.
Fakkii Amadee Liiban
Tokkicha Abbaa Waaxoo
Walirraa nu dhiiban
Foon tokko anaaf atoo
You remind me of Amade Liban,
The one and only; the fierceless Abba Wato.
They tried to separate us;
Though we’re one flesh. Inseparable.
Amede Liban, also known by his horse name ‘’Waaxoo”(i.e., Abbaa Waaxoo), was the son of Liban Amede (i.e., Amede Liban Amede). Abba Wato is often referred to as “Abba Watew” or “Ab Watew” in Ethiopian historiography. His grandfather, Amede, was an Imam and a local chief of Warra Himano region of Wollo during Zemene Mesafint. It is important to note that Warra Himano was referenced in the previous parts of the lyrics as well. Imam Amede of Warra Himano had four children named Amede, Ali, Bashir, and Alima (later changed her name to Menen). Alima was first married to Dejazmach Alula of Yejju, the eldest son of Ras Gugssa. Ras Gugssa ruled over Gojjam, Wollo Lasta, Begemedir (Gonder), Yejju, with the capital city being Debre Tabor c. 1802 CE during Zemene Mesafint.
Alima Amede Liban had a son named Ali Alula with Ras Alula (her first husband) who later became Ras and ruled over Begemedir (Gonder) alongside his mother upon his father’s death (Sil, 2015). His widowed mother, Alima Amede Liban, was remarried to Emperor Yohannis III of the Solomonic dynasty from Gonder, and later changed her name to Menen Amede Liban. Thus, she became the Empress of Ethiopia with a title of Itege claiming legitimacy through her second husband, Emperor Yohannis III. At the time, Gonder was a political center; therefore, whoever controlled the city was seen as the King of Kings and superior to other leaders. Many argue Emperor Yohannis III was symbolic only as his wife, Menen (Alima) Amede Liban, and her son Ras Ali exercised much of the power.
When Kinfu, half-brother of Kassa Hailu, died in 1839 CE, the districts of Qwara and Dembiya were seized by Itege Menen (Alima) Amede Liban. This has contributed to Kassa’s rebellion against her and her ruling class of the Yejju Oromo. He mobilized forces around Gojjam, and shortly, became a major threat to her and her husband’s throne; thus, he came to the notice of Ras Ali, and his mother Itege Menen (Alima) Liban Amede (Sil, 2015).
As an attempt to bind him and potentially halt his revolt, Itege Menen (Alima) Liban Amede arranged for Kassa to marry her granddaughter, Tawabech Ali Alula Gugssa (Ras Ali’s daughter). Narasingha writes, “as the imperial grandson-in-law, Kassa received the governorship of Qwara with the title of Dejazmach,” after the marriage. This agreement took place in the early 1840’s. However, Kassa’s devotion to the agreement was short-lived. Kassa went on to attack the city of Dembiya and Debre Tabor (his father-in-law’s capital) in 1848 CE by successfully defeating his grandmother-in-law’s forces (Sil, 2015). Furthermore, between 1848–1854 CE, Kassa Hailu defeated Itege Menen (Alima), Ras Ali, and their allies at various battles, finally seizing the imperial throne at the capital city, Gondar. In August 1854 CE, Kassa declared himself Emperor (Atse) Tewodros II of Ethiopia through the blessings of the Orthodox Church. He also sanctified his marriage with Tewabech Ali Alula Gugssa, and his wife became Empress of Ethiopia, Itege Tewabech Ali. This officially ended Zemene Mesafint, a period of Oromo political dominance in the Abyssinian territory (Sil, 2015).
Hachalu makes another reference to the above-mentioned story in his song saying, “gowwummaan Aliimaa karaa foddaa haa baatu, otuu an siif jiruu ormaaf soddaa hin taatu”. This implies that the marriage Itege Menen (Alima) arranged between Tewodros and Tewabech was rather her foolishness or a mistake that contributed to the fall of the Yejju Oromo ruling class. This seems true as Tewabech found herself completely immersed in the plans of her husband, and forgetting her family, and her people after 1855 CE. Because of this betrayal, Hachalu makes a promise to the girl (his “kullee”) that she will not make the same mistake again so long as he’s around her. Here, it is important to note that Hachalu, for most of his career, had been fiercely advocating for the rights and against the repression of Wollo Oromos in the Amhara region.
Karaa foddaa haa baatu
Otuu an siif jiruu
Ormaaf soddaa hin taatu
Alima was gullible,
We must not repeat her mistake.
Promise me you will be with me;
For others are strangers,
But I am close to you.
One of the actions Atse Tewodros took after he seized power was to go after various princes and nobles that were battling and contending for power, especially the Wollo Oromos. This was with his view to unite Ethiopia under one single imperial authority of his. He swept into the lands occupied by the Yejju Oromos (Magdala, Hebano, and Korab) and seized their properties. In addition, he either arrested and killed the outgoing rulers. In 1855 CE, he “seized the impregnable hill fortress of Magdala (the amba Magdala rises to a height of 9000 feet above sea level in the province of Warra Himano on Wollo border, some 180 miles from Gondar) on 12th of September and made it his treasury, defensive stronghold, and prison for important political prisoners” (Sil, 2015). Further, Tewodros made Magdala his capital, suppressing any potential seed of revolts against him from the Yejju and Wollo Oromos of the area. Hebano, Magdala, and Korab are a few of the districts mainly occupied by the Oromos in the past. However, today Oromos make up a very small fraction of the population around these areas. Hachalu remembers this event in history as:
An si fudheen gala
Kot’ na wajjiin badi
Let’s go away!
Maybe to Hebano, maybe to Magdala,
Or maybe to Korab,
Your forefathers’ heritage.
I will take you home with me,
Please come run away with me
The political genius of the “Solomonic Dynasty” ruling class was assimilation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Emperor Menelik II started the territorial expansion from the northern highlands to central, south, eastern and western directions, forming present-day Ethiopia. Following this expansion, the subsequent Ethiopia rulers of the “Solomonic Dynasty”, notably Emperor Haile Selassie, used different assimilation strategies to exterminate the Oromos and other ethnic groups’ identities and culture as they considered themselves and their ethnicity to be superior to others. Regarding this, historian Colin Darch writes, “the Amharas either simply exterminated local Oromo populations or sometimes, assimilated them. The assimilated Oromos adopted Amharic names, used Amharigna, embraced Orthodox Christianity, and absorbed Amhara cultural values” (Darch, 1977).
In general, the system favored Amharic speakers and those of the Orthodox Christian faith over any other groups of society regarding employment in the government bureaucracy and enrollment in school. In addition, native Oromo names for cities and areas were changed to names that reflect that of the Abyssinian language, values, culture and ways of life. This is deliberately executed to ensure the domination of the Abyssinian culture and gradually exterminate the indigionous people, such as the Oromos, and their identity. As such, “Bishooftuu” was renamed to “Debre Zeit”, “Finfinnee” was renamed to “Addis Ababa”, “Baatuu” was renamed to “Ziway”, “Deessee” was renamed to “Dessie”, etc. In “Kuullee Koo”, Hachalu remembers and gives an example of this unfair and systemic injustices against the Oromos and their identity as:
Deesseen Dasee taatee
Dirre itti wal ariitu
Deessee had become Dessie.
O Dessie! A greener and prosperous land
Where Mariye’s horses play.
We’ll pass by Delanta,
And arrive at Kamise,
To dance/sing Sidame [eskista]
Delanta and Kamise in the above context are popular cities located along the major and convenient route(interstate) that takes to Dessie and the northern part of Ethiopia ( i.e Tigray region), from the capital Finfinnee. Furthermore, they often serve as a rest area or a learning place where travelers interact with the local people to learn about Wollo culture and way of life.
Perhaps the best part of “Kuullee Koo” is Hachalu’s rendition of the classic Wollo song by the late Tadesse Alemu titled, “Erikum” in the next parts of the song:
Qabii qabii qabiika
Qabii qabii qabiika
Qabii qabii qabiika
Come, let’s dance! Let’s dance! Let’s dance!
Because of the historical hostile relationship and interactions between the Wollo Oromo rulers and Emperor Tewodros II, the Tewodros II had forcibly attempted to incorporate the Wollo region under his direct rule during his reign. However, he had faced stiff resistance from the Wollo Oromos, notably under the leadership of Queen Workitu Wadajo. Many historians estimate this resistance lasted for more than 10 years, in which Tewodros went on a vengeance campaign against the Wollo Oromos by devastating, burning, and looting the eastern Wollo region. However, he too was overwhelmed by the resistance of Queen Workitu, which contributed to his demise in 1868 CE as he became an Oromo prisoner in the mountain fortress of Magdala and committed suicide. It is noteworthy that the Ethiopian state narrative and historiography doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the main reason he committed a suicide was not because his escape from Queen Workitu of Oromo was impossible, but rather it emphasizes on the assumption that he did not want to fall into British hands as a captive king. Contrary to Ethiopian archives and historiography, which often neglect Oromo’s historical glory, Hachalu acknowledges Queen Workitu’s bravery in the second verse of “Kuullee Koo”:
Gootummaa ishee argee
Yammu koraaf baatu
Yaa sanyii Warqituu
Si daangaan jaalalaa
Si daangaan gootummaa
Lubbuun koo sifeetuu
Giftii Warra Yejjuu
Giftii Warra Baabboo
Maaliif kankoo hin taatu?
I noticed her fearlessness
Through her beauty
As she leaves for gatherings.
A warrior like her ancestors.
As gallant as Queen Workitu,
She’s her father’s legacy.
A fearless guardian of love,
The one my soul desires.
The Queen of Warra Yejju,
The Queen of Warra Babbo
Why can’t you be mine?
Warra Yejju and Warra Babbo are another Oromo monarchies in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. However, today, they are just names of a quarters/areas in Wollo zone.
In conclusion, Kuullee Koo is indeed a unique song that seems to stay relevant as days pass, making it more fascinating for music and history lovers. These poetic lyrics continue to be not only loved and enjoyed by Oromo people across the world, but also signifies and sheds light upon the history of one of the neglected regions in Ethiopia. However, the most notable purpose of it is to enable the Oromos to learn part of their history, which is often brushed, neglected, and/or denied a place in Ethiopian archives and historiography.
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