A man returns: An audience with Oromo legend Ali Birra

18 mins read

By Andreas Hansen for Addis Rumble
Ali Birra at the launch of his school support programme in Galamso, Western Ethiopia, November 2012. Photo: Lily Birra

Ali Birra at the launch of his school support programme in Galamso, Western Ethiopia, November 2012. Photo: Lily Birra

(Addis Rumble) — The rumours of Ali Birra’s death have been greatly exaggerated. During his career, Ali has not only been jailed dozens of times. He has also been reported death more than once. First in the mid-70’s when the authorities in his home town of Dire Dawa told Ali’s father to travel to Addis Ababa to collect the corpse of his son. The father found Ali sleeping in hotel, rather hung over from the previous night’s performance, but still very much alive. In the past decade, the rumours of Ali’s death surfaced again and in 2009 he was announced dead on Wikipedia. In late 2012 in Addis Ababa, I met Ali – still alive and thriving – and he told me that the untimely obituaries and imprisonments are the price he has had to pay for playing Oromo music and promoting Oromo culture.

A story untold

The past decade has seen an implausible but well-deserved rediscovery of the astonishing Ethiopian music of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Artists like Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud Ahmed and Alemayehu Eshete have become known and celebrated outside Ethiopia. However, the majority of the attention has been given to Amharic music from Addis. One important legacy that has until now been left largely untold is the music of the Oromos, the largest ethnic group of Ethiopia numbering around 30 million people and occupying a territory the size of Italy stretching from the Sudanese border in the west, to Harar and Dire Dawa in the far Eastern Ethiopia and to Borena in the south on the Kenyan border. With Ali Birra’s own words: “Oromo music is still a virgin that has been left yet untouched.”

For several decades from the mid-60’s and onwards, Ali Birra was the most prominent representative of modern Oromo music. He was part of a golden generation of Ethiopian musicians, performing with the greatest artists and orchestras of the time but being Oromo he was always an outsider in relation to the Amharic musicians of his time. Yet for many Oromos, he was a hero, fighting their cause at a time where the promotion of Oromo culture was illegal and singing in Oromo language banned.

Half a century on

AliBirra1Ali Birra left Ethiopia in 1984 and has since been back only sporadically. But he has not been forgotten. Heading for lunch we tried in vain to find a restaurant where devoted fans would not overwhelm Ali. Throughout the day his phone was red-hot with new and old friends checking in and while driving around Addis with Ali, we were met by a continuous honking and passengers shouting ’we love you Ali’ through the car windows. This was Addis 2012 but felt more like driving around with Fela Kuti in Lagos in the 70’s.

Ali has returned home to Ethiopia to launch his own NGO called Birra Children’s Education Fund. He wants to give something back to Ethiopia and has started support programmes for children in one school in Dire Dawa and one in Galamso in West Hararge. “My father always told me that educated people know how to fight for their rights and to respect the rights of others,’’ Ali explains. He now hopes to expand the programme to other schools around the country.

He has also come back to Ethiopia for musical reasons. In 2013, Ali is celebrating his 50-year anniversary on the music scene and he is planning to commemorate this landmark with concerts in Addis and at home turf in Dire Dawa as well as with the release of one final record before retiring. During our chat, his wife Lily plays some of Ali’s newly recorded songs but Ali insists it is still a work in progress. “These things have to be done properly,” he emphasizes.

The Oromo teacher

The young Ali, ca 1964.

The young Ali, ca 1964.

“I was lucky to be singer at a time with few Oromo singers around. I got the chance to influence people and their thinking. To be a teacher. To engrave my thoughts in peoples’ minds. The young Oromo musicians now are tough but they have not achieved this yet,” Ali tells me. And things certainly were tough in Dire Dawa in the early 60’s when Ali aged 14 at the time formed his first band Hiriyaa Jaalalaa and soon after started performing with the group called Afran Qallo or Urji Bachalchaa. Being an Oromo musician back then was risky business. Singing in Oromifa was illegal and the band members handed out their records to people on the streets as no Oromo music was allowed on the radio. “We were very young and courageous at that time,” Ali admits.

The emergence of Afran Qallo can be considered an early dawn for modern Oromo music and it was at a concert with this group that Ali earned himself his screen name – Birra meaning ‘spring’ or ‘break of dawn’ in Oromifa – through the singing of the ’Birra dha Barihe’ song. In 1964, the group was invited to play in neighbouring Djibouti but the 11 band members were denied permission to leave Ethiopia and had their music instruments destroyed. They decided to split in smaller fractions and travel anyway but when Ali arrived in Djibouti, he was arrested and detained for a month. On New Year’s Eve of 1964, Ali and three of his band members returned to Ethiopia and the next day, January 1st 1965, they were again arrested. Ali who had now turned 16 spent the next six months in prison, jailed for singing in his own language and celebrating his culture. “I still remember it vividly. From that time on I knew that I wanted to fight for the rights of my people,” he recounts.

After his release Ali was still detained on numerous occasions, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, until he in 1966 left Dire Dawa for Addis. But although he left Oromia and 20 years later left Ethiopia, Ali has never stopped being a strong and outspoken Oromo advocate. Seven years ago he met with the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to discuss various Oromo issues and he has often encouraged the federal government to support arts and culture in Oromia by establishing a music school in the region.

The Ali Birra sound

AliBirra4Many of Ali’s early lyrics were strongly inspired by the revolutionary Oromo poet Abubakar Musaa. But singing in Oromifa was only one of the ways that Ali tried to distinguish his music from the dominant Amharic sound. He and fellow Oromo musicians used grace notes and played in diatonic instead of pentatonic scales creating a less Amharic and more Indian or Arabian sound. “Nowadays Oromo music sounds similar to the Amharic,” Ali deplores. But simultaneously he praises the many new Oromo musicians: “Back then it was mostly Ali Shebbo and I. Now you have new Oromo singers coming forth almost every day,” he says and starts listing some of his favourite heirs such as Tadele Gemechu, Jambo Jote, Qamar Yusuf, Hachalu Hundessa and Elemo Ali among others.

While there truly are many talented young Oromo musicians out there, none of them have carved out a sound as unique as the one that characterizes many of Ali’s recordings from the 60’s and 70’s: the one of a guitar tuned as an oud. This was a sound crafted under rather peculiar circumstances. Ali and his childhood friend Ali Shebbo had learned to play the oud in Dire Dawa. In 1966, when Ali Birra went to an audition for Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Body Guard Band, he was asked if he played any instruments. He replied that he played the oud but was then told they did not have an oud in Addis. Instead Ali was given a guitar, which he tuned like an oud because that was what he knew the best. Thus, the inimitable Ali Birra sound was born.

He has since tried to remain true to that sound. When I ask him about his musical philosophy, he explains: “I believe in small incremental changes to my music while staying faithful to its origins. I have tried to use new technological means while respecting the past. When I left Ethiopia, I was lucky to get the chance to study music in the US. It made me able to better analyse music and its scales. At the same time I can play many different instruments. Many new musicians today are only vocalists or they can only play one instrument.“

Stories from the palace

Ali is full of anecdotes. Some of the finest ones originate in his three-year spell with the Imperial Body Guard Band. Ali confesses that he enjoyed the prestige and fame related to the orchestra and that he was honoured to perform along with Ethiopian music legends such as Besunesh Bekele, Tilahun Gessesse and Mahmoud Ahmed. But being a young and idealistic Oromo musician in the Emperor’s band also posed many challenges for Ali and he did not really fit into the military lifestyle.

One of the first times Ali clashed with palace protocol was during an official visit by the Romanian present. When the Emperor and his visitor strolled by the Imperial Body Guard Band in the palace’s hallway, all the band members were supposed to bow and lie down on the ground. However, Ali was not aware of this etiquette and stood straight staring into the eyes of the Emperor. Ali was then taken to jail but when asked about his misstep, he told his superiors that being a Muslim he was not allowed to bow for any human being.

On another occasion, Ali was caught in the palace chewing chat, which was then illegal in Ethiopia. Ali admits that he was naïve back then: “There were so many cultural differences between life in Dire Dawa and in Addis and I did not speak Amharic very well.” In 1969, Ali finally quit the Imperial Body Guard Band and for a few years he quit music as well. He worked as a water machine operator on the railway between Ethiopia and Djibouti until he in 1972 returned to Addis and to music.

The disarmament

Ali (standing in the middle) and his band mates in Jimma, Western Ethiopia, 1973

Ali (standing in the middle) and his band mates in Jimma, Western Ethiopia, 1973

Ali’s second stint as musician in Addis proved to be more successful than his time in the Emperor’s band. He started performing again at various hotels and clubs in Addis and touring throughout Ethiopia. In 1973, a concert at an Islamic School in Jimma in Western Oromia turned out to be the most profitable performance yet for Ali and his band members. Ali describes, how at first the audience was not really able to understand his Eastern Oromo dialect but when he started singing a classic Arabic song praising the prophet Mohamed, the crowd went berserk and started throwing money at the band. Ali repeated the song and in the end the floor was covered with money. The group was originally paid 400 birr to play the concert but ended up earning close to 10,000 birr that single night

In 1977, Ali joined the renowned all-star Ibex band and in 1980 the Ethio Star Band. Nevertheless, Ali also had his difficulties this time around: “When I joined the Ibex Band, I was disarmed my guitar. I was told that my guitar style did not match their vocal so I was left with singing together with Mahmoud Ahmed. At least, this gave me a bit more freedom to be a performer.” Some of the more serious artistic restrictions came from the Derg regime.“There was a lot of censorship during public concerts and the majority of the songs we recorded had to include some praise of socialism, Marxism or Leninism”, he elaborates.

More than music

The night before Ali in 1984 left Ethiopia, he played with the Ethio Star Band at a wedding at the Hilton. “I never get paid for that job,” he notes. A few years earlier, Ali had met and married a diplomat named Brigitta Alstrom working at the Swedish Embassy. When Brigitta’s posting in Ethiopia ended, she was transferred to Los Angeles and Ali decided to follow his wife to the US. “My motivations for leaving Ethiopia were mixed. I wanted to be with my wife, to escape the harassment of the regime and to explore new opportunities abroad,” he tells me.

In the US, Ali studied music theory at the university and used most weekends touring the US and Canada with fellow Ethiopian diaspora musicians. Diplomatic life later brought Ali to Saudi Arabia and Sweden and he continued to perform and record music throughout this period. Ali now resides in Canada with his wife Lily.

Before I part ways with Ali, I ask him to reflect over the biggest rewards during his 50 years in music. His replies promptly: “The biggest victory for my music and for me is that people after so many years still have an interest in it. Even people from outside Ethiopia. But it also goes beyond the music. Oromo music is much more than music. It is a struggle and a freedom fight.”

Thanks to Ali and Lily for their generosity and openness and to Yasin for his invaluable assistance.

Many of Ali Birra’s recordings are not easily accessible. Mitmitta has made a few classic Birra tracks available onSoundCloud and last year Domino Sound and Mississippi Records released some of Ali’s 1976 recordings with the Aduu Birra Band.

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