Ali Birra is a man of great talent. For many Ethiopians the video that is shown on ETV was the closest presence they could ever get. Watching his songs on ETV, many people have sung along even if they do not understand the language. The saying “music is a universal language” seems to work perfectly in his case. He captivated many people who do not even speak Oromiffa.
This composer and poet is also renowned in giving life to traditional sounds that have existed for generations.
With a unique and powerful storytelling technique, he was able to raise issues that many feared to dare. That is why people consider him as a freedom-fighter advocating liberty for the oppressed people. He fought for the recognition of one’s own language, identity, and existence for the Oromo people and his music became the voice of the voiceless.
With renowned songs like “Asabalee” his music-transcended language, time, and served as an echo connecting voices. Born in Dire Dawa, his musical journey started when he was a teenager and paid a sacrifice when he was persecuted but was very persistent in standing for what he believes in. His only weapon was music and he started spreading his messages with powerful words. Through the years he gave everlasting songs like Hin Yaadin, Ammalelee, Gamachu that took people to different experiences. He talked to Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter about his upcoming album and his experiences. Excerpts:
I hear that you are not in the best of health these days? How are you now?
I have been sick especially in the past two months. I could not even move without a wheelchair. It was very depressing, but thank God I had doctors whom I consult here and abroad. Now I can say that I am in good health. Sheikh Mohammod al-Amoudi and some other people helped me to travel to Bangkok for further checkups. I had nerve-related problems that paralyzed my right leg. Now, I am having different surgeries and after that I think I will be fit for the Marathon (laughs).
Some of the rumours have it that you had a tumour, some say that it is cancer and others that one of your eyes is blind?
It is all true. For the past three years, three major things affected my life. Three years ago, I was diagnosed for colon cancer and had surgery; they were able to remove it. After the follow-up, now I am free from cancer. After a year, I was treated with glaucoma, they opened my head to correct my eyes and through the process they made a mistake, which cost me one of my eyes. The other eye as well only sees half of things. The surgery was performed in Canada and they did a mistake during surgery. They scraped the nerves while trying to remove the tumour. All I do is pray to God to make it all for good. Now, I feel fine.
We have also learned that you have been away from music for a while to focus on charity work. Can you elaborate on that?
I have not completely abandoned my musical work. It has been forty-nine years since I embarked on a musical career and for the celebration of my 50th anniversary next year, I am planning to release my last album and retire. But for now, my priority is charity work. The organization, which was founded by my wife and me, works on education and health in Ethiopia. It is really sad to see kids going to school without breakfast and torn, shabby uniforms; and we wanted to do something about that. When we were discussing the issue we realized that we had the opportunity and the access to help some of the kids. It is really sad to see the situation and not doing anything about it; in a way it makes us ignorant and we decided to start the Birra Children’s Education Fund.
Since it is going to be your last album, what kind of music will it feature?
Many people demand old music. So, what I’m planning is to release two CDs, both containing some of my old and new songs all together. Things do not stay as they were forever. Through my musical journey, I have come across so many changes, so, as a musicians and a human being, I faced so many difficulties that will be reflected in my music. My songs differ from the concept of love and diverge to societal issues, systems that are imposed on society. In the past, my songs were known to have a political implication and through time, I got here. Many things change over the years, so in my new album the issues might not be the same with my older works. But, what I can say is that the new songs will try to give a glimpse of what kind of world we are living in today, our society and also the environment that is threatening us. Even if I am an old man, love is still there (laughs). This generation seems to tune into the electric beat, so my songs will also have those rhythms together with the traditional rhythms. The ancient way of composing music will be there and my focus is also on the traditional and older style of music. I am struggling to be young; so there might be new hits (laughs). My music is my weapon to pass on my message, to say what I am supposed to say and I prefer the traditional way to achieve that rather than the new beats.
Who will be producing your album?
Starting from the olden days, there were influences from different stakeholders because I sing in the Oromiffa language. There were only a couple of singers who exclusively sang in Oromiffa, so I was making my way, knocking doors and struggled to put my music out there. We could not have promoters like other musicians did. And to tell you the truth, I did not do music for commercial purposes. Most of the albums I did were recorded informally by me. If I can count the official albums I released, all in all the number of cassettes and CDs, it is only eight. There are a lot of albums that were recorded live and these albums are everywhere. So, as I always say, starting from the olden days, there is little interest among producers to do Oromiffa music.
We hear that there is a big company that is interested in producing your old records and you had some sort of a deal with the company. Is it true?
It is true. It is called Domino records from Portland. We talked about their interest in Ethiopian old music, especially, the songs that are not remixed contemporarily. So, they bought what I believed is one of my giant albums “Abba Lefa” (landlord). The song is about how the feudal system exploited the masses. One of the verses in the above song, “Ama arra tofta suba omteni omatesemokan lefa wolla kebeteni” which is translated as ‘for many years by creating a tricky system, the landlords’ grabbed our land; now your time is over’. This song was famous especially after the ‘land to the tiller’ declaration by the Derg regime. This song is about how the monopoly should stop and the ownership should be returned to the rightful owners: The masses, without any discrepancy. In this album, there were also love songs like “Yadini” and “Awash” that raised other issues. Now the company is filtering the sounds without retouching the basics and it will be released soon. After the release it will be distributed to Europe, Australia and other Anglophone countries to use it for researches and it will be kept in libraries. It will also be available in different websites for sale. The right is transferred to them for three years since its production; and after that it will be mine.
They paid me the whole sum for the album. And I know that I would not get the price that I got for an album that was released years ago. For three years they paid me 30,000 dollars. We are also negotiating an agreement about the second album they want to buy. This album was recorded in a house with friends of mine. In this album, I also played the guitar but it was not released officially. But, the record companies got hold of it and they released it without my permission. So, this company wants to buy this album. In this album, most of the songs are love songs. This album was recorded forty years ago, on what they called 90 cassettes with 15 songs.
Many fans label you as a freedom-fighter and a storyteller. If you have to label yourself, how would you identify yourself?
I can say that I am a human rights activist. All my life, I have been fighting and promoting human rights through my music. My journey as a musician and a person went through different transformations. It is not only about Ethiopians; it’s all about human beings and the oppressed people in general. I can say any human being can relate to the message, if it is translated. So, yes I can say that I am a sort of a storyteller too.
What do you think the impact of your music is?
The words in my songs try to spread what our suffering is like. A song like “Abba Lefa” or songs like “maltu adan nubase” (what is separating us, we came from the same mother) share this massage. The things that I believe are passed through my songs as a message. Some people perceive it as a crime, when I talk about freedom ‘billisuma’ it especially relates to the Oromo people and the Oromiffa language. Freedom is something that cannot have a price tag. As a human being, we should enjoy freedom; and we should not ask anyone for it. We should just claim it as ours to begin with. I say “rise for your rights”.
Some scholars argue that the Oromo movement is caused by “the Amharaisation of the Oromo culture” where the identity, the language, the tradition has been swallowed by the culture of the northern people. Do you agree with that?
Yes fully. These are the things that always irritated me. What I talk about is identity and the right to be oneself. If they diminish my culture, disregard what I stand for and alienate me from my culture by imposing theirs, I do not accept it. I am not ashamed of who I am and where I came from. Let’s fight for our language, culture, identity, our being and faith; that is my message. My message is “felmi mergahaitifila billusima ketif mergenema intukin katisunteksisin” (tekeraker lemebitih lenesantih. Yesewun mebit atinka yantenim atasneka). When they refer to “the Amharaisation process” it is not really about the Amhara people; rather the system that is imposed on the rest of the people. People were ashamed of their names, and they changed it. The imposition was not right. I believe in a struggle and peaceful resistance. Many people assume that I am part of an institution, Oromo Liberation Front, (OLF) but I do not have a connection with them. I fight as a one-man army for our existence. Once upon a time, I was part of these movements, but what I realized was that we have different realities and strategies in this struggle. I do not like to be labeled as an OLF and it is sad when they labeled me like that. Let me tell you a story. I am not denying the fact that I see a glimpse of hope, light and change in Ethiopia. Back in the olden days in Dire Dawa, there was a time when speaking your respective language was a crime; even for terms like “jalella” (love). The long journey is not yet over, but there is a glimpse of hope; we are somewhere now. The struggle is not over, even breathing involves a struggle. When I got older, I started seeing things clearly. Across the five decades, what I saw is that we were able to get the recognition for our identity through a hard struggle. Now I can see the impact of my music; now people are proud of their identity and that is the fruit of the messages I passed over the years.
Apart from the OLF, there are opposition parties that advocate Oromiffa language to be the second national language? What do you think about this idea?
In a democratic country, for a majority like Oromos, it should be considered that there has to be a place for the language that the majority of the people speak. But what I believe is that it has not found its rightful place as yet. There are many countries like Canada and Switzerland that have bilingual national languages. It is inevitable that the language will get its rightful place through peaceful struggle. Not only Oromiffa, but also other languages should be considered as alternative national languages.
Do you think the ethnic federalism system has answered the question of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia? Or, in your case, have the Oromo people’s questions been addressed?
I think I skip this question because I do not know thoroughly how the existing system works. But at a glance, I see positive and tremendous changes going on.
You started singing at the age of 14 and the first band you established was banned. Tell me a little bit about your musical journey?
I was born in Diredawa and we established the first band named “Arfenkello” meaning (the four children of kello). In Oromo culture, kello means a small branch. There is a myth in our culture in which an elder gives birth to four children who spread their branches. For Harar Oromos, it is a big thing. Originally, the music band was named “urji bekelcha” (ye nigat kokeb) and was founded in 1962. I joined the band after a year and it was named “Arfenkello” to show the greatness and how it will be spread. I used to teach children Arabic back then. Singing in Oromifaa was a sin with the elders persecuted and imprisoned. The soldiers started coming to our house and breaking our musical instruments. So 11 of us migrated to Djibouti and only four of us returned. The surprising thing is with all the persecution the struggle did not stop; there many bands were started and flourished. We were imprisoned for some time and my father had relatives with the higher officials. So I was sent to Addis Ababa. I enrolled in Hager Fiker around 1964. I was patriotic and proud of being an Oromo. I think there was something in my mother’s milk that I just understood what struggle means; I knew how to stand up for myself, even during my early childhood days.
What about the Kibour Zebegana Band (the Imperial Body Guard Band)?
I worked with Kibour Zebegna for only three years. I did not like it that much. Many musicians were hired like Tilahun Gessese, Mahmoud Ahmed, Bezounesh Bekele. But the system was just like the military establishment. The only difference was that we did not wear military uniforms. I was from Diredawa and I did not like disciplines and formalities. So I went to Awash to work for Midir Babur as a mechanic and stayed there for two years. I guess music haunted me badly that I had to return. I came back to Addis Ababa and started performing in different clubs, until 1984. I was married to a Swedish diplomat and went to California and stayed there for five years and when she finished her contract we went to Sweden and stayed there for a year. After that we went to Saudi Arabia and it was only a couple of months that I stayed there. I went back to Sweden and enrolled at a school. For two years, I stayed there and after that we got divorced and I went to Canada. Starting from 1992, I started life there and I officially started producing albums.